Grassroots Quito group is a laboratory for local self-governance

Isabel Morillo leads a group in Quito that lets citizens take charge of fixing up their neighborhood. (Patralekha Chatterjee)

QUITO, Ecuador — Change happens in myriad ways. In La Mariscal, Quito’s entertainment district, the trigger was an abandoned house.

The derelict two-story home had become a haven for loitering drunks, drug users and petty criminals. The residents were fed up. Local authorities were slow to respond. In October of last year, the people of Mariscal banded together, reached out to the police, and went into the building with policemen in tow to evict the squatters.

“Thieves used to sleep there. It was a security hazard,” says Isabel Morillo, a community organizer. “Then, the people of La Mariscal decided enough was enough.”  Once the house was cleared, it was painted white and blue, the color of the local police, and now is a police station. “The community feels greatly reassured,” Morillo says.

Morillo is the coordinator of a grassroots group called The Urban Sustainability Operation of La Mariscal, or OPUS by its Spanish acronym. The police station is just one of the group’s citizen-led projects being showcased this week on the city streets outside the United Nations’ Habitat III conference on cities.

OPUS got started about a year ago. It’s an initiative of residents and entrepreneurs who have been working on improving the quality of life in the Mariscal district. The project’s objective is to make over La Mariscal through a range of initiatives aimed at social cohesion and what locals call the “solidarity economy.”

OPUS is a sort of laboratory for local self-governance. The group doesn’t just advocate for the neighborhood at City Hall but often takes local matters into its own hands. With a team of volunteer professionals on board — lawyers, engineers, architects and urban planners — the group can often solve problems that the municipality doesn’t have the capacity to fix.

Citizens in Quito’s La Mariscal neighborhood
turned a vacant house into a police station.
(Patralekha Chatterjee)

“We aim to establish a Community-Based Administration that must dialogue and lead government investment wisely, based on community expectations,” says Morillo, who adds that the OPUS model can be replicated in other communities. “Citizens will be the authors of development by awakening their sense of belonging and identity, making them responsible for their neighborhood and its sustainability.”

Morillo used to work for the municipal government. She says she used to get a lot of complaints about law-and-order problems in La Mariscal, but the city’s resources were stretched too thin to do anything about them. “Sometimes, I felt helpless,” Morillo recalls. “I could not do enough to help the people.”

She quit her government job last year and was subsequently approached by two La Mariscal community leaders who were thinking of starting a community-led organization. OPUS was born.

Morillo took me on a tour of La Mariscal to see the projects OPUS worked on in its first year. The first stop was the new police station, just a few blocks away from the Plaza Foch, a lively intersection packed with restaurants and bars that has become Quito’s party zone. We met Giovanni Paucura, a policeman who has been posted at La Mariscal police station for four months. “The community feels a lot more secure now,” Paucura says, noting that most citizen complaints come on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays when the area is most bustling. “We try our best to help.”

Next, we stopped at another formerly vacant house that has been transformed into a community center. It’s a flexible space that currently is functioning as an art gallery showcasing the work of local artists. Rafael Mogro, a young artist who helped get the exhibit set up, says the space is “for the artists, by the artists.” Morgo proudly points to the innovative ways emerging local artists are using waste material to craft exquisite pieces. Soon, the exhibits will be on sale.

Another stop was the Green House, a house donated by a benefactor to serve as a site for urban agriculture. There’s a small garden outside, as well as potted plants. Seeds and saplings planted some months ago have started bearing fruit. “We hold workshops to teach people how to do urban farming in their balconies,” says Morillo. “Those who don’t have balconies can come here and use a patch to grow plants of their choice. There is a charge to attend the workshops. These workshops generate revenue. That’s part of our business model.”

Walking around La Mariscal, I got the feeling the neighborhood is no stranger to community-led initiatives. Several years ago, local businessmen Juan Baquerizo and Gustavo Terán were worried about the deteriorating reputation of their neighborhood as reports of petty crime rose. Tired of waiting for someone else to solve the problem, they took matters into their own hands and set up a committee to promote neighborhood development. One of the first interventions was to hire private security guards to safeguard the area around Plaza Foch. Visitors were charged a small amount, but safety increased.

A house rehabilitated by OPUS now hosts an exhibition for local artists. (Patralekha Chatterjee)

Later, Baquerizo and Terán founded OPUS. Baquerizo talks about the need to “pacify the street.” He says this means resolving conflicts by re-imagining the use of public spaces. “People have to learn to share,” he says.  

Pamela Mendieta, a member of the OPUS team, says the group is evolving. Although crime was the initial reason for community action, Mendieta says community initiatives that are focused solely on safety issues have short life spans.

“Once the law-and-order problem is resolved, there is nothing to do,” she says. “People go their own ways. That is why OPUS believes in taking the long view. We have a range of initiatives that try to get residents to work and collaborate with each other.” Among those other initiatives are a mobile app for citizen-driven data collection, installing street art and planting trees.

Sustaining the effort is also a fiscal issue. Local business owners and residents have made both cash and in-kind contributions to get the project going. Since abandoned spaces started to get spruced up, La Mariscal residents also have started coming forward to donate space for more initiatives. OPUS team members say the project earns revenue through various initiatives like workshops; they are also considering launching social enterprises.

“Quito is a city of 2 million people,” Baquerizo says. “The local municipal corporation cannot manage everything. The only way ahead is community-led governance which works out co-operative systems between local government, national government and the people.”

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Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

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