Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca’s Crown Jewel

Nov 16, 2023

“Research shows really clearly that we need nature in our surroundings. We need trees in our streets, plants in our gardens and flowers on our balcony. We need nature as our neighbor all the time.” ~ Dr Cecil Konijnendijk, Professor of Urban Forestry at the University of British Columbia

Dr Cecil Konijnendijk studies the role of nature and green spaces in cities and how we can use nature to make urban environments healthier and more livable. This is an important field as the earth’s climate is rapidly changing and getting more intense.

Green spaces in cities mitigate the effects of pollution as plants and tree filter what we should not be breathing. Having lots of green in the city can reduce a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect, which is heat trapped in built-up areas.

To me, it appears Cuenca has figured this out. While there are many urban concrete jungles in American cities, Cuenca is doing the opposite as it has embraced having as much green as possible.

A recent example is what the city did on our neighborhood street. We have a beautiful tree-lined street, but Cuenca decided that was not enough. It went around our barrio, adding new plants to make it more pleasing to the eyes and to have it be a healthier environment.

This is what Dr. Konijnendijk is espousing. He told the Natural History Museum in London, “By increasing the diversity of trees on our streets we can create miniature forests. These miniature forests in our cities create ecosystems, bringing a diversity of insect and bird species which, in turn, keep the trees healthy. If we allow ecosystems to flourish, we have to spend less resources on maintaining them.”

The Canadian professor recommends going beyond creating pockets of nature within a city. He recommends giving space to natural processes and linking up our green spaces. “We can create flourishing and wild ecosystems in man-made environments,” Dr. Konijnendijk told the Natural History Museum.

All of this brings us to Jardín Botánico de Cuenca, otherwise known as Cuenca Botanical Garden. Located at the eastern edge of the barrio, La Isla, it currently sits on 5.6 hectares / 13.8 acres. Opened in February 2021, the park is bordered by the rivers, El Río Yanuncay and El Río Tarqui, on three sides.

On the western side is Paseo Río Jadán and homes. A small canal for ducks and other waterfowl separates the street and neighborhood from the botanical garden. The water is fed from the rivers, helping the water remain fresh.

It all began in August 2018, under the leadership of Mayor Marcelo Cabrera. The city signed the contract for constructing this gorgeous and magnificent park. Cuenca invested $3.2 million for this botanical park that is dedicated to “environmental knowledge, so the project will help the population increase their responsibility towards the environment, in the area of responsible management of natural resources such as water and soil.”

Though Joanna and I feel the botanical park will become a crown jewel of Cuenca, many expats do not seem to know about it. An American expat who has lived in Cuenca for several years recently told me, “I’m amazed at how few people know about the place.”

Maybe the reason is that the beautiful park is not in Gringolandia or El Centro. Those two areas are home to many expats. Gringolandia is about five kilometers / three miles from Cuenca Botanical Garden. El Centro is a good 30 minutes’ walk from this green space in La Isla.

The botanical garden receives between 1,000 and 1,500 visitors per week. Visitors go through an induction process for each ecosystem that the garden has.

In 2022, there were 189 species with more than 8,000 plants planted. Those numbers have definitely increased as a beautiful water area with new plants was added since those figures were released.

There are plants from Azuay, Cañar, Chimborazo, Guayas, El Oro, and Morona Santiago provinces. Visitors have the opportunity of seeing plants of the forests, moors, and wetlands. It will be a living educational campus for students and teachers of Universidad del Azuay.

A local environmental engineer told the media that the botanical garden is important for the conservation of plants and amphibian species. With the afforestation (the establishment of a forest or stand of trees in an area where there was no previous tree cover), the return of native birds and endemic fauna is expected. This will enrich the research by the university students.

Last year, José Luis Espinoza, a researcher at Viveros Del Austro (a plant nursery in nearby Paute), donated 50 plant species from five continents. Alders, elms, erythrinas, hornbeam, maples, magnolia, maples, and willows were part of the exotic species donated.

The donated vegetation has been planted on the southern edge of the botanical garden that faces Av. 24 de Mayo and the University of Azuay so that over time it forms a green belt that insulates noise and at the same time constitutes a natural background that provides more color and contrast for the beautification of the city.

There are curving pedestrian bridges that cross both El Río Yanuncay and El Río Tarqui. One goes over El Río Tarqui to the southern portion of the botanical park. The more important pedestrian bridge connects La Isla with Av. 27 de Febrero, on the north side of El Río Yanuncay.

“We want to make Cuenca a walkable city. So, we built the pedestrian bridge over the Yanuncay,” Caridad Amoroso told me. She is one of the city’s architects who designed the botanical park.

“It would not take long to go through the three hectares (7.4 acres) of the park if the walkways were a straight line,” Patricio Alvarez told me. He is another one of the botanical park’s architects. “The walkways total 1.3 kilometers (4,300 feet), but it does not feel that long with all of the curves.”

The goal of the architects was to make it a pleasing place for visitors to spend a lot of time. Javier Gonzalez, Coordinator and one of the architects of the botanical park’s development told me, “We decided to create a snake-like pattern walkway for people to see more and enjoy more.”

A team of seven workers is in charge of maintaining the place, cleaning, security, compost management, and horticultural planting on the farm.

Our neighborhood park was featured in the 175th edition of an Ecuadorian architecture magazine. According to the trade magazine, Trama, Jardín Botánico de Cuenca won the First National Prize, in the equipment category at the XXIII Panamerican Biennial of Quito Architecture (BAQ).

BAQ is one of the most important architectural events on the continent, “providing a space for the periodic exchange, integration, comparison, and analysis of current architectural and urban products and trends, as well as the transfer of criteria and knowledge of avant-garde architectural and urban concepts and works.”

Trama said, “Jardín Botánico de Cuenca is born out of the need to have a space dedicated to knowledge, conservation and research of plant biodiversity of the southern Ecuadorian, allowing the community to be fully formed and generate citizen awareness about the environmental richness of the Azuay and the threats it faces, considering the high biological and cultural diversity of the province through recreation of ecosystems of the region.”

Cuenca is not satisfied with the amount of green space it has nor the size of the botanical park. That is why Cuenca’s botanical garden is on pace to triple in size.

“Cuenca currently has 4.5 square meters (48.4 square feet) per resident. “The goal is seven to nine square meters (75 to 97 square feet) per person,” Gonzalez told me. “We have the advantage of four rivers to make public green spaces, so we have more than other cities in Ecuador and Latin America.”

The addition to the botanical park is two pronged: The longer northern portion in La Isla would follow El Río Yanuncay from the existing park all the way to Tres Puentes (Three Bridges), at Av. Fray Vicente Solano. Their goal is to spotlight the middle and original bridge that was built in 1904.

This new portion of the botanical park would connect with Parque Lineal Yanuncay. That park was informally voted online by expats in 2020 as the best walk outside of El Centro (And Joanna and I concur).

And to complete the greenspace on the north side of El Río Yanuncay, Bomberos station #3 on Ave. 27 de Febrero will be purchased and converted into parkland. Right now, one has to walk along the street because of the fire station to get to the botanical park entrance.

The shorter southern portion would start at the existing park and follow El Río Tarqui to Av. 24 de Mayo. Basically, Phase 2 of the botanical park would wrap itself around La Isla.

The architects are thinking of building a bridge over El Río Tarqui in Phase 2 as well as another one over El Río Yanuncay that will be between the current pedestrian bridge at the botanical park and the three bridges at Tres Puentes.

Phase 2 of the botanical park will be more about public spaces. “This project is more than botanical,” said Alvarez. “It is urban, which is an important part of the park.”

They plan on doing that by having lots of plants that are native to southern Azuay province. “There will be walkways and areas to exercise,” Gonzalez told me. “Like Parque Lineal Yanuncay, there will be dedicated areas for working out and for outdoor activities such as basketball and ecuavóley.”

All three architects said growing plants will face more challenges in Phase 2 and Phase 3, which will be 8.4 hectares / 20.8 acres east of where El Río Yanuncay and El Río Tarqui merge. The third phase has no planning date as the city is concentrating on finding the money to do the second phase.

Most expats think it will be a decade before Phase 2 is completed. None of the architects would tell me when they thought Phase 2 would be completed. Besides money, private property needs to be purchased.

But all three architects think the botanical park could become the crown jewel of Cuenca. That’s quite the statement when La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (“New Cathedral”) is the iconic symbol of the city.

The botanical park is not only a daytime experience, but one to enjoy at certain times of the year. For the long holiday weekend in August, the botanical park was lit from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for a family and fun experience.

There was a ferira (“fair”) near the entrance. Our good friend, Marcela, was selling some of her excellent pickled products. Marcela, Joanna, and I are hoping this ferira becomes a monthly event. It is a lot like the one held at Sabatino’s Garden Restaurante, but on a smaller scale right now.

Jardín Botánico de Cuenca provided a toasty fire for the cool evenings. Many took advantage of it as they walked through the park.

There was a nighttime guided tour of the botanical park. It was conducted in Spanish, but we picked up some words here and there to get an idea of what our tour guide was saying.

Joanna and I enjoyed the lights reflecting off of the water as we made our way around our neighborhood park. It really accentuated the curving pedestrian bridge.

And if you look back at our barrio, La Isla, you will have a nice perspective as our neighborhood reflected off of the water. Note that the parking spots are filled. The nighttime event was very popular with the Cuencanos.

As I said, there are expats who are ignorant of this fantastic outdoor space. Hopefully, they will see this blog post and venture to the south side of the city.

I have been to Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, and to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England (known as the largest botanical garden in the world). In time, I truly think Jardín Botánico de Cuenca will rival those gardens.

Gonzalez concurs. He told me, “It’s like bringing in the mountains and forest and putting it all into one place in the city.”

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 amigo.

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.