Tram and San Francisco Plaza redesign set the stage for more big changes to Cuenca’s historic district, urban planner says

Jun 19, 2016 | 18 comments

By Dante Angelo

French urban planner Pierre LeBlanc recognized the potential of Cuenca’s historic district the first time he set eyes on it, 13 years ago. He says that now is the perfect time to see that potential realized.

chl Calle Bolivar

El Centro is Cuenca’s cultural heart.

“There are fabulous possibilities here,” he says. “If traffic is reduced and if more areas are converted for pedestrian use, I believe Cuenca’s historic district would become a world-class tourist destination. More important, it would be a great destination for residents of Cuenca.”

“The beauty of the district is that it is already filled with people and activity,” LaBlanc adds. “We are not talking about creating a Disney World or Colonial Williamsburg atmosphere that you see in the U.S. and some places in Europe. This is an area where life is lived richly and genuinely and the goal is to build on this, not to create something artificial.”

Bike Day on Simon Bolivar.

Bike Day on Simon Bolivar.

LeBlanc, who was part of a UNESCO World Heritage Sites team that visited Cuenca in 2003, says the biggest obstacle to a historic district transformation is politics, which also means money. “This is true everywhere and it takes time and perseverance to make it happen,” he says. “You have businesses, taxi and bus companies, parking lot owners, and some residents opposed to change and these people put pressure on elected officials. The vision has to be strong enough for the officials to resist the pressure, understanding that the change is necessary for the long-term good.”

He adds that Cuenca’s leaders appear to be showing the leadership to follow-through on changes. “I was impressed that they resisted those who want to stop tranvía construction in the district. They need to continue showing this kind of resolve.”

Many old homes in the historic district have been converted to hotels and hostals.

Many historic district homes have become hotels.

LaBlanc, who has had conversations with city planning officials, says they agree that now is the time to begin to de-motorize and pedestrianize the historic district. “The tram will force a rerouting of traffic in some areas and eliminate buses on several streets,” he says. “At San Francisco Plaza, the plans already call for making streets on two sides of the plaza pedestrian only. Why not use this as an opportunity to make other changes too?” He adds that the planning process for the plaza has been long and messy. “Did I mention the politics? Finally, though, it looks like things are moving forward.”

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The tranvía on Gran Colombia.

Following recommendations of a team of UNESCO experts that visited the city in August 2014, the city of Cuenca has commissioned studies to examine the use of public spaces and to reduce motorized traffic in the district. The studies are being conducted by the Spanish urban planning group, Ecosistema Urbano.

According to José Luis Cañavate, who heads the group, the focus is to protect cultural heritage but also to improve the habitability of the district. “We want to bring tourists to the districts as well as local residents of the greater Cuenca area,” Cañavate says. “Just as important though is to increase the number of people living in the area.”

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An old plan for the San Francisco Plaza renovation.

The population of the historic district is just under 50,000 today, Cañavate says, down from more than 90,000 in the 1960s. “We don’t want it to return to that level but we want to create an attractive environment that will attract people, particularly young professionals.”

To create that environment, Cañavate’s team maintains taht the number of daily car and bus trips in the district, which now stands at 600,000, needs to be reduced. Attitudes of the driving public also need to change and Cañavate acknowledges that the attitude adjustment may require driving restrictions. “This requires the strong support of officials,” he says. “The city is predicted to grow to 1.3 million within 30 years, so planning is critical.”

Cuenca city planners say they like concept Junta de Andalucía has developed. “The changes we are considering are serious and we have to educate both drivers and pedestrians,” says Alfredo Aguilar, manager of the Municipal Mobility office.

“When the studies are complete, we will have a blueprint for making the historic district more pedestrian-oriented and less oriented to motorized vehicles,” Aguilar says. “This will require time and money but it is important for the future of Cuenca.”

LaBlanc says he looks forward to the changes. “Even now, I like the city so much that I’ve brought my family here twice for vacations. We’ll be back and I hope to be part of the transformation process.”

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This article has been updated from a previous post.

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