Occupy waterfront

Ecuador travelogue: Chapter 29 | Read other chaptersSee photo gallery

A tale of two cities

People gave me a variety of suggestions for the things I could do in Guayaquil, Ecuador, during my one day stopover. A common suggestion involved going to a place called Malecon 2000, and although the guidebook descriptions didn’t sound interesting I decided to give it a go.

It took me 45 minutes to realize that I had the right bus number but I was sitting in one going the wrong direction. So at the terminal point I just sat in the bus waiting, unwilling to lose my strategic front row window seat.

“Señor, are you a tourist? Where are you going?” Said a person sitting next to me unable to understand what a tourist was doing in a neighbourhood where sidewalks were non existent.

“You must go to Malecon, I am going with my family,” he said, proceeding to introduce his wife and overly curious kids. I shared candies with them, it always works.

During this two bus hour journey from point A to point C to point B within Guayaquil, I came across a variety of neighbourhoods: some swanky gentrified areas with cobblestone streets followed by run down poor areas where the drains were overflowing. For a crowded city with such contrasts, urban public spaces, where one could escape the mundane struggles of daily routine, would come as a real blessing. I had started to appreciate why people were talking excitedly about Malecon 2000.

Rediscovering urban spaces

From a brief look at the human civilization it becomes quite evident that water has always been the the key resource that has dictated the settlements of great cities. Social life bloomed around the river banks in the form of markets, recreational areas and trading docks, areas that formed the city’s core blocks. Waterfronts have historically been the staging points for the import and export of goods, location of industrial units, and to an extent, agriculture. Nineteenth century cities evolved around this idea of intense waterfront dock activity and cities relied upon it for economic sustenance. Unfortunately the factors that contributed to the economic progress of cities were also the cause for its environmental degradation, pollution and stagnation. Water is life, they say, and a city’s port-based economic model started choking the very element that had created the city.

The post-industrial information age changed the nature of our business from a manufacturing economy to a service and knowledge based economy. Trade has shifted from a day-to-day transactional activity through merchant ships to a more efficient container-based wail/water/air/road transport and a strong supply-chain logistics system. Industries and commercial activities relying on a river have gradually been relocated to the outskirts of a city, thus freeing up downtown waterfronts.

The consequences of this shift are clear: firstly obsolescence and then the abandonment of downtown industries leading to a dis-comfortable cascading effect on the social composition. These transformations were especially radical in the developed countries but changes started creeping into cities of the developing world in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as well. In this era of post-industrial cities, urban planners are constantly challenged to come up with ideas and strategies to create ‘more city’ within the available space. Cities in the developing world, such as Guayaquil have seen drastic impacts of such changes.

A waterfront for everyone

Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and is located on the banks of the Guayas river that flows into the Pacific ocean. The city is Ecuador’s economic gateway and an industrial hub. Over the years, Guayaquil’s downtown waterfront met the expected fate of abandonment and decay which in turn led to crime and social deprivation. Over a decade ago, Guayaquil’s city planners embarked upon an ambitious project to reclaim and revitalize the downtown waterfront strip and convert it to a public space showcasing the modern appeal of the city.

Born from this endeavour was the swanky Malecon 2000 boardwalk along the Guayas river. A key objective of this project was to achieve high levels of functionality and environmental impact while improving the overall lifestyle of the city’s population. Leaders wanted to build a city that encouraged urban renewal and gentrification. I have summarised my thoughts on the composite effects of this project through a sustainability lens:

  • Environmental:
    Numerous studies across the world show that the building of waterfront parks result in a visible improvement in air quality and water quality. Guayaquil has also seen a similar impact on the regeneration of the Guayas river.
  • Economic:
    Malecon 2000 is the most-visited tourist sight in Guayaquil and its development has spurred tourism in this zone. This landmark has also had a positive desirability effect on adjoining commercial areas and has contributed to the improved the city’s standard of living. It sort-of reminded me of Sim City (the video game) in which plopping a landmark immediately improves the desirability of the area around it.
  • Social:
    When I see a people relaxing, having picnic with their families, kids and pets, and enjoying the open space it makes me happy. How can you not have a good time when there are splash pools, toy trains and river cruises! In noisy urban cities, it is very important to have such places for socialization and recreation and needless to say, Malecon 2000 has provided much needed breathing space for the Guayaquilenos.
    Unfortunately during the construction of this zone the city witnessed numerous social conflicts and the ride was far from being smooth. Massive eviction of unprotected social groups and the displacement of informal sector preceded this imposed gentrification. In addition, Malecon 2000 is owned, operated and heavily policed by a private organization. The the commercial areas cater to a upper middle class clientele and are filled with fast food chains and upscale recreational activities. This means certain social classes are deprived of this space.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day the project transformed the city and earned several international accolades as model of urban regeneration of global standards.

↑ Malecon 2000: Guayaquil’s waterfront promenade

Malecon 2000

As the bus ride brought me to the entrance gates of Malecon 2000, I couldn’t but notice that the world on the other side of those gates was radically different from the chaos and crowds of the Bahia street market at the southern edge of downtown core. I was greeted to a wide walkway that stretched over 2.5km along the coast of river Guayas, filled with cultural, gastronomic, recreational and touristic things to do on the way. No squatters, beggars and such unwanted social groups.

Between taking pictures, having an icecream and sitting in shade watching people, I also contemplated over the meaning of life, wrote postcards to friends and finished writing my journal. Going north, the board walk culminates into Las Peñas, a colourful neighbourhood on the slopes of a hill that is home to 400-year-old houses converted into art galleries and boutiques. (See picture below)

I like the fact that travel and tourism leads to diversification of economic and cultural infrastructure since it is sustained by the variety of offerings required for different groups of tourists, including the exotic and foreign. Unfortunately there are times where this manifests as swanky malls of global brands, fast food chains and theme parks; elements of conformity that, in my opinion, seek to deter a truer experience.