The world is in Quito to discuss cities- but are local voices heard at Habitat III?

As many as 45,000 people are gathered in Ecuadors capital for the UNs future of cities summit. Inside the fencing, speakers say greater inclusivity will make better cities for all but elsewhere in Quito, some residents are feeling shut out

On a rare patch of open grass amid the vertiginous slopes of the river Machngara gorge in Quito, Ricardo Buitrn is outlining his dreams for the future of cities.

We have always been proposing a new kind of city a city for the person or persons; a city whose residents can all have a voice in its planning and organisation.

Buitrns ambitions are strikingly similar to whats being said elsewhere in Ecuadors high-altitude capital this week, even if the situates could not be more different. Across the city, on the other side of the hills, the Olympics of urbanisation, Habitat III a once-every-2 0-years United Nation conference to discuss the future of countries around the world cities has landed with a bureaucratic bang on the pristine, cut-grass lawns of central Quitos El Arbolito park.

As many as 45,000 delegates including at least 200 city mayors, 140 national delegations, plus many of the worlds leading academics, designers and urbanist intellectuals are gathered here to discuss ways to induce cities more sustainable, all-inclusive and resilient, to quote three of the conferences favourite buzzwords.

But Buitrn is not among them. He is, in fact, an activist and coordinator for Resistencia Hbitat III, an opposition of more than 40 community groups from Quito and around Ecuador an eclectic mixture of indigenous and barrio ( neighbourhood) groups, womens organisations, cycling and climate-change activists come together to highlight the local issues they say are being ignored by the global convention on their doorstep.

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A poster for the resistance group

This event is good because it dedicates us a pretext to gather together, to make proposals for our cities, and to question the models being used in Habitat III, Buitrn says. Many of the topics being discussed there are important but the voices of local people are not being heard.

Quito is reaching a point of no return, Buitrn explains with urgency. The city is becoming unliveable because cars are so dominant. The municipality invests a lot of money in projects, but there is no integrated plan to construct things work for the majority of people here.

Barriers to inclusivity

Like a giant Post-it note to attendees of the conference, one of the Habitat III billboards around the sites perimeter countries, INCLUSIVE CITIES. The impact of this sign is, however, mitigated given the fact it is attached to a wire security fencing which rings Habitat IIIs park campus.

For the duration of the conference, inside the fence is officially United Nation territory, with UN statutes superseding those of the host country outside. The impression of separation is exacerbated by the many road closures and heavy police presence in the surrounding blocks.

Appropriately for a conference on urbanisation, this is a high-density event, with thousands of delegates crowding into the section of park all over the stylish, circular Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana building. But as a result, the morning queues for airport-style security checks have been hellish, with lines of attendees snaking back through the rest of the park as they wait for hours in the equatorial sunshine to get on site.

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Fences protect the main Habitat 3 site, while attendees queue into the distance. Photograph: Francesca Perry

With so many dignitaries assembled, security was always going to be a huge headache. But according to Jaime Izurieta, a Quito-based designer and urbanist, The perimeter fencing feels symbolic of the fact the global cities motion is fail in its ambition to be inclusive.

In Ecuadors capital, Izurieta says, much day and fund has been invested in the conservation of historic buildings such as the Teatro Sucre in the historic centre.( In 1978, Quito was one of the first two cities to be proclaimed Unesco world cultural heritage sites .)

But then they put up fences when an opu is performed there, to avoid those attending having to mix with the rest of the citys population. We have failed to integrate the majority of people here and the citys interventions, such as house restoration and road building, do not assistance everyone.

Habitat IIIs headline achievement is the New Urban Agenda; in the UNs words, an action-oriented document which will define global standards of accomplishment in sustainable urban development.

Unlike the UNs 2015 Paris climate change agreement which created a legally binding commitment to restrict member states carbon emissions there is nothing strictly enforceable in the New Urban Agenda. Instead it is a 23 -page theoretical( some have said utopian) wishlist of what builds for better cities, based on the research and inputs of a global collection of academics and other urban experts which were then haggled over until the final draft was agreed in New York on 10 September.

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UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the mayor of Quito at Habitat III. Photograph: Jose Jacome/ EPA

The biggest tensions in this process came over the question of inclusivity. Despite a pushing from Canada for the inclusion of a statement about rights for LGBTQ citizens, other countries, including Iran and Russia, would not countenance such speech in the final agenda leading to a forceful response from Julian Castro, United States secretary of housing and urban development, who said the US was disappointed, frankly, that some delegates would have derailed the process of negotiations solely, rather than include LGBT protections.

Another bone of contention concerned the right to the city the growing political movement that seeks to enshrine the equal rights of all citizens at the heart of a citys governance. Ecuador, indeed, was a pioneer in incorporating this idea into its constitution, but other UN member states, including the US, were unhappy with anything more than a happen reference.

Despite these differences, the word all-inclusive appears in the final New Urban Agenda document no fewer than 36 periods.

City of protest

One of the key groups in the Resistencia Hbitat III movement is the committee of residents living in Bolaos, the precarious neighborhood on the steep hillsides of the Machngara gorge. As it stands, a proposed major road infrastructure project from the municipality threatens to displace them from their homes, and they are fighting for their right to stay.

Bolaos is made up of a smattering of household homes among forest, thick vegetation and patches of productive land to assistance feed the community. Crowning the neighbourhood is the busy Interocenica highway, leading to the Oswaldo Guayasamn tunnel nearby which connects to the centre of the city. The tunnel is notoriously gridlocked: automobiles queue for hours, with passengers unable to open their windows because of the fumes.

Bolaos
Bolaos residents live on the steep slopes of the river Machngara gorge. Photograph: Francesca Perry

Car drivers in the city are exasperated and the mayors answer( named Solucin Vial Guayasamn) is to build two new road bridges and add more lanes to busy freeways like Interocenica to increase capacity for Quitos vehicles. For a city apparently so keen on sustainability, the project seems amazingly like a 1960 s car-led approach to urbanism.

With the new infrastructure, it has been deemed too risky for the residents of Bolaos to stay( the bridges will pass over the neighborhood ). The local government are consequently be promoted to leave and if they dont comply then forced evictions may well take place.

The neighbourhood is not for sale. If they want us to move they will need to wait until we are dead, declares local resident Mara Luisa Achig, perched on an outcrop overlooking the valley, a hat protecting her from the sunshine intense rays. This neighborhood was established by our ancestors. We built our houses with our own hands. We cannot lose the land.

Every Thursday, a group of residents from Bolaos stage a protest in Plaza Argentina in central Quito in an attempt to stop the project. Demonstrations like this are quite normal: locals call Quito a city of protest.

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Mara Luisa Achig

Nataly Pinto Alvaro, who runs a social enterprise consultancy focusing on local economic development, sustainability and human rights, has worked alongside other professionals to support the Bolaos residents by offering legal and administrative assistance. We help them protest to make sure they are not alone, she says. Its not just about them. Displacement, community and rights to housing are issues that affect us all in Quito. We have to make a stand together.

On a Saturday in mid-October, the Bolaos residents are working together to carefully uncover what they believe to be an ancient road on the hillside next to their community. Nearby, they explain, were two Incan forts and they are convinced the stones they have found beneath the clay and vegetation are part of an ancient road connecting the two sites. This used to be the entryway to Quito from the Amazon, one resident explains.

The road is particularly symbolic for the residents, as the roads which once connected them to neighbouring communities were destroyed with the construction in the 1970 s of Avenida Simn Bolvar, one of the main highways that leads into the centre of the city. Now, they feel, another infrastructure project is threatening their neighbourhood.

Of course, if the residents can prove they are sitting on an ancient Incan route, it would provide a strong argument to stop the bridge project from going ahead. I dont think they will find ancient remains, indicates Izurieta, who believes the project is unnecessary and will only worsen congestion, but if they do, it will change everything.

The collective clear of this supposedly ancient road is a good example of a minga , a particularly Andean tradition whereby the community comes together on regular days to make improvements to their neighbourhood everything from cleaning up and planting blooms to building new infrastructure. I call it native Ecuadorean placemaking, says Izurieta, who is bringing the idea to a more central neighbourhood in the capital.

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Bolaos residents clear vegetation as part of the minga. Photograph: Francesca Perry

Although mingas traditionally happen in the poorer neighbourhoods of cities, Izurieta believes it is a model that could be transformative in communities across Quito and cities further afield. He is currently involved in the Opus La Mariscal project, in one of the central neighbourhoods in Quito, full of bars, eateries and nightlife. The region was once thought of as dangerous, but now is Quitos party zone. As a result , not many people live there.

We want to construct La Mariscal into a residential district again, he explains. The project involves working with the local businesses and some residents to improve the public realm, fix pavements, plant trees, restore houses and even create urban farms. Everything is done through the minga process, says Izurieta. Everyone is a volunteer and loves being involved. But the municipality doesnt like it they see it as competition.

To feel threatened by the minga feels illogical when grassroots neighbourhood improvements have the potential to take the pressure off financially stretched city authorities. Izurieta believes the idea of the minga is a positive urban model that Quito should be sharing with the world at Habitat III.

It could help cities everywhere, he says. It strengthens community relations and brings positive transformation to neighborhoods. It entails people are more involved with their city.

Common vision for cities?

Habitat III is the global swansong of Ban Ki-moon, whose 10 -year reign as UN secretary-general objectives on the last day of 2016. And in Quito he just like Ricardo Buitrn of Resistencia Hbitat III has been quick to demand a more all-inclusive approach to the governance of cities.

At a gathering of mayors, dubbed a new global parliament, Ban highlighted objective 11 of the New Urban Agenda, which pledges to make human settlements all-inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. He exhorted the 400 -odd mayors and regional officials present to take strong ownership of this vital agenda. Stand up for the person or persons you represent.

So could Habitat III prove the beginning of a common vision for cities or is it more likely a loading of ineffectual urban wash, however well intended?

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Ban Ki-moon recommended mayors to stand up for the people you represent. Photograph: Juan Cevallos/ AFP/ Getty Images

The Quito Implementation Plan is the summits try at holding member states and cities to firm, long-term commitments, be it relating to climate change( the worlds cities are responsible for at the least 70% of countries around the world carbon emissions) or provision of public space. But the UN tensions these are voluntary commitments[ which] seek to be concrete actions as yet, there are no guarantees.

According to Berlins mayor Michael Mller, one of the most significant aspects of the New Urban Agenda is the fact that cities is not mentioned but accepted as partners. The tendency for devolution of power away from national governments towards city mayors in particular is key to progress, Mller says, adding: The New Urban Agenda only has a chance of succeeding if cities are allowed to be involved in its implementation.

But what about the residents of Quito? What will happen to their city once this large urban juggernaut has growled away again at the end of this week? Will anything have changed for the very best?

Daniel, a cafe owner and neighbourhood leader in La Mariscal, who is starting his own coffee-roasting business, meditates these questions as he spreads out the beans on a net to dry.

I dont know if Habitat III will be good or bad for the city, though I hope it will have positive impacts. We wont find out until after the event finishes and everyone goes home, but I hope it enables our city government to learn from other mayors around the world how to improve cities for everyone.

Quitos mayor is Mauricio Rodas, whose bridge project is causing the person or persons of Bolaos to rise up in protest. Like everyone else in Quito this week, he is espousing the merits of inclusivity for the future health and prosperity of his city, convinced hosting Habitat III will help in achieving this.

We are already enforcing policies for sustainable urban development, Rodas says, but having these discussions encourages us to go deeper in the direction of improving the quality of life of Quito citizens, with a clear strategy of economic developing and social inclusion and respect for the environment.

Habitat III dedicates us the opportunity to be in the eyes of the world, Rodas says and the same could be said for the person or persons of Bolaos. They may not was of the view that social integration is being practised as it is preached by the mayor and his municipal government but if the New Urban Agenda can be implemented in a meaningful route, perhaps its benefits may trickle down to them too.

Additional reporting by Marcela Ribadeneira and Eduardo Varas in Quito. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook and join the discussion

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