Quito blog 1: The new world of Ecuador

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_ARTICLE_ by Abel Coenen

From February until August I will be staying in Quito, the capital of Ecuador – a country where landscape architecture or planning are no common professions at all. For these next months, I will live and work in the city as a true quiteño and explore the landscape of Ecuador. I will try to elaborate on the role and position of landscape architecture in this new world country, in a few exclusive blogs for TOPOS.

Arriving in Quito I directly notice the density of the city, the traffic noise and the busy atmosphere. But what even more catches the eye is the city’s spectacular location in the Andes. Throughout whole Quito you have a clear view on the surrounding valleys, the vast slopes and mountain hills with the colourful houses glued on to them. The altitude of 2800 meters above sea level is a very big difference to the Netherlands and, unfortunately, the mal de montaña also has kept me from doing many activities during my first week – something which was to be expected when leaving a country at sea level.

Once recovered I could fully enjoy our apartment, located in one of the upcoming neighbourhoods of the city, La Floresta. This barrio has been founded as a suburban residential area outside the centre of Quito, with wide green streets, big residential plots and older manor houses. During later years, many new buildings have been added on these same big plots, for instance as an extension or just as a simple atelier in the backyard, contributing to a diverse streetscape. Now that the city has expanded extensively in north and south direction, La Floresta has become a relatively central place in Quito. Still, La Floresta is on the edge of the eastern border, so from here it is easy to walk out of the city. The many restaurants, ateliers, small shops and even an art-house cinema make this the perfect place for our stay.

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La Floresta on a quiet Saturday morning (by Abel Coenen)

Ecuador, country in transition
So, how to describe Ecuador? The first thing that many people probably know about is that the country contains many different types of landscapes and atmospheres, relatively close together and all very suitable for tourism. Ecuador has the Galápagos Islands, famous for its high diversity of species. It also has a long coastline with mangrove forests, a jungle, white sandy beaches and many fishing villages. It contains of course the Andean mountain ridge with many active volcanoes with Quito located in the middle. A large part of the Amazon rainforest also belongs to Ecuador. As the country claims: “All you need is Ecuador”, which is especially true for lovers of nature and wild landscapes.

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Hike through the wild volcano landscape of the Guagua Pichincha (by Abel Coenen)

Aside of these travel guide facts, I experience that the daily city life in Quito can also be very interesting. First of all, the people I have met so far are very friendly, and I find it hard to believe that this country can also be an unsafe city for western people. Quito is very busy but at the same time it all feels quite comfortable and close by, almost like Amsterdam. The many shops and restaurants and the street vendors that you find on every corner bring a rich liveliness to the streets. Unfortunately, streets are often packed with cars, busses and taxis, so during peak hours the main roads clog up. A problem which is more and more recognized by the authorities. Although the city is investing in a bicycle network throughout Quito, at the moment this is only reserved for a few daredevils.

In the last decades the country showed quite a progressive and ambitious attitude. The current president Rafael Correa has since his appointment been busy reforming the country, especially by raising taxes on import. This week, the import taxes rise with almost 40 percent! Especially luxury goods like cars and electronics have therefore become even more expensive than in The Netherlands. The government’s idea behind this is that it on the long term stimulates the national industry and economy. The Ecuadorians accept Correa’s policy reluctantly; either they’re for him or against him. I assume that in Ecuador power is easily questioned.

At the same time, the country is investing in a new society and economy, starting with a huge transformation of the educational system. After closing 14 universities of poor quality in 2012, there are currently four new universities being established. They are divided over the country: the “City of Knowledge” Yachay in the north of Ecuador (which is often referred to as the Ecuadorian Silicon Valley); the institute for teaching of the Cañar University, the University of the Arts in Guayaquil, and the Ikiam University in the Amazon. The plan for these universities is a big project, which also raises major controversy, but I believe that the country will benefit from it in the long-term.

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Busy street in the historical centre of Quito (By Abel Coenen)

Working as an arquitecto paisajista
I assume that working abroad as a landscape architect often is quite an adventure. I got really lucky to find a job as a junior landscape architect at the design office of Del Hierro Urbanism and Architecture, located in Quito. The team is led by Ecuadorian architect Santiago del Hierro, who has a clear interest in landscape architecture and projects that include natural and landscape processes. This small office is located very close to our place in La Floresta, on the edge of a valley and the village Guápulo. The office, which is actually more like a team of freelance architects, also contains another landscape architect named Daniel Saénz. Since there seem to be only seven arquitectos paisajistas working in the whole of Ecuador (including myself!), it feels very special to be able to work here.

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The picturesque village of Guápulo, nearby the office. Its old buildings and hairpin roads remind me of a French or Italian village. (by Abel Coenen)

One of the projects we are working on is the design of the Ikiam campus in the Amazon, which is one of the four new to be developed universities. For me this is obviously a very interesting project to be involved in because the landscape and atmosphere is so different. The design aims for a working and learning environment respecting the fragile ecological system of this place. Buildings will be located on the highest points in the landscape and close to the river to have a spectacular view. New forests are planted by taking species from locations close to the site. Rainwater is collected locally and by the process of phytoremediation (cleaning by using different plant species) it is filtered. These elements make it a very interesting project from a landscape architecture perspective.

My task was to design some of the rooftop gardens for three of the buildings on the campus. Since we are only using local plants, this challenged me to work with local and tropical species, varying from ferns, palmas, grasses, herbs, trepadoras (climbing plants) and lianas – something that my botanical knowledge gained in Wageningen could not help me with. Luckily I find help in an extensive botanical inventory which has already been made for this project.

I have been part of the team for 4 weeks and, until now, working in Santiago’s office has been an extraordinary experience with so many new things to learn. I’m already looking forward to the next projects I can be involved in.

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Field visit to the project site of the Ikiam University – yes, that’s a rain shower coming (by Abel Coenen)

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Within a few years several campus buildings will be built here: a library, laboratories, administrational and residential buildings (by Abel Coenen)

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