Quito: mountains, history & a giant conference about cities

In October 2016, 40000 people gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for the United Nations Habitat III Conference. Unlike other UN processes that focus on national government engagement, “H3” also saw 5000 city leaders make their voices heard, meeting in Quito and Bogotá (Colombia) at related local government events. They did so to ensure the final document adopted, the New Urban Agenda, would include a voice for local governments – as this will guide urban development for the next 20 years. Many articles explain H3’s significance, process and main issues. Citiscope, for example, dedicated an entire section to the conference.


H3 was, however, much more than its official agenda. It underscored the importance of networking among urban professionals in crowded conference panels or at fancy dinners; or gaining inspiration from tactical urbanism actions, launched in the streets of Quito, to envision more sustainable cities. H3 was a celebration of cities – AND it was chaos! It was 2-hour long security lines each morning to enter the venue, where the 40000 registered participants entered via 7 security scanners.

It was the largest conference ever hosted by Quito (1.6 million) and this was apparent. Hotels were at capacity; roads were clogged with standstill traffic. Quito’s historic centre was packed with locals and visitors eager to experience the action and energy of this giant cities conference that only occurs once every 20 years. Every night during H3, Quito also hosted an impressive laser light show  in its historic centre, using building façades as giant canvases. Admittedly, this show was more impressive than initially anticipated. As a city, Quito was also more impressive than initially anticipated.

Fantastic light show depicting the history of our galaxy, with a musical performance.

Mountain Mamma

Surrounded by snowy peaks, Quito stands circa 3000 meters above sea level. Navigating the city means crossing valleys and hills – on foot, but often by car. It is also very easy to escape the city to these peaks. I took the TelefériQo with colleagues, a 20-minute gondola ride, which climbed to 4000 meters. Feeling weary from altitude, my colleagues soon left to visit Quito’s other touristic highlights. I lingered several hours, exploring the mountain trails that crawled above the city into the rocky peaks – even taking  a brief horseback ride through this mountain landscape. Touristy? Yes, but worth it!

Ten years prior, one of my best friends introduced me to Pachamama, or Mother Earth in her native Bolivia and neighbouring Andean nations, including Ecuador. I learned of her energy, silent wisdom and protection of our planet. Ten years on, trekking solo above Quito, I was overwhelmed by Pachamama’s presence. There was magic there; I could feel it. I gazed at the peaks above, blanketed in a foggy mystery of clouds clinging to mountainsides. I scanned down over the massive urban valley, and to the adjacent hills bathed in emerald and gold from the returning sunshine. As if on cue, a playful raptor swooped down, landing a few meters from me, our gaze fixed on each other. A mountain girl to my core, I felt a strange sense of belonging in that place, a conviction that I would return to this Andean landscape. It was here above Quito that I understood the value of a rural periphery surrounding cities.

The city and its periphery

A Historic City

img_7150Staying in Quito’s historic centre – one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites – I wandered the city’s steep streets, taking in colourful buildings and crowded avenues, alive with the conference buzz. Old Town was a mix of people and styles: indigenous women dressed in traditional apparel carrying heavy loads, businessmen in suits, students in jeans, tourists with cameras, conference goers flashing H3 badges. Homeless men lingered on corners, with kind eyes despite difficult situations. I smiled, watching a tall elegant policewoman help an older lady cross the street, momentarily halting traffic to do so.

Sprawling City

In part due to geography, Quito is a sprawling city, crawling through valleys and mountains. This sprawling nature justifies many residents to take a car. Quito is thus a city of congestion; the kind that made me thankful I don’t own or depend on a car. One night we spent 1.5 hours in traffic – extremely late for a dinner reservation at the Apocalyptic Virginoverlooking the city. Initially told it should not have taken more than 15 minutes by taxi, we quickly learned that Quito’s traffic is a real challenge – especially during H3.

Still, Quito is making efforts to counter this congestion. In the run-up to H3, Ecuadorian friends said Quito wanted to put its best face forward. Wouldn’t any city? The local government rolled out traffic calming measures on neighbourhood streets, introduced a bike-sharing system, expanded bus rapid transit (BRT), painted new bike lanes, and cleaned up the city. Still, I can’t forget the constant sting in my throat, from bursts of black exhaust escaping the tailpipes of busses and taxis (nor the expansion of highways just outside the city, slicing through the mountain landscape). Of course, changes do not happen overnight; but introducing restrictions on dirty fuels would be one of the first things I would do if I were Quito Mayor for a day.

Quito BRT at a stop in the Old Town
Quito bike-sharing system, found throughout the city centre
Riders in Old Town during Sunday’s Ciclopaseo
Traffic calming measures in Quito

Emerging Cycle City?

While a difficult city to cycle because of hills and a sprawling city design, I was impressed by Quito’s enthusiastic (and cool) cycling community. They are fashionable and fun, often arriving with a bike helmet tucked casually under the arm. Each Sunday, Quito hosts Ciclopaseo, closing 30 km of city streets for cyclists. It was not only sportsters in LYCRA® summiting hills effortlessly on two peddles, but children, their parents – even the elderly. They cycled the hills of Old Town, as if it was as flat as the bicycle paths I am familiar with in Amsterdam.  Clearly they are more acclimatised to the altitude than I was!

Quito cool: Sunday cyclists
Local cycling advocate, representing Biciaccion

Green city

img_5890Quito is a city of parks, large and small; it is a green city, a mountain city. Quito hosts one of the largest city parks in  Latin America, Parque Metropolitano Guangüiltagua, stretching 550 hectares. In one direction the city is visible; in the other, snowy peaks dominate. I was also impressed how people actually use these parks, large and small: for picnics, morning runs, lunchtime naps, small merchandise stands, or a shortcut between destinations. In addition to planned parks, such as Parque La Carolina and Alameda, Quito’s mountain landscape offers lush valleys and green peaks.

The City as a Canvas

Quito is home to fantastic street art, including life-size canvases depicting indigenous heroes, female warriors or cartoon animals. It is a city of bright buildings and colourful streets. In a city mixing natural beauty and urban life, artistic inspiration abounds, motivating painters such as Oswaldo Guayasamín, whose hilltop home was turned into a museum. Quito is also a city of street taggers, eager to make their claim on any blank building wall; even private homes fall victim to this vandalism. To counter this, Quito also has its very own duo of so-called grammar police (called Acción Ortográfica) who go into the night, seeking out and correcting the grammatical errors of other taggers, adding a bit of humour to counter this vandalism. (Separate blog post coming soon on Acción Ortográfica.)

Quito street art
Quito street art, this street featuring design specifically by female artists
Crowded streets in Old Town during H3

Quito is a city of spectacular nature, a 360-degree mountainous skyline; it is a city of indigenous and colonial history, and also a modern and chaotic city. It is a city of fantastic restaurants, great street food and trendy bars. Quito is a city where creative citizens turn old parking lots or abandoned storefronts into funky, eclectic watering holes, serving beers from Quito’s emerging craft beer scene. One of my favourite beers was crafted by a local rock climber, that brews beer between climbing sessions – what a life! As a beer lover, I’m glad a local friend took me out to conduct, well, research… 

Still, its Quito’s people that impressed me most. They are warm and authentic; relaxed, yet passionate; they mix indigenous tradition with modern trends, including the arts, music and technology. There are activists trying to push Quito (and Ecuador) towards a more sustainable future, and those that push against this. This constant struggle makes the city feel alive – albeit I would also like to see Quito become a more sustainable city. With a growing cycling scene, creative street artists, and an engaged and networked civil society collectively working towards a greener, cleaner Quito, the city has a great place to start.

In a city of 1.6 million, Quito retains a small town feeling. After almost 3 weeks in and around the city, I began to feel a sense of familiarity, and yet I barely scratched the surface.

Steep streets in Quito Old Town
Quito street art
Quito as a canvas
Taking in the view at sunset
Quito bar scene at a La Platea
This sign depicts the evaluation route during an earthquake – or during a Godzilla attack. (The latter addition added by a local street artist.)
Quito street art
Street art taking over buildings too
Quito’s expanding cycling infrastructure (here in Parque La Carolina)
Some of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) colleagues in Quito for H3, and for WWF’s City Challenge Final Awards Ceremony, on the rooftop of the WWF Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) office, which is also in Quito

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