Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas wants to show off a city of urban innovation and solidarity

As Habitat III rolls into his city, Rodas tells Citiscope his hopes for the conference’s legacy for Quito.

Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas wants to showcase his city's urban innovations during Habitat III. (Christopher Swope)

Nearly 50,000 people are registered to take part in the Habitat III conference on urbanization, taking place in Quito on 17-20 October. That will mark the largest international event ever to have taken place in the Ecuadoran capital.

Welcoming all those people will be Mauricio Rodas, Quito’s mayor since 2014. In May, I spoke with Mayor Rodas to check in on how the city’s preparations were coming along ahead of the big event, and what he and the city hoped would be Habitat III’s legacy for Quito. This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.

Mauricio Rodas: What we want is for Habitat III to be a showcase for the innovative urban actions that Quito has been carrying out in a number of different areas — above all in terms of sustainable transport, which is at the centre of our administration in the city. In this sense, Quito is making the biggest investment in its history in public infrastructure; we have undertaken the construction of enormous public works, such as the first subway line, whose construction began in January.

We are also moving forward with the construction of cable-car systems as a means of transport, just like they have done in Medellín, [Colombia]. We are reinforcing our [bus rapid transit] systems … all of this is part of a vision of sustainable mobility and is an important part of what we want to show in Habitat III.

We also want to show the progress we have made in terms of recovering public spaces, conceiving of them as elements of democratic coexistence, as public gathering places, by providing them with high-quality, safe and attractive public infrastructure. We see the city as the main space where the different artistic and cultural expressions of the people of Quito must converge, reflecting the great diversity of visions and points of view that characterize our city. That is what we want to show in Habitat III.

And to be able to do it in an effective manner, of course, we have undertaken a series of public policy actions. First we have planned the coordination of public transport systems to provide adequate transportation for the visitors, for the delegates who come to Habitat III. Also planned is a wide range of artistic and cultural offerings in different parts of the city, based on the role that cities play in sustainable development.

We have clearly had to earmark funds for all of this, from the municipal budget, and at a time of economic difficulties for the city and for the country, which has without a doubt been a major challenge. But we obviously understand the significance of an event of this kind and the extremely positive potential it can have for the city.

Greg Scruggs: Do you have a figure for the cost of Habitat III?

No, it’s very difficult at this time to come up with a concrete figure for things that are being done exclusively for Habitat. There are many things that we would have done anyway, for the purpose of urban regeneration.

Q: When I was in Quito in November, the trolleybuses, part of the BRT system, were so full at 7:00 pm that three passed without room for one more passenger. What is the plan to manage all of these people who will come for Habitat III?

A: In the first place, we have renovated the trolleybus fleet, and we have bought 80 new bi-articulated buses for the trolleybus system. Each one of these has the capacity to carry 250 passengers, compared to the 170 that can be carried by the articulated buses currently being used. That means the city will have a much greater capacity.

[Read: How is Quito preparing for Habitat III?]

In addition, we have modified all of the trolleybus system’s bus stops and stations, to accommodate the bi-articulated buses. That’s 45 stations that are now bigger, with a much more modern, environmentally friendly design, and accessible for the disabled. They will gradually come into operation until the entire system is fully functioning … ready to serve the Habitat III delegates and provide service of the quality that they obviously deserve.

Q: So you don’t plan, for example, to declare a holiday during the conference?

A: No. On the contrary, I think the city should continue as normal. I think the people who come to Quito will see a city in its ordinary day-to-day routines. That’s what we want to show. Not a city in an exceptional situation, but a city that is functioning normally and is capable of hosting a world-class event in a proper, organized manner, on the one hand, and on the other, that we have also improved our institutional capacity for this kind of event.

A clear example of this was when we received Pope Francis last year. That was a gigantic event. At Bicentennial Park, he celebrated an open-air Mass that drew approximately a million people. This required an enormous public transportation plan, immense logistical organization, which furthermore functioned optimally. So we have the example of this positive experience, and on the basis of that we will also be ready for Habitat III.

Q: So you plan to host more international events, and you see Habitat III as a way of going beyond the city — of reaching the world stage?

A: Absolutely, we see it as a great opportunity, and we are very optimistic and enthusiastic with respect to this great event. We want it to be an event not only for the delegates from abroad, but one that the city, as a whole, will experience and enjoy.

That is why we have planned a series of artistic and cultural activities in public spaces, so all of the people of Quito can also be part of Habitat III, so they don’t see it as something alien to them. Also, we clearly see this as a chance to show the world what Quito is.

Q: I interviewed former mayor Augusto Barrera, who explained to me what his idea was for hosting Habitat III in Quito. Was it difficult for you to take this on, even though you didn’t come up with it yourself?

A: We have to remember that the candidacy for Quito (to host the conference) was submitted by the national government, not by the city, because it’s the national government as a member state [of the United Nations] that presents the candidacy.

Of course, as soon as we won the election, even before taking office in the city government, we undertook a set of actions with great enthusiasm, to contribute to promoting Quito’s candidacy. I met with a number of mayors, organizations of mayors, representatives of international bodies to strengthen our city’s candidacy. And later as mayor, of course, I continued doing so, with great determination.

[Read: As Cotopaxi awakens, Quito and its suburbs get ready for a volcanic eruption]

Besides that, we have been very enthusiastic about this whole process. For example, holding the event in the House of Culture was a proposal by the Quito municipal government. At first there were various alternatives, some of which were even on the outskirts of the city. We always thought the event should be held in the heart of the city, which is why the municipal government suggested that Habitat III be held in El Arbolito Park, near the House of Culture.

The Habitat Village was an initiative set forth by the city government. This is a tremendously innovative tool that will enable national or local governments, as well as companies and civil society organizations, to showcase their exhibits on urban innovation in the city, in public spaces, instead of inside the conference venue, as is normally the case in this kind of event. This makes it a real living laboratory on urban innovation, while it also leaves the city these things, as a legacy of Habitat III.

Q: We have heard a great deal at the U. N. about cities wanting a “seat at the table” on concrete issues. What does this mean for you?

A: As we have taken a very positive step with regard to participation by local governments in the design of the New Urban Agenda, we think we have to go further and ensure that the voice of the cities is taken into account in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

We are the main actors in this discussion, as it is we who must put into practice public policies that make it possible to continue moving our cities in the direction of sustainable development, towards resilience, towards the improvement of quality of life based on a strong focus on equality in cities.

[Read: Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U. N. countries club]

We also believe we must take part in the discussions and the bodies that decide on the actions for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. This is particularly so with regard to such important issues as, for example, the distribution of economic resources for putting these actions into effect, the problems that emerge in the relationships between different levels of government with respect to implementation, the connection that has to exist between purely political actions by local governments and civil society and the public in general.

And we consider it fundamental for local governments also to participate in these bodies through a clearly defined institutional mechanism that I also believe has to arise from an initiative of the local governments. 

Q: What is the legacy of Habitat III for Quito?

A: First it is about being able to show the focus on urban innovation that we have been pushing for in our city, to build a modern Quito, based on solidarity — two big focuses of our administration. And second, of course, is for our city’s vision to become a fundamental component in the discussion of the New Urban Agenda and in the redefinition of the participation of local governments in its execution.

I think that will be a big legacy that our city will provide by hosting Habitat III, thus marking a clearly defined position with respect to urban planning in the world of the future. We believe the vision that Quito has been advocating and defending will become a fundamental component of this new process of urban planning at a global level — not only in conceptual but in practical, concrete terms: To strengthen the role of local governments as a fundamental pillar for democracy in our countries, for democracy at a global level, and for the legitimate right of citizens to take part in decision-making, since obviously it is local governments that are closest to the citizens.

Translated from Spanish by Stephanie Wildes.

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