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Cuenca’s biggest challenges: Control rapid growth and get people out of their cars

Cuenca is the fastest growing city in Ecuador.

Cuenca city planners face some big challenges according to two recent population projections. A report by the Ecuador’s census office (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos) in January predicted that Cuenca’s population would reach 1.1 million in 2050 while a University of Cuenca urban planning lab predicts 900,000 by 2035.

The government projection noted that Cuenca has the highest rate of growth of all Ecuadorian cities with populations over 250,000. Both the census office and the University of Cuenca LlactaLAB say that the predictions do not include foreigners relocating to the city. LlactaLAB estimates there are currently 25,000 foreigners living in Cuenca, including 9,000 to 12,000 North Americans and Europeans.

Urban planner María Augusta Hermida

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to accommodate this growth and the city must quickly develop sensible plans for it,” says María Augusta Hermida, research director of the Sustainable Cities program at LlactaLAB.

“It’s great that Cuenca is so popular and that people want to move here but we face questions about how we provide employment for the new population, how we maintain adequate green spaces, how we provide basic services like water and sewer,” she says. “Most important, how do we develop a public transportation system people will use and how do we control urban sprawl,” adding, “There are great opportunities here but there are also dangers.”

Hermida likens Cuenca to a teenager beginning to look at her adult options. “In international terms, we are an intermediate city fast approaching big city status. We are taking the first steps in that direction and recognizing the challenges we face.”

Herida recommends that the city focus on two areas for long-term planning: stopping uncontrolled growth on the outskirts and suburban areas of the city.

“We must begin infilling unused urban space and stop the patchwork development of the city periphery. We must have planning rules to stop low-density building that is so much more expensive to service with utilities.”

Euaqally important, she says, we must change our mobility pattern. “To avoid traffic gridlock, we have to convince people to leave their cars behind and use public transport. The tram is a good start but there must be smart coordination with public buses and plans to expand the rail system to new areas.”

According to Hermida, about 35 percent of Cuenca residents currently use cars to travel in the city center. “We need to reduce this number since there is little space to expand existing roads. In addition to buses and the tram, we must encourage people to use bicycles and to walk but, to do this, we need better bikeways and sidewalks.”