The population of the Cuenca metropolitan area passed the 600,000 mark in 2017 and urban planners say the city faces “big city” challenges that should be addressed soon.
In a press release last week, the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC) put the population of Cuenca’s metro area at 614,539 people. More than 850,000 live in Azuay Province, the release said. INEC added that both numbers represent a 1.5 percent annual growth rate, which it considers “rapid.”
The new numbers are official estimates based on a various sources, including birth and death records, increasing life expectancy, utility connections, and in-migration. Much of the migration into the city, INEC says, comes from rural areas in southern Ecuador, as well Ecuadorians returning home from the U.S. and Europe.
Daniel Orellana, research director at the University of Cuenca’s Llactalab says the new population numbers should prompt the city government to look at urban planning in a more sophisticated way. “We are transitioning from being a mid-sized city to a big city, which means we need to update our approach to planning,” he says. “Because Cuenca was isolated for so many years, there is still a tendency to apply outdated, small town models to solving our problems.”
Despite lengthy construction delays, Orellana says Cuenca’s tram is a step in the right direction. “The process of installation has been disastrous for many but, in the long term, the system will be very beneficial.” He says the full benefit will not be felt until spur lines are constructed off the main route. “We can look to Bordeaux, France to know what to expect in the development of our tram. That system began as a single line with low ridership and grew.”
He added that when it’s completed, the tram will be one of the most sophisticated rapid transit systems in Latin America.
A healthy by-product of the tram project, according to Orellana, is the conversion of several streets in the historic district to pedestrian only use.
Another Llactalab researcher María Augusta Hermida says the city should continue to build bikeway infrastructure. “There has been a good start, especially with construction of the cross-city bikeway, but more resources need to be invested in this area,” she says. “We must also plan aggressively to control gasoline-powered vehicular traffic throughout the city. We are currently in talks with the municipality about a long-term conversion plan to electric cars, trucks and buses. This is the trend in cities worldwide and we must join it.”
In addition to transportation changes, Orellana says that an increase in developing public green areas should remain a priority. “Several large parks with green spaces are being developed for public use, so we are headed in the right direction but we must maintain the momentum.”
He adds that another area requiring special attention is health care. “At the same time, we have a growing population of young people, especially in the nine to 13 age group, as well as growing numbers of the elderly. This will require more resources and planning.”
He adds that his research team is focusing on the younger group due to a growing obesity problem. “They are acquiring bad eating habits from North America and we must provide education and regulation to control this. Ultimately, this will mean much higher health care costs if measures are not taken to reverse the trend — we see what is happening in the U.S. and we don’t want that to happen here.”