Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca: Smart and Sustainable

Feb 15, 2023

“A methodology and overall score gratifying to this city planner’s heart!” ~Gil Castle

My very good friend in Cuenca, Gil Castle, has to be mentioned again as our hometown was recently rated the number-one city in Ecuador for being a “Smart and Sustainable City.”

Urban planning is the process of developing and designing areas to meet the needs of a city. When Gil was a city planner in San Francisco, he had experts from a number of disciplines, including architecture, economics, engineering, finance, public health, and sociology charting a course for the future. Cuenca has done the same and has now been recognized for striving to prepare itself smartly for the future.

4.32 Cuenca (Approximate Population: 660,000)

4.24 Riobamba (124,478)

4.18 Ambato (154,369)

3.93 Portoviejo (170,326)

3.82 Quito (2,011,000)

3.74 Manta (183,166)

3.56 El Carmen (98,617)

3.53 Pedro Vicente Maldonado (17,170)

3.01 Ibarra (108,666)

2.95 Guayaquil (3,092,000)

These are the top ten cities in Ecuador based on a scientific methodology that examined 60 municipalities. I added their approximate populations to give you an idea of their size. The populations are guesstimates as the 2020 Ecuadorian census is over two years late due to the Covid pandemic. Hopefully, the data will be released later this year.

Looking at the three largest cities in Ecuador, Cuenca’s score is 13.1 percent better than Quito. Compared to Guayaquil, it is a whopping 46.4 percent better. I mention these two cities, especially Quito, as there are expats in both of those cities. And Quito is especially mentioned as there are expats who claim the capital city is clearly the best place to live in Ecuador.

I am not disputing their feelings as theirs are just as right as mine. Numerous times it has been posted on Facebook groups here, asking what the best neighborhood in Cuenca is. Everyone says it is theirs. And Joanna and I never challenge them as their opinions are just as valid as ours.

But a scientific methodology is the closest you will come to having an unbiased ranking. The rules of science have never been set in stone, but its conventions are neatly summed up in the motto of the Royal Society, the U.K.’s national academy of science: “Do an experiment. Record its outcome faithfully. And objectively make that record available for doubters.”

Cuenca’s recognition as the “Best Smart and Sustainable City” in Ecuador was based on the international model of Smart and Sustainable Cities of the International Telecommunication Union of the United Nations.

You may be asking, what is the difference between smart city and sustainable city? The U.N. organization says smart cities are usually those which are full of innovative information and communication technology around the city services.

Their website says, “A smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.”

At the same time, sustainable cities are those with the main focus on air, water, and sewage pollution control, connectivity, and low road pollution emissions.

Cuenca got 4.32 out of 5 points in an evaluation in four axes. They are Strategy, Infrastructure, Data Services and Applications, and Evaluation. It analyzed performance in three key areas: Economy, Environment and Sociocultural, and Education, Health, Safety, Lodging and Inclusion.

I mention all of this to go beyond those touchy-feely, superficial YouTube videos that are popular with many looking at Ecuador as a place to live. My goal is to present the facts for you to make an educated decision. There is no need to “Ring the Bell” with my blog.

Let’s break down the four axes. The first is “Cuenca Efectiva y Productiva” (“Effective and Productive Cuenca”), which allows citizens to access information and services through TIC (Tecnologías de la Información y Comunicación).

Pablo Pintado, General Director of TIC for Cuenca told the media, “There is 85 percent fiber optic coverage in Cuenca.  There are 600 public Internet points, a deployment of services with a massive approach, applying emerging bot technologies, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and big data.”

The second axis is “Cuenca Amigable con el Medio Ambiente” (“Environmentally Friendly Cuenca”). It included protection of water sources and maintaining the highest quality of water in the country.

Cuenca’s water system is maintained by the municipal utility authority, ETAPA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones, Agua Potable, Alcantarillado). Currently, 96 percent of Cuenca is serviced by the city.

Cuenca’s water has been rated the best in Ecuador for the last seven years. Several international organizations have recognized Cuenca’s water as one of the best in South America.

A big reason for that is the city’s watershed. The water comes out of the protected Cajas mountains. Volcanic soil filters the water, and it comes rushing down towards Cuenca. The water is clean and pure, reminding me of the delicious mountain water in Seattle.

In my last post, I mentioned the more than 100 km. / 67 miles of bike lanes. The bike lanes are part of the second axis. Included in this axis is the Tranvía. Authorities say the French-built city tram reduces the carbon footprint by 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, which has the second highest rate in the world. To put that into perspective, Ecuador is ranked about 66th in the world for total greenhouse gas emissions. The average carbon footprint for an Ecuadorian is around 2.43 tons… just 15 percent of the U.S.

The Tranvía is slowly catching on in popularity. Introduced in 2020, the tram was a new way to get around part of the city. It was the first in the country. Despite only being a crescent shaped route, Cuenca is projecting a growth of 20 percent in the number of users, which is currently 19,400 passengers per weekday.

Recycling is also part of this axis as well as green areas. Cuenca says it has around 70,000 square meters of greenspace. That is just over 750,000 square feet. This includes the botanical garden, which I mention in detail in my previous post.

The third axis is “Cuenca Solidaria” (“Cuenca Solidarity”), which highlights Cuenca as an artisan city. Its reputation as an arts capital goes back numerous years. In 2009, writing for the highly respected German magazine Der Spiegel, travel writer and art critic Otto Kirchner extolled the richness of Cuenca’s arts and crafts: “Whether its ceramics, leather goods, jewelry, tapestry, painting, or sculpture, the quality and variety of the work is exceptional.”

Animal friendly is another part of this axis. This is one big reason Joanna and I love Cuenca. Cuenca’s official tourism account on Twitter wants everyone to know that, too! A year ago, they tweeted, “Pets are part of our family and they take a piece of our love with them! And what better date to share with them a trip to Cuenca to stroll through its parks, restaurants, and pet-friendly hotels. In February, live love in Cuenca.”

We guess that 90 percent of the restaurants in Cuenca allow dogs. At least half of the stores welcome our Miniature Australian Shepherd, Peanut, and fellow canines. The botanical park in our neighborhood welcomes dogs as long as the owners have a poop bag with them and clean up, if necessary.

Maybe why Cuenca is so dog-friendly is because of what Roger Caras said: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

Health services in Cuenca was mentioned in this axis, including the 50 pharmacies in the city. In 2016, there were 4,200 health establishments in Ecuador, with 81 percent operated by the public sector, 14 percent by for-profit organizations, and 4 percent by charitable and nongovernmental organizations. Being a center for medical and healthcare education, Cuenca has a disproportionately high number of health facilities in the country.

Many doctors in Cuenca speak English as a second language. Our excellent family doctor is originally from Belgium, and Dr. Maïté Depreeuw speaks English, Flemish, French, German, and Spanish. Almost everyone’s home country is covered with the languages that she speaks.

In my opinion (and many expats concur), doctors in Cuenca genuinely care about your health. You are not a number. It is why Dr. Maïté has become so popular with expats. We have recommended her to so many people that Dr. Maïté had to recently drop her teaching job at the University of Cuenca.

In the United States, many medical practices are trying to get as many patients into their facility as possible. Their time with you is limited by how much your health insurance will pay them. Seriously! I have a friend in Cuenca who used to deal with insurance providers and doctors. She told me she has seen doctors pulled from an exam room because their time was up.

The last part of this axis is security. It really is an interesting combination of things for this axis that I have no idea why they are lumped together. According to TIC, there are 300 surveillance cameras and 250 community alarms.

CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) systems, also known as video surveillance systems, serve many purposes ranging from crime deterrence to traffic monitoring. Nine years ago, the AFP News Agency wrote, “CCTV camera surveillance is gaining ground in Ecuador. Introduced to fight crime the cameras are now omnipresent.”

A few months ago, Cuenca added a CCTV camera at our neighborhood park. Along with the 360 degrees camera, there is a community alarm station to notify authorities of an emergency.

The fourth axis is “Cuenca con Viplasión de Futuro” (“Cuenca with a Vision of the Future”). It highlights the planning for the city to 2070 with the Land Management Plan and the Land Use and Management Plan.

Not surprising, Cuenca leads the rankings in this evaluation. Riobamba (Chimborazo province) came in second with 4.20 points, followed by Ambato (Tungurahua province) with 4.18 points. The capital city, Quito, was fifth with 3.82 and the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, was a miserable tenth place with 2.95 points.

Also mentioned, but not part of the four axes, was tourism. José Luis Correa, President of the Azuay Hotel Association, told the media, “The visit of tourists has been reactivated, especially on weekends. Cuenca is a safe city, and all this contributes so that people visit us.”

Generally speaking, Cuenca is a very safe city. Expats say this as well as Cuencanos. Common sense is needed wherever you go. Don’t flash or wear anything expensive and do not make it easy for someone to grab your smartphone and run away with it.

To ensure visitors’ safety, there are 31 tourism police in Cuenca. Last year, Maria Rosa Aguirre, the Director of Ministry of Tourism’s Zone 6, told me, “They work in pairs, and we focus on areas where there are lots of tourists. Our primary areas, though not exclusive, are Parque Calderón, Calle Larga, and Paseo 3 de Noviembre.” Bicycles are provided to some officers for mobility, speed, and greater coverage.

Monday through Friday, the tourism officers work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The weekend days are shorter with officers ending the day at 3:00 in the afternoon. It makes sense that Fridays have the highest staffing with 28 tourism police officers on duty.

Recently, a Lima, Perú media outlet’s online article said, “Cuenca, renowned as Cultural Heritage of Humanity for preserving intact the relics of the past among baroque temples covered in gold leaf, narrow and cobbled streets, flowery balconies and ancient squares.” This flowery description of Cuenca is another reason the city has rebounded from the Covid pandemic and is moving forward.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.