Graffiti and street art decorate many of the buildings in Cuenca, from sketchy ones on the ruins to astonishing ones. ‘Graffiti is no crime, it is art’, says one of them, appointing to its relevance in the streets.
The Ecuadorian city is focusing on tourism to grow, which might be an economic incentive and hopefully also in terms of renovation, however if not planned accordingly, tourism might cause more damage than benefits for both the city infrastructure and its inhabitants. In its study on Cuenca, the BID warns that the city is lacking such a plan.
City Expansion, Expanding Vulnerability
The same concerns apply for the rise of the city in general, due to its growing population and economic activities. An uncontrolled city expansion can cause more harms than benefits in the end. Even more, because of the specific geographical position of Cuenca: the city is located in a valley, hence turning its mountainous borders into limits of its expansion.
Still people tend to move both into rural zones – threatening the food production – and into mountainous areas which are not suited for living unites, due to the high probability of landslides.
A vulnerability risk indicates that the areas at risk for landslides are increased. On flooding on the other hand, the risk has not increased, due to the city’s drainage system, that must prevent excessive rain water from flooding the residential areas.
Cuenca is a low-density city, in which living units are spread around the available superficies and often not count more than 1 or at most 2 floor buildings. In order to make the city population rise sustainable, the density should rise as well, rather than the inhabited superficies. The average population density remains still lower than in most cities.
A city expansion plan that focuses on increasing the density, might offer a solution, as well in terms of transportation, because more concentrated living-working areas, reduce the need of transportation. However, the current city does not possess such a plan, according to the study of the BID.
Urban Greenery, Social Value
A huge advantage of the low density is the enormous amount of public and green spaces, which are omnipresent in the city. Every few blocks a park pops up and takes you for a moment out of the city madness. Especially the green belt around the rivers adds another dimension to the city, one of nature, peace and relaxing.
This kind of green and public spaces have already proven their social value in other cities, by improving social cohesion. Furthermore, the more public space available per inhabitant, the less need for owning private space, and hence stimulating or allowing a more compact and dense way of building and city development.
Crucial to provide pleasant public spaces, is the cleanliness of these spots, an aspect I must admire Cuenca for. Whether I would be walking out during the day, early morning or late at night, several cleaning teams were out there to make the city spotless. Weeping, waste collecting, gardening, … the men and women in blue were out there to turn the city in a lovely pearl, a slogan which is spread out by the city government as well.
I must admit that Cuenca is one of the most clean – in terms of waste – cities in Latin America, I’ve visited so far, admirable!
What to do with Waste?
Yet, there are no recycling points, except the one on the central square, Parque Abdón Calderón, which only collects glass. According to the BID-study, almost all Cuenca’s waste is collected. Even more, the study claims that Cuenca is the first Ecuadorian city with a selective waste recollection system, and 70% of the inorganic waste is handed over to the society of recyclers, instead of getting dumped.
An interesting aspect of the waste topic is the waste-to-energy story. 86,7% of the dumped waste in the landfills is used to generate biogas, as source of energy, resulting in 2MW electricity. Adding another renewable source to the city’s hydro-electric plants.
In short, Cuenca is a vibrant city, with a very high quality of living, which is how I experience it, even though I’m only for a short time in the city and living and visiting is absolutely a distinct experience. However, when it comes to air quality, and means of transportation, cleanliness and peacefulness, I have the feeling that this label might be right chosen. The air feels breathable, the sideways walkable, and the city livable. Despite my love for the other big Ecuadorian cities, Quito and Guayaquil, I do prefer the air quality, security and freedom to walk around of the smaller Cuenca.
Nevertheless, the study of BID advices Cuenca to implement efforts to guarantee sustainable growth and well-being of the city by controlled expansion, anticipating on the future growth.