By Liam Higgins
As the fastest growing major city in Ecuador, Cuenca faces the dual challenges of managing its explosive growth while it protects its heritage and natural resources. According to United Nations urban growth expert Augusto Pintos, the challenge is urgent.
“Managing and controlling growth is a problem for all cities,” says Pintos who is working with the municipal council on a 2030 growth management plan. “This is especially critical for Cuenca because of the fast rate of growth, its colonial history and the mountain geography.”
According to projections by Ecuador’s Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), Cuenca’s population will increase to 740,000 by 2030, up from 600,000 today, while the metropolitan population will top 1.1 million. “The growing population will need more resources, such as clean water, and the planning to provide these must begin now.”
He adds: “I don’t see any sign that the growth will subside anytime soon. Cuenca has become what is known as a ‘magnet city,’ attracting not only people from nearby rural areas but from other cities in the country and, more recently, from overseas. It is becoming an international destination.”
Pintos offers three suggestions to accommodate the coming growth.
The first is to encourage the development of the city’s 12,000 to 14,000 vacant lots. “This urban infill can provide housing for 60,000 to 110,000 people since some of the unused land is suitable for high- and mid-rise residential buildings.”
His second suggestion is to allow taller buildings in neighborhoods that already have them. “Going vertical not only saves land but helps consolidate urban services,” says Pinto. “The complicating challenge is to limit the area where high-rises can be built. Otherwise you damage traditional neighborhoods of smaller family homes.
Third, say Pintos, is to continue to “repopulate” the historic district. “Sixty years ago, 100,000 people lived in El Centro since it comprised almost all of the city,” he says. “That number dropped to 45,000 in 2000 as people moved to the suburbs and outlying areas but it has come back to about 60,000 today. I think people will continue to move back as buildings are rehabilitated and the tram begins operation. Within a generation, I think Cuenca’s historic district could be a showcase for Latin American urban planning. For young professionals and foreign residents, it will offer the most desirable real estate in the city.”
Protecting the agricultural lands around the city has two objectives, Pintos says. “First, there is the need to maintain the agricultural traditions of Cuenca but, just as important, is insuring a nearby food supply.”
In Europe and North America, Pintos says, development has relocated agricultural production hundreds and even thousands of miles from large towns and cities. “It is well known that many cities would face food shortages within a matter of days in the case of natural disasters or civil disturbances. Cuenca is lucky to have so much of its food grown nearby. This is a blessing and it’s important to take measures to protect this resource.”
According to Pintos, some towns in previously rural areas near Cuenca have become “bedroom communities” and must be allowed to grow but controls must be placed on other areas that still have strong agricultural bases. Pintos includes El Valle, Baños or Ricaurte in the first category and San Joaquin in the second. “There needs to be clear distinctions and clear restrictions on development once a master plan is developed,” Pinto says.
Cuenca municipal councilman Carlos Orellana says the council supports Pintos recommendations and is holding workshops to implement many of them. “Everything he suggests makes sense and we understand that the need to act is urgent,” he says.