Quito, Ecuador

by Diego Carrión, Jaime Vásconez,
with the collaboration of Nury Bermúdez


Between 1950 and 2001, Quito grew from 200,000 to 1.4 million inhabitants and evolved from a centrally oriented city to an urban agglomeration through the incorporation of minor urban centres and the peripheral area. The urban structure has been conditioned by the scarcity of flat land, topographic irregularities of the surrounding mountain system and the numerous east–west slopes.

The phenomenon of popular neighbourhoods in Quito is relatively recent. It started during the mid 1970s as a result of massive migration to Quito. Low-income populations seeking housing settled on the peripheral areas of the city, in deteriorated houses in the historical centre, and also in houses located in nearby towns. This process has consolidated during the last decade. Recent settlements located in areas of irregular topography, in the northern and southern peripheries of the city, are composed of dwellings such as huts, hovels and small houses, built with inadequate materials. There is no drinking water, no sewage and few of these dwellings possess latrines. The rubbish collection service is nonexistent or inefficient, and the main or secondary access roads are in poor condition, as is the street lighting.

The municipality defines slums as barrios ilegales – illegal settlements, meaning that these neighbourhoods don’t possess an official approval and an urbanization licence. In Quito, there are three main types of slums:

Barrios periféricos: these are popular neighbourhoods located on the urban edge.

Conventillos: these comprise deteriorated tenements in the historic centre.

Rural neighbourhoods that house low-income families who commute to the urban area.

Most low-income households are located in the barrios periféricos. Many of the urban slum dwellers do not own the land on which they live and only some 24 per cent have secure tenure. However, the urban periphery neighbourhoods developed through the subdivision of agricultural plots, and most of these own the house and land. Only an estimated 10 per cent of these rent.

Income poverty, low levels of education, high unemployment rates and unsatisfied basic services affect a massive 82 per cent of the slum dwellers. Slum dwellers’ perception of their status, however, is one of forthcoming integration through strategies for the progressive upgrading of living conditions and social inclusion.

Since 1993, the Law of the Metropolitan District of Quito (LDMQ) has provided a wider legal framework than the traditional municipal competencies. Applicable only to the urban and rural management of the Metro Quito, the LDMQ has generated important administrative changes with respect to decentralization.

The Quito local government, apart from strong investments in conventional infrastructure, is undertaking a massive process of land regularization and has adopted two innovative strategies to upgrade slums:

A programme to provide security of tenure has delivered property deeds to 13,000 families.

A metropolitan land and housing enterprise, conceived as a public–private partnership, intends to regulate the prices of land through direct participations in the market.

In 1996, approximately 200 poor families invaded and built their slums on a piece of public land zoned as a park near the historic area of Quito. For over six years the problem was untouched until a new municipal administration took office and developed a process of negotiation. In a very short time, the municipality was able to provide another plot of land and a private company built several blocks of flats to accommodate all of the families. The project was financed with a loan from a cooperative owned by the Chamber of Commerce, with further financial support provided by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. An NGO provided technical support and the required international
seed money. The invaders are moving to their new apartments and the city has recovered the land.

Quito’s urban planning process has largely been motivated by technical rationality, although it was, in practice, often based on legitimization of de facto situations. Weak enforcement of land zoning and other regulatory controls have been at the root of today’s problems, together with lack of sufficient involvement of the underprivileged groups. After 30 or 40 years of attempted solutions to Quito’s slums and poverty problems, it seems clear that unilateral and small-scale efforts have lower success rates. Results were also limited when authorities and public entities adopted an authoritarian position that failed to include the communities and their organizations.

The lesson learned is that slum improvement and poverty alleviation efforts require precise targeting from the supply side, rather than coping with the situation from the demand side. Undesirable urbanization aspects and gradual construction of houses have been permitted for too long as an alternative to the difficulties posed by economic crises. Recent experiences, however, indicate that partnerships and agreement among stakeholders can lead to adequate solutions if executed in combination with political will and perseverance.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh