How Quito spruced itself up for Habitat III

By Marcela Ribadeneira and Eduardo Varas

This story originally appeared in Citiscope and was republished via the Habitat III Journalism Project.

Even as thousands of urbanists from around the world were arriving in Quito for the United Nations’ Habitat III summit on cities, workers in and around the conference venue were still hanging signs, assembling exhibits and brushing topcoats of paint on nearby buildings.

Quito wants to look its best for Habitat III, which runs this week from October 17 to 20. For months, work has been underway to renovate the conference venue, freshen up nearby parks with plantings and walkways, pave nearby streets and step up security.

The changes are most evident in and around the areas where the official summit events are taking place — as well as in two nearby neighborhoods where many attendees from out of town are staying.

Some of the upgrades are temporary. But city officials have stressed that the improvements will benefit Quito and its residents long after Habitat III is over. They also think the US$34 million the government has spent on Habitat III will more than pay for itself in spending by conference attendees during the meeting and tourism after it.

One focus of the work is La Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana — the House of Ecuadorian Culture. The round mid-century building is home to theaters and performance spaces that promote Ecuadorian art, dance, cinema and literature. It also had become quite rundown in recent years.

After a US$7 million facelift, the building is now set to host most of the official events of Habitat III, attended by heads of state, national ministers, mayors and other dignitaries. The building’s mirrored facade has been cleaned up and its internal electrical, ventilation, lighting and telecommunications systems have been upgraded.

Carlos Toral, a Quito resident, or quiteño, who drives past the building every day on his way to work, is pleased to see the renovations. “It is good for the House of Ecuadorian Culture to finally reside in a fine building,” he says. Toral is not the only one who feels that way. A few months ago, Raúl Pérez Torres, chairman of the institution, told Diario Expreso that the renovations were long overdue. “It is such a miracle,” he said, “since no one has cared for nor supported the building’s infrastructure improvement for the past 30 or 40 years.”

Other renovations have been made in the three parks closest to conference venue. Right next door, El Arbolito Park has been turned into a sort of fairgrounds for Habitat III, with pavilions for Ecuador, Quito and the United Nations. Sidewalks have been repaired, gardens planted, and artworks installed; movable wicker couches and chairs are spread across the grass for conference attendees to sit and talk.

Recently, Quito resident Josefina Arias was looking at the park from outside a fence that forms the security perimeter for the conference. “This is a special place for all quiteños,” she said, noting that for years El Arbolito has been known as the meeting place for protest marches from the indigenous and social-justice movements. “It has history. It stands for all of us who fight for social changes to take place. I like that Habitat III has been the perfect excuse to make this a better place.”

One change in the park caught many quiteños by surprise. At the end of August, a sculpture dedicated to remembering those who have disappeared under state-sponsored political crackdowns, itself disappeared. The sculpture was a large and severe-looking piece with colorful but graffiti-covered walls and large metal bars. The artist, Dolores Andrade, was out in the park one day when she noticed that “Monumento a los Desaparecidos” was no longer there.

After public complaints rose on social media, city authorities released a statement saying that the sculpture will be relocated. The city has said it will commission a new monument by Andrade at the end of Habitat III, but still has not offered an explanation for why the old one was removed.

All across the city, there are signs, billboards and posters advertising Habitat III. But many locals still don’t seem to know much about the global summit happening in their city. Luis Perugachi, owner of a handicrafts business in the La Mariscal neighborhood, says he’s only read a little bit about Habitat III in the local newspapers. “However, I have noticed that police work has improved. There are more officers circulating around the premises and the area feels safer.”

La Mariscal is the nightlife center of Quito, located just a few blocks from the conference headquarters. Ahead of the conference, police stepped up security patrols in the area. Luis Guamán has noticed the increased police presence at the corner where his store is located. “There are no drug addicts at the streets anymore,” he says, adding that he hopes the security measures will continue after the conference ends.

Around La Mariscal and other parts of Quito, sidewalks, parks and streets have been turned into what conference organizers are calling the Habitat III Village. Urban gardens, pop-up parks, sustainably built homes and other interventions are on display in a real-world city setting. During the conference, these projects will be tested publicly to determine their long-term viability. “Many of these projects can be sustained,” says Alfredo León, a city official who manages the La Mariscal area.

Cristian Espinosa, Quito’s director of international relations, says some may see these projects only as a sort of Band-Aid that will come off when Habitat III is over. But Espinosa says that for Quito, these transformations will survive so that locals will come to see a time “Before Habitat III” and a time after it. He thinks that’s especially true when it comes to raising public awareness of the use of public space.

That’s what happened in Istanbul after Habitat II in 1996, he says. “Our colleagues over there stated that the conference changed the city,” Espinosa says. “There were people that did not believe in the possibility of change at the beginning. And then they realized that it happened. The same will go for us.”

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