Quito, Ecuador, host of UN Habitat III, is a microcosm of challenges facing cities in an urbanizing world

UN Habitat III in Quito featured thousands of sessions on every imaginable topic relating to planning, financing, housing, accessibility, culture and women’s right to the city and public spaces.

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Street vendors in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

But this host city is faced with a particular dilemma. While the New Urban Agenda document calls for smarter, more sustainable cities that prioritize public transit over private motorized transportation, early in the conference, delegates were greeted by a march of activists trying to stop a road expansion project that say would displace nearly 70 percent of a nearby village’s population. 

Peaceful demonstration in Quito protesting a road expansion project. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The City of Quito is partnering with a Chinese corporation to create a $131 million tunnel expansion and bridge project aimed at alleviating the massive gridlock that blocks the city’s busiest road.

Quito’s Mayor believes the project is necessary not only to ease gridlock but also to give the city a new emergency exit if it comes face-to-face with the types of natural disasters that have shattered Ecuadorian cities in the past.

Of course Quito is not alone in its dilemma regarding creating infrastructure for the automobile versus investments in public transportation and non-motorized means of travel. 

In British Columbia, the province (without a referendum) is pursuing replacement of the Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new $3.5-billion, 10-lane bridge.

This is despite the objections of, among others, the Metro Vancouver Mayors who argue the proposed project “represents an expansion of car-oriented infrastructure and diverts crucial funds from transportation projects that support the regional growth strategy." 

In the City of Ottawa, which is currently constructing the first leg of its east - west rapid transit system, the provincial infrastructural minister announced yet another ‘strategic widening’ of the east- west Queensway expressway to, as he put it “spend more time at home with your family”. 

As if.

One week later, Ontario’s Premier announced the details of the provincial long-term energy plan including her government’s aspiration to “become a North American leader in low-carbon and zero-emission”.  

In other words, Quito is a perfect example of the types of contradictions leaders face in the post-Habitat III world, as the legacy of past urban planning decisions conflicts with the New Urban Agenda’s push for more inclusive, sustainable cities without falling back on outmoded urban planning practices, displacing low-income communities and favouring cars over people. 

When the assembled advocates and experts go back to their home countries, will the lessons from Habitat III and the recommendations of the New Urban Agenda be reflected? In Ecuador, Canada and elsewhere, will anything have changed for the better?

In October, Dennis Carr attended the UN Habitat III conference in Quito. He has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. 

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