The urban geography of Cuenca, a city in the Andes mountains in southern Ecuador, has obvious roots in colonial-era Spanish architecture and city layout. The 21st century growth and expansion of this city however, confronts similar issues as modern cities anywhere: infrastructure, energy use, economic vitality, and goals for environmental quality and human well-being.
As a geographer and environmental planner I am struck by how a city’s physical forms express deeper cultural beliefs about order, social norms, and the relationship of society with the larger environment and nature. In this respect, Cuenca is a study in contradictions and changing economic conditions.
Cuenca’s historic center, El Centro, is a densely built up, historic Spanish town with narrow cobbled streets and low-rise buildings. The city has kept much of the architectural history of its old buildings—sometimes crumbling, otherwise gloriously preserved. With limited economic investment in urban revitalization, renovation is focused on the city’s most valuable buildings–its cathedrals, some historic homes, and private hotels which have re-purposed historic properties. Beyond these, much of El Centro’s cityscape appears dilapidated and disheveled.
Beyond El Centro, a huge urban conurbation spread outwards. It has taken over the entire, wide Cuenca valley and up its surrounding mountains. As far as the eye can see, the horizon of the Cuenca valley consists of low-rise mixed housing, commercial and industrial uses with motley red-roofed buildings and other mostly small-scale concrete construction in various states of completion. Centers of commerce in this larger Cuenca are increasingly located in shopping malls, department stores, and mini-malls, sometimes anchored by large U.S.-style grocery stores that cater to the tastes of the new immigrants in the town (U.S. American retirees). Up the mountainsides, lower- and middle-class neighborhoods are built up wily-nily as people seek cheaper housing options that are within driving distance or a bus ride from the city center. Erstwhile villages outside the city have been annexed as ‘suburbs’. In terms of pressing 21st century priorities such as environmental goals for the city and for energy use optimization, little to no planning and zoning is evident to shape and regulate this urban growth and sprawl.
Today, Cuenca faces environmental quality pressures due to burgeoning motor vehicle numbers and population growth. As with many cities in developing nations, the challenges involve population mobility and mass transit, industrial location and environmental controls, air quality, noise control, and the pressures of larger numbers of people–and their pets. What is the vision for the future?
It remains to be seen how Cuenca will adapt to the 21st century. Will it become over-whelmed with cars and buses, and the pollution they cause? Will the city continue its unchecked growth while ignoring aesthetic and environmental considerations? Will the city be able to preserve the character of its historic center, without the detractions of pollution and will its outer rings evolve into a modern city of energy efficiency, cleanliness, wellness, and health?
Take a dive into some of the notable features that have persistently impressed me about Cuenca:
- The Mediterranean tiled roofs. A sea of red-tiled roofs makes the city seem cosy and traditional from high vantage points; there’s a Mediterranean quality to the red tiles. Pictures from certain angles can suggest that Cuenca can easily be interchanged with certain views of Rome, Dubrovnik, or other Mediterranean towns. Add in the hard-to-miss spires of the city’s Catholic cathedrals in the historic center of the city known as “El Centro”, and the Mediterranean impression is stronger.
- Mental maps don’t include background mountains. The mountains make for a wonderful backdrop but they aren’t used as prominent physical features of the city proper. Mountain names aren’t used commonly and townspeople don’t orient themselves around the city with reference to the mountain ranges. The mountains exist in the background but different sectors of the city are known by their urban landmarks, buildings, shops, streets, or circles.
- Historic plazas and squares. El Centro has a direct lineage from the original, colonial Spanish city. There’s a geometry to the town squares anchored by churches. The square street grid leads off from the principle squares of the city, which are paved open spaces with fountains, benches, and mature trees. Many are used for daily market stalls, or impromptu or formal concerts and gatherings. The commercial center of the old El Centro –and prime commercial real estate– is on the streets leading off these main squares. Note that addresses in Cuenca are often simply an “intersection” of two streets. It is upto you to walk a little down the block to find the actual establishment.
- Low-rise urban construction feels small-town. The physical form of El Centro creates a sense of living in a continuous timeline with a previous epoch. There has been no war damage and rebuilding. It feels as though you are looking at the imprint that Spanish colonists physically asserted centuries ago, when they came to the new world in search of gold and other precious resources. El Centro has just grown block by block in the same manner around the original settlement. Furthermore it has maintained its low-rise, two- and three-storeyed building style through municipal code. (Studies on the relationship of human psychology to the built environment in urban centers have demonstrated that being around low-rise, small-scale buildings positively influences the sense of human well-being. Contrast that with the sense of awe (and alienation) people feel amidst the steel-, glass- and blocky concrete sky-scrapers of modern cities in the U.S.) In the modern city beyond El Centro, a few high rise towers dot the horizon.
- Walkable, but not safe. Concomitant with the historical lineage of El Centro, its sidewalks are from an earlier age. They’re impossibly narrow and often dangerous when there is vehicular traffic along the narrow thoroughfares. They are not designed to allow disabled people in wheel chairs to navigate them. The height of the sidewalk above the street can be over one foot high. Walking in Cuenca, between the knee-high and uneven sidewalks, can be quite an obstacle course.
- Unfinished business. The majority of city blocks of in El Centro include several rundown buildings that have simply not been maintained, and lots of unfinished construction. The old structures have sagging lines where foundations that have settled over the years. It’s very common to see unfinished brick facades along the sides of houses, where only the street-facing façade is finished with concrete and painted. From terraces and patios, unfinished construction is usually visible with tarps or metal pieces flapping in the wind. Rustic charm is not quite the appropriate term here. There is a sense of economic bottlenecks and people making do without beautifying their buildings.
- Bring back the trees. Trees soften the cityscape, clean the air, and add value to a city. The lack of trees in El Centro is glaringly obvious. Between the high altitude, dry climate of Cuenca, and the fact that its native forests have been largely cut down for timber over a century ago, trees are missing in the city scape. The trees on the distant mountains are invariably colonies of non-native eucalyptus trees, which are notorious for sucking out available soil moisture and thus preventing other vegetation from growing in between.
- Walls and gates. The lack of trees is compounded in El Centro by the limited landscaped shrubbery or gardens that soften urban surfaces. There are no outward facing gardens to be seen from the streets, rather tall walls and metal gates. It’s not uncommon to see jagged sharp metal points atop gates and walls, so that often the street is simply a conveyance between mini-fortresses. You don’t see landscaped gardens, you see high walls. The architecture here (and stemming from Spanish history) emphasizes interior patios, terraces and courtyards. To find and feel the relaxing presence of tall trees, you have to spend time in one of the city’s three historic squares.
- Grills. The walls and fences around houses close them off for security. Same with windows. From the street, house windows are usually criss-crossed with metal lattice work in various patterns. Balconies also feature metal lattice work.
- It’s all interior. Amid the dilapidated homes there are several notable, historic homes and hotels that have been renovated and are worth visiting. When you walk inside, you instantly realize the depth and complexity of the interior construction, obscured by the street facade. These properties were built by Cuenca’s bluebloods and wealthy businessmen of yesteryear, (usually dating back to the 1800s) on streets near El Centro’s historic squares. The architecture of these historic homes provide clues into the way that Ecuadorians build homes in the modern period: interior courtyards are common. While windows don’t face the street or outdoors, they let light in from interior spaces and sky lights. Indeed many homes don’t have a single exterior window, and instead have dining areas or corridors which feature sky lights, while other windows open into interior spaces.
- Rivers form park corridors but don’t support aquatic life. Most Cuencanos will refer to the riverwalk as their place for contact with nature. There are four rivers that flow through the city, and like in many cities around the world, they receive direct rainfall runoff via storm sewer pipes from the street. There are some stretches where river walks are more landscaped like parkland…notably the historic section near the University of Cuenca. Other stretches are not formally developed as riverside walks. Dog feces is a phenomenon everywhere along the river. Along some stretches, I’ve seen people do laundry in the river. A glaring omission for me, is that I have never seen posted signage about signs of life supported by the river such as amphibians, fish, birds, or salamanders. The river functions largely as a canal or a waste conveyance channel rather than a living being, rich with life. People’s relationship to it is largely as a contrast from the harsh urban surfaces, lacking trees, in the rest of the city.
- No protected nature preserves. Cuenca doesn’t offer open wild natural spaces where indigenous flora and fauna are protected. There are neither such spaces in the valley nor on the vantage points of its mountains. Other than along the river corridor at the lowest part of the valley, there is, sadly, no natural or wild designated public parkland on the mountainsides or high points around the large valley of Cuenca. Most people gain views of the city from cell phone tower areas or alongside roads that lead to ‘suburban settlements’ along the mountainsides. Open space is usually agriculturally developed by small holder farmers. Citizens of Cuenca can’t savor nature, local natural history, and panoramic views of the Cuenca valley at the same time. It’s ironic that Cuenca, situated in such an ecologically diverse land as Ecuador, does not afford easy access nor proximity to tracts of untrammeled nature. It’s also sad that the children of Cuenca are mostly raised without the experience of being able to explore the wildness of nature in self-directed exploration within easy access of the city. Without contact with nature during their developmental years, children are less likely to know local trees and birds, and grow up being sensitive to the lives of animals and the unique gifts of trees and plants.
- Terraces could be valuable real estate. It’s apparent that the terraces of buildings are often under-used or used as functional areas for laundry and keeping chickens rather than for plants and cocktail bars, to enjoy views of rooftops and the sky.
- Sky shows. The sky here is a source of entertainment ! The combination of equatorial latitude with high-altitude creates an intensely variable climate. There is a desert-like dryness to the air inspite of frequent rainfall. Be prepared always with both sunhat (because the direct equatorial sun is so strong) and rainjacket (it will rain on a dime). The skies are guaranteed to be dramatic. Everyday, you can enjoy pregnant cumulus formations in the sky rather than just high cirrus blankets of grey. Sky texture it is said, trumps any TV show you can pick from a line up of over 100 channels. Often, sunny skies will shift into stormy afternoons, with distinct lines of cloud formations visible across the panorama of the Cuenca.
- Electrical and cable infrastructure. As a modern city, Cuenca’s electrical and information technology grids are worth noting. There is usually continuous electrical power and fairly strong internet service. But it is disconcerting to see electric wires hanging all around the town. There are wires hanging from street poles outside schools and I’ve seen children brush by them without anyone batting an eyelid. One morning when I was brushing my teeth, the lights flickered on and off. I heard some static crackle coming from outside and alarming pops coming from outside my window. Two wires on the street touched and caused sparks due to wind. This short-circuited our internet connection and electricity in half of the house! Within an hour of calling however, the electricity company had sent out a mobile truck and repair men.
- Free-range dogs. This is not a city with cats, but there is a large population of free-roaming undomesticated dogs who have assumed specific streets and street corners as their own territory. They seem to know the difference between locals and regulars and strangers passing through. They will aggressively bark at strangers. Cuencanos love their dogs though and often have more than one, usually between two and three, while in the areas surrounding Cuenca proper, households often have six to eight dogs.
- Pet waste lying around, a lot of it. Parks and city streets are littered with dog feces. Although undomesticated, free-range city dogs may be responsible for some portion of the ubiquitous dog poop, its widely acknowledged that Ecuadorians pet owners don’t feel the obligation to pick up their pet poop. It’s particularly disturbing to see pet waste all over childrens’ parks and play areas, at the base of swings and slides. It’s pretty awful to see children playing on swings and slides when the grass around them is littered with dog turds. The scene is fetid for the transmission of disease. I don’t allow people into my apartment with their outdoor shoes on for this reason.
- Black fumes and air pollution. The air in El Centro is notoriously contaminated and impossible to avoid. Diesel fumes from the buses that plow Cuenca’s streets are the worst offenders. The streets of El Centro are basically alleyways confined by contiguous blocks of buildings and no trees in which crosswinds don’t move the air out. When buses pass with their black fumes, the air is, frankly, asphyxiating. It’s disturbing to watch babies and children standing on the narrow sidewalks of the narrow streets and be smothered by black exhaust. I often wear a surgical mask when I go out to try and limit the particulate matter pollution I inhale, but there is no getting around the hydrocarbon fumes. With bus fares as low as $0.12 for seniors and only $0.25 for a normal fare, the bus companies don’t have a profit margin and simply have little economic motivation to install catalytic converters to clean out their exhaust. It isn’t even a legal requirement. Over the years the sheer number of cars and trucks in Cuenca have increased and traffic jams down the narrow streets are commonplace. The cars and trucks are often big offenders in the smelly exhaust game.
- Transit trams? The city began a tram project in the historic El Centro called the Tranvia. The project was halted due to contractual disputes between the municipality and the company. This left the streets of Cuenca dug up and left halfway with tramlines that are not used. The frozen state of the tram infrastructure dig has left businesses on its route high and dry. It’s made walking hazardous where sidewalks were also dug up.
- Taxi mobility. While walking on the city streets is complicated by fumes and dog poop along the streets, taxi rides across town are usually very economical. Cab rides across town are usually $1.50 (the minimum fare during the daytime) and $2.50 (the minimum fare at night).
- It’s loud. There are no noise ordinances in the city. The sound of rogue car alarms is common from about 6:30 a.m. onwards to 10:30 p.m. or so. Fruit sellers in vans drive around neighborhoods in the city advertising on loud speakers. What sounds like an ice-cream truck loud speaker playing a friendly jingle on repeat, is a truck that circulates sells cooking gas tanks (which everyone buys for cooking and for heating water). Late at night, young people drive around playing loud music. It echos around the harsh concrete walls and facades of El Centro. There is no recrimination for causing disturbances in the street. The many town dogs bark all the time. Bring ear plugs, and you get used to background sound over time.
- Waste management. Trash is collected from homes and businesses about three times a week by municipal workers and waste haulers. However the separation of recyclables from trash is not strictly enforced. Furthermore there are few guidelines published or publicized, about how to separate materials that are recyclable. This results in confusion– I’ve seen people stuff single-use thin film plastic bags into the recycling waste stream. There are no guidelines about how to separately containerize regular waste versus recyclables. I’m never sure if my recycling is actually being tossed into the regular waste stream by municipal workers at some point in the collection system. Sadly, although there is much more fresh food preparation here, the city doesn’t collect biodegradable food wastes for composting.
- Mixed zoning. Land-use zoning doesn’t separate commercial from residential in Cuenca. Mixed use development encourages much richer and fluid city living. It’s easy to walk down the block to the local bakery or the mini-mart. (Think of the opposite — monochromatic American suburban landscapes of cookie-cutter houses that are hard to distinguish from each other, and that modern generations are disavowing for more mixed urban settings. Single-use zoning is outmoded in 21st century urban development). The mixed zoning is often taken to extremes. Shops and restaurants are run out of people’s garages and living rooms. There is a decorative lamp store across the street from me, and across the way is a full mechanical garage. I’ve been to restaurants set up in people’s driveways.
- Commerce out of homes. Many houses use their front areas as a shop and with a home-based business. Though it is for security, I often wonder if its because the home-based proprietors are often working in their pyjamas–shops are often grated and grilled and seem like a jail rather than a shop. As a customer, you don’t saunter in off the street and pick out what you want. You have to ask for what you want through a little window. Don’t even imagine that you get to examine goods before buying.
- The new city. The river Tomebamba which forms the southern boundary of El Centro is a demarcating line. South of the river, the development is distinctly more like a modern suburban grid, with wider streets built for vehicular traffic. Here, you will find boulevards along which are mixed modern businesses, car sales shops and restaurants. There are modern suburban neighborhoods with upper middle class homes. Many are behind walls and fences for additional security.
- Petty crime abounds. The streets are not safe from petty crime. One story that is frequently recounted tells about a mystery drug that criminals shake on victims or get on their hands by handing them a map asking for directions. This drug has a hypnotic effect which gets victims to go to the bank and extract money to give to the perpetrators of the crimes by hypnosis. It sounds like an urban legend to me, but every gringo will repeat this story. I’ve personally heard of people getting their money swiped when they take it out at ATMs, or getting mugged by a group late at night.
- The indigenous population. Indigenous people in Cuenca add a sense of cultural diversity to the city’s streets. The women in their traditional felt, swinging chola cuencana skirts, and wearing their hats are a lively sight to behold. They’re traders in the local markets and you will often see indigenous women carrying babies on their backs plying carts of fruits to sell around the town. There’s a notable social stratification and social divide between the more ‘urban’ Spanish-heritage Cuencanos and the indigenous people.
The urban architecture and layout of Cuenca reflects a particular lineage of a Spanish colonial history. The social norms (and social stratification) of people living here have also emerged from this cultural history.
Today, Cuenca faces environmental quality pressures due to burgeoning motor vehicle numbers and population growth. With specific vision and goals, municipal budgets, programs, and environmental standards will need to evolve to proactively address growth and development, building standards, transit, and environmental standards in the city.
Environmental consciousness is not a new concept in Cuenca because of the global awareness of natural resource degradation. But it will remain a theoretical concept unless its citizens feel a personal stake in improving environmental quality and recognize its benefits for their own lives, in terms of the health of their children and themselves, or the security of their economic futures. Cuenca proper has no natural preserves with indigenous flora and fauna (though a national park is about an hour’s drive away). Setting aside nature reserves that are readily accessible to Cuenca’s citizens can make a huge difference in helping connect people more personally to the protection of nature. Better education and outreach especially targeted at children, regarding litter and waste management at the household level will be crucial to a clean future for Cuenca.
Many environmental problems cannot be addressed through regulations and require widespread shifts in social practices. The environmental problems of pet waste, litter, noise, and air pollution throughout the city will require both changes to municipal codes, as well as public outreach and education. Solutions for non-polluting mass transportation will be key. Human well-being depends on the quality of the environment. For children, having access to safe air to breath and clean environment makes all the difference in their life long abilities. What kind of quality of life will the children of Cuenca enjoy in the future?