Becoming Cuenca

World Class City

Feb 1, 2023

For over a decade, Cuenca has had a worldwide image that is very positive. Various agencies try to capitalize on it, including Fundación Municipal Turismo para Cuenca. Last month they tweeted a photo of a bride with the message, “We are back, and we do it in style because Cuenca deserves to stand out as the most complete Wedding Destination city in Ecuador and at the level of any destination city in the world.”

I especially enjoyed your article in CHL today because, with my Masters in City Planning, I’m a big fan of the world class efforts I see in Cuenca to promote parks, bike lanes, etc. ~Gil Castle

Gilbert Castle holds a Master’s degree in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Harvard University. He was President of San Francisco Beautiful, a non-profit organization that has been promoting civic beauty since its founding in 1947 to save the cable cars.

My good friend spent most of his career working with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This computerized mapping is applied worldwide for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Most data have a geographic component, so GIS is used for such things as urban planning, real estate development, and natural resource management.

A city planner develops short-term and long-term land use plans and programs for a municipality. As a city planner, their primary focus is determining the optimal use of land and resources to maintain a quality community, accommodate population growth, and revitalize outdated or inefficient physical facilities. They consider the needs of housing and transportation programs and must also factor in natural resource sustainability.

I say all of this to show that Gil is an expert. He and his wife moved to Cuenca over a decade ago to have a better quality of life. Both of them did their research and found that Cuenca has some world class efforts to make it a great place to live.

The article Gil mentioned in CHL (CuencaHighLife) is one I wrote last month about Cuenca’s plans to expand the botanical park that is in my barrio. Located on the eastern tip of La Isla, it currently sits on 5.6 hectares / 13.8 acres. The park is bordered on three sides by two of the four rivers in Cuenca: The Yanuncay River and the Tarqui River.

Cuenca currently has 4.5 square meters / 48.4 square feet per resident. The city’s goal is seven to nine square meters or about 75 to 97 square feet per person. With Phase 2 of the botanical park and the addition of 11 hectares / 27 acres to the existing park, Cuenca is a lot closer to reaching its goal.

The city architects planning this told me the addition to the botanical park is two pronged: The longer northern portion would follow the Yanuncay River from the existing park all the way to Tres Puentes (“Three Bridges”). Their goal is to spotlight the middle and original bridge that was built 119 years ago.

This new portion of the botanical park would connect with Parque Lineal Yanuncay. That park was informally voted online by expats as the best walk outside of El Centro. Once completed, one can walk about four kilometers / 2.5 miles in parkland that follows the Yanuncay River. The park officially ends on the west side at Av. de las Américas, but one can walk along the Yanuncay River for another mile. Now, that’s a great hike!

Everyone that Joanna and I have taken to the botanical garden in the last two years has remarked how aesthetically pleasing the walkways are and that the pedestrian bridges are a great touch.

That is music to the ears of the city architects as it was their goal to make it an enjoyable and rewarding place for visitors to spend a lot of time. Instead of a lot of unnatural right angles and straightaways, they created a snake-like pattern walkway for people to see more and enjoy more.

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

Joanna and I are thrilled that two pedestrian bridges were part of Phase 1. One goes over the Tarqui River 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 the Yanuncay River.

Prior to the botanical park and bridges being open to the public, we had to go around our elbows to get to many destinations on foot. The pedestrian bridge cuts off a good 10 minutes for many of our destinations.

In that interview, the architects told me they want to make Cuenca a walkable city so the pedestrian bridge over the Yanuncay was built. Because of its popularity, they are thinking of building one over the Tarqui River in Phase 2 to connect La Isla with Av. 24 de Mayo.

Two more would probably go over the Yanuncay River that will be between the current pedestrian bridge and Tres Puentes. It will take two bridges to connect La Isla with Av. 27 de Febrero due to an island between our barrio and the street on the northern side of the Yanuncay River.

Nobody knows exactly how many bikes exist in the world, but it is estimated that there are somewhere around 1 billion. It’s a huge number as there are around 1.5 billion cars in the world.

There are 364,000 bicycles produced daily in the world. That’s 15,000 per hour! That many need to be produced as about 48,000 bikes are sold daily. Yes, every two seconds of the day, someone in the world will buy a bike.

Bicycles in Cuenca are very popular. A Dutch couple, Zoë Agasi and Olivier Van Herck, said in their blog, “In Ecuador, Cuenca is a cycling city.” They have traveled a good amount of South America on their bikes, and they singled out Cuenca as one of the best places to bike on the continent.

It is only getting better as the city recently added kilometers of bike lanes to Ave. 27 de Febrero and Ave. 1 de Mayo. La Empresa Pública Municipal de Movilidad, Tránsito y Transporte, the governmental transportation division of Cuenca, initiated a variety of bike promoting programs including a bike share to encourage cycling within the city’s historic center.

One of Cuenca’s transportation priorities is adding more bike lanes throughout the city. The pandemic had Cuenca rethinking how to address its transportation needs and priorities. On top of that, more Cuencanos are now able to buy cars, which can quickly fill up the city streets, especially in El Centro.

Two years ago, we filled out an online survey that Cuenca asked its citizens what we wanted. Apparently, bike lanes had a huge response. Cuenca is hoping that more bike lanes cut down on the pollution and congestion on the roads. What a progressive mentality!

The director of Mobility of the Municipality of Cuenca said at the time that when the health emergency was declared by the Ecuadorian government and vehicular traffic was restricted, bicycle use quadrupled. That huge increase in the number of bikes made it necessary for Cuenca to think about providing alternative modes of transportation.

A year later, construction of the largest bicycle lane network in Cuenca began. The city obtained a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank for $8 million to construct 13.5 km / 8 miles of bike paths. A good portion was going for two major streets that followed the Yanuncay River. It is all part of “promoting active mobility in the city.” The city’s goal is that this addition will mean Cuenca will have about 125 kilometers / 77 miles of bike lanes.

In some regions of Latin America (anywhere south of the U.S.), there is skepticism regarding bike transportation. Biking is sometimes viewed as a symbol of poverty, but that does not appear to be the case in this progressive city.

According to a 2018 study, university students make up almost a third of all cyclists in Cuenca. Maybe that is why on the west side of Universidad de Cuenca, Bici Polos at Avenida Loja y Remigio Tamariz Crespo has a huge selection of bicycles.

When Joanna Clover Vargha and I went past this bike shop, a colorful parade of bikes was lined up in front of it. The popularity of bicycles in Cuenca quickly became evident to Joanna and me. There are always many cyclists out enjoying another beautiful day in this city. Why not? The cool, crisp mountain air makes it so enjoyable to be out on the streets and along the greenways.

Bike lanes can look different in places, especially along Ave. Remigio Crespo Toral. Bicyclists are very safe along this major east-west thoroughfare as they share the side of the road with pedestrians. If you look carefully at the photo above, you will see that the tile used for the bike lane is a different color than what we are walking on. People know what the different colors mean so there are never any bicycle-pedestrian collisions. Having these different color tiles makes it interesting and more colorful to walk and ride in this city that is pushing for alternative forms of transportation.

Now remember: If you make it to three degrees south, this bike city has bicycles to rent all over town. Just go to one of the Bici Pública Cuenca bike stations to rent a two-wheeler to explore this great city from a different perspective.

The public bicycle loan program premiered in 2019 with 240 bicycles in 16 locations throughout the city. Like taxis, there is an app for renting bicycles.

The initial bike rental rates were 25 cents for 30 minutes, 50 cents for an hour and 50 cents for each additional hour. Tourists were using the system for a daily fee of ten dollars. Parked in racks throughout the city, the 3-speed rental bikes have a front basket for cargo. On each bicycle is a tamper-proof GPS tracking system to be used if you need assistance. This is becoming more common in the world, and Cuenca is keeping up with the times.

Both Gil and I think that the size (population) of Cuenca contributes to it being world class. The other day, Gil said to me, “One of the giants of city planning and architecture in the 20th Century was Lewis Mumford. I had the privilege of interviewing him at Harvard because he happened to be there when I was on some sort of master class fellowship. I asked him about the perfect sized city. He used a beehive analogy (too many bees, time to fly off and create another hive), opining that 400,000 people may be optimal. A key determinant is being able to walk pretty much everywhere.”

In Mumford’s book, “What is a City?”, he defines cities with an analogy to the arts: “The city is above all else a theater of social action.” Mumford said planners need to recognize the social nucleus of cities as the inter-relationship of schools, theaters, community centers, etc.

Mumford suggested limitations on population, density, and urban growth to promote efficiency. My estimate is that Cuenca is about 660,000 people. As you can see in the GIS map above, Cuenca has a rather dense population, making it easier to be a walkable city.

Walking may be one of the most favorite activities in Cuenca. Why not? Every street seems to have a sidewalk on at least one side. Most streets have sidewalks on both sides. Add the numerous miles of greenways, and one is in heaven. Every street in El Centro has sidewalks on both sides, and they are always full of people during the daylight hours.

Joanna and I have a big warning concerning walking on the sidewalks of Cuenca. To say the least, sidewalks are uneven. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards are not to be found in Cuenca. On top of that, open manholes and big drops are possible at any time. Many expats have injured themselves by walking on these sidewalks by not paying attention. If you are not watching where you are going, you will be the next medical statistic.

This is not to say it is dangerous to walk in Cuenca. Most pitfalls can be avoided by using my wife’s and my rule: Stop; Look.

With so many wonderful things to see in Cuenca, it is easy to focus on what you are enjoying and not paying attention to where you are going. This is when most accidents occur for expats. Our rule is basically foolproof.

When we see something of interest, we stop. We do not take another step forward to look at what interests us at that moment. By standing still, we do not trip over something unexpected, nor do we fall because of a drop in the sidewalk.

Hopefully, this post gives you a good idea of why Cuenca is truly a world class city. I have tried to present it without rose tinted glasses and without bias (though I do have a great love for this 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 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.