The Plaza: A Place of Encounter

Plaza de San Francisco, Quito

This project received an IMCL International Urban Revitalization Award award, click here to learn more.

Ecuador is launching a visionary project to revitalize social life and economic vitality by restoring 35 historic plazas. At a recent three-day workshop in Ibarra, over 100 representatives from municipalities throughout Ecuador gathered to hear from Ecuadorian and international experts about the history and significance of the plaza, the social, cultural and economic functions it serves, physical aspects of successful plazas, and how artistic interventions through community participation can catalyze social networks and community identity.

This initiative was launched by the Ministry of Patrimony, and coordinated with the Municipalities of Quito and Ibarra, and the Organization of Ibero-American States. The seminar program identified the challenge: “The Plaza, in the majority of Latin-American cities, was the point from which the city, public life, commerce, symbolic space and the seat of power developed.

Today, the functionality of this emblematic public space is being negatively affected by environmental and social factors, by problems of accessibility, and by urban development pressures, causing great deterioration of the urban image, as well as civic activity.

The potential for social integration in the city depends on possibilities for social encounter and exchange among people. In this sense, the use of public space, and particularly the plaza, is an effective instrument for social cohesion.

Concurrently, the reinforcement of the central historic city by means of the consolidation of its most representative sites, should be supportive of the recovery of public space, the element that historically has functioned as a container of the collective memory, of social activity, and of local identity.

Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living (El Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir) is developing directions for participation and the creation of public space by consolidating the active consciousness of citizenry and national sovereignty.

In this effort, the seminar “The Plaza: A Place of Encounter” offers a place for dialogue and learning for the Autonomous Decentralized Governments, principally pertaining to the Network of Patrimonial Cities of Ecuador, focusing on planning and management of public space in historic areas.”


The plaza in Ecuadorian cities is disappearing, argued Fernando Carrion, Investigator in FLASCO in Ecuador and renowned urban historian. The plaza is the place where we encounter the other, those different from ourselves. It is, therefore, a place where different values and opinions are expressed. He argued that public spaces are being destroyed by the enactment of laws designed to minimize conflict, for example, current laws preventing the poorest citizens from selling produce on the plazas. It is the role of the central plaza to reactivate the historic centers to regional status.

The historic plaza, Carrion argued, is therefore all the more important as a democratic place for social life, and as a symbolic place that represents the whole society. The plaza organizes the city. It is a place of encounter, the living room of the city, where debate and civic thought develop.

Plaza de la Independencia, QuitoEcuador’s cities are now growing rapidly at the periphery. New settlements are not built on a grid plan around a central square, as were the historic cities, but are unplanned, sprawling growth. Public space has become a space for traffic flow, not a place for citizens to spend time and to encounter one another. We must once again create new plazas that fulfill these social and symbolic functions for the new neighborhoods, Carrion emphasized. This will require essential changes in the legislation.

We must consider the public realm as the community’s living room, into which we enter when we exit the private realm of house or business. By strengthening the public realm – the plaza – we can rebuild the city itself. And this we must do, Professor Carrion emphasized, if we want to emerge from the current urban crisis.

Joe Scarpaci talks to the shoeshine boys in Plaza de la Independencia, QuitoJoseph Scarpaci, Professor of Marketing at Virginia Tech University, who has spent years studying urban restoration in Havana, Cartagena, and Cuenca, agreed with Carrion’s analysis. In discussing “The Plaza, Tourism and Globalization”, he explained how building restoration in Cartagena had been assisted with funding through VISA. In many historic plazas throughout Central and South America the only frequent users are young shoeshine boys and elderly men.

Young people shun the plaza and hang out at the shopping mall. Mechanisms need to be developed to encourage the young to frequent the plaza. In Cartagena this was achieved by the introduction of a cyber café and art galleries on the main plaza. In Cuenca, Professor Scarpaci organized focus groups to understand how young people viewed changes in their neighborhood.

Alfonso Ortiz on Plaza de la IndependenciaAlfonso Ortiz, renowned Ecuadorian architect specializing in the restoration of architectural monuments, spoke about Ecuador’s heritage of Spanish plazas that provide settings for social life and display of the social power structure. He demonstrated how the plazas are constantly evolving, reflecting in their surrounding architectural structures, landscape design, and regulations the dominant values and attitudes of the ruling classes towards the poor and disadvantaged.

Architectural monuments around the plaza symbolize the comparative power of the church and government. The Governmental Palace on Plaza de la Independencia contains small shops and businesses at ground level facing the plaza (similar to the traditional European town hall). At one period, Plaza de la Independencia was surrounded by a high, wrought iron fence and there was a strict dress code, prohibiting those in traditional Indian costume or without shoes from entering. Certain buildings, such as the church of San Francisco on Plaza de San Francisco in Quito is thought to be founded on Inca temple ruins and aligned with the equinox.

Church of San Francisco on Plaza de San Francisco, QuitoEcuador’s plazas thus carry multiple levels of meaning, reflecting their complex, multi-cultural history and changing social values. Some of these meanings are yet to be revealed. In revitalizing Ecuador’s historic plazas, therefore, it is very important to understand and respect the plaza’s many layers of historical significance/

Suzanne Crowhurst Lennard spoke about the social and economic functions of the European square, and how the physical aspects of the square create a hospitable and meaningful setting. The 7 social and economic functions of a successful plaza included: 1) The plaza’s main function is to support social life in public, the development of community, civic engagement and social capital; 2) Ensure a substantial residential population lives within easy walking distance and overlooking the plaza; 3) A weekly farmers’ market is the most powerful mechanism for generating social life and economic activity; 4) The vitality of a plaza is heavily dependent on a surrounding rich mix of shops providing the necessities of everyday life; 5) Outdoor cafes enhance a plaza’s attraction and encourage people to linger; 6) Street musicians and entertainers create “triangulation” and enhance the public realm; 7) Community festivals in the plaza involve citizens, create common identity, and affirm social connections.

Dr. Lennard identified three essential physical elements of a successful plaza: 1) a transportation policy that frees the plaza from traffic, calms traffic in adjacent streets, ensures easy access by public transportation; and enhances the experience for pedestrians; 2) A hospitable setting that includes appropriate formal and informal seating for young and old; focal points such as fountains that draw people together, and “anchors” such as bollards that provide a place to pause; public art that reflects the city’s history and traditions and supports children’s play; and shade and shelter from the elements through arcades and awnings; and 3) Surroundings buildings that enhance the “spirit of place” through their civic and religious functions; the composition of buildings around the plaza; visual enclosure, threshold experience, arcades, mix of building uses, especially the shop/house, a fine-textured urban fabric, and architectural characteristics that reflect the city’s identity.

Other speakers included Diego Jaramillo, former Dean of the School of Visual Arts at the University of Cuenca and Director of Historical Areas and Heritage for the City of Cuenca; Margarita Romo, Director of the Metropolitan Institute of Patrimony for the City of Quito; Julio Portieles, Coordinator of the United Nations’ Program Articulation of Territorial Networks for Development in Ecuador; and Valeria Andrade, internationally known performer and ballerina.

Cities identify their priorities

Following 2 ½ days of presentations and discussions, 15-20 representatives from each of four cities, Cuenca, Ibarra, Zaruma and Vinces held workshops to discuss the most important goals and strategies needed to guide revitalization of their city’s historic plazas. Through intense debate, each city outlined its priorities and strategies.

Representatives from Cuenca, a beautiful historic city with a wealth of restored historic buildings and plazas, identified aesthetic, functional and symbolic functions of the plaza that included such items as: Preserve the architectural character; Emphasize the pedestrian; Always think of the people who use the plaza; Regulate the selection of materials; Ensure adequate street furniture; Consider the history of the space before making interventions; etc.

Ibarra representatives outlined criteria to achieve successful management of the public space, which included: Empower people to “own” the plaza; Ensure people live around the plaza so that the plaza can work as a living space; Make the patrimony tangible; Create a multi-functional space that combines tradition and modernity; Consider the historical center as a friendly and secure living space.

Zaruma delegates asked what relationship should exist between the plaza, the historic center and the larger region. Their answers included: The plaza is the heart of the city and the region; Plazas are a reflection of society; The plaza must have a diversity of actors and uses, and support intercultural interaction; It should provide real necessities of life; It should be a plaza, not a park.

The City of Vinces identified their central principles as: Promotion of citizen participation; Citizen ownership of the design; and Application of building and use regulations.

The three-day seminar took place April 26-29, 2011, forming the first of a series of seminars that will take place around the country in coming months. Participants will return to their city to engage citizen participation in developing goals for the revitalization of their city’s plaza. They will then report to the Ministry and apply for grants (to a maximum of $600,000) to carry out the work.

This is a program for which there is no precedent. We at IMCL, believe strongly in the wisdom of the agenda, and wish Ecuador great success in the social and economic revitalization of their cities through the restoration of their historic plazas and creation of new multi-functional plazas.

For more information, contact Jacobo Herdoiza, Architect, Coordinator of the Project for Ecuador’s Patrimonial Cities in the Ministry of Patrimonial Coordination.