Policy from Local to National: A Conversation with Juan Carlos Soria from the Ministry of Housing in Ecuador

Build Change’s Colombia Country Director Manuela Pinilla Rodriguez sat down with Juan Carlos Soria, Advisor to the Ministry of Housing in Ecuador, in July at the 5th Forum on Habitat and Housing for Latin America, in a conversation that addresses Ecuador’s hazards and risks, as well as how urban policy from local to national is shaping future housing action. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Manuela Pinilla: Hello, good morning. My name is Manuela Pinilla,  and I am the director of Build Change in Colombia.  We are here at the Fifth Housing and Habitat Forum for Latin America and the Caribbean with Juan Carlos Soria, an advisor to the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing of Ecuador. 

Hello, Juan Carlos. 

Juan Carlos Soria: Hello, Manuela; it’s a pleasure to be here with you. 

MP: We’re pleased to have you with us. Firstly, I’d like to ask about the context. Could you share some of the threats from climate change and disasters within which Ecuador’s housing policy operates? What challenges does it face? 

JCS: Indeed, the challenges in Ecuador are numerous and varied in this regard. As you’re aware, and as is shared among countries in the region, geographic conditions define the threats our territory faces. The Andes mountain range, which spans all of America from north to south, delineates three distinct zones in our country: the coast, the highlands where the mountain  range runs, and the east. 

These geographic conditions have led to various natural emergencies in the country. We’ve had to address flooding in the coastal region and seismic events in 2021 and 2022. One occurred in the Esmeraldas province in the north and another in the El Oro province in the south. Both caused damage to the informal sectors of the cities, which is a significant vulnerability during such natural events.

We’re now addressing mitigation and adaptation strategies for potential volcanic threats in the central region, the country’s highlands. The Cotovarsi volcano is currently active, and potential risks from its possible eruption are being evaluated. 

In the south, in Chimborazo province, a landslide event directly affected the city’s urban center, resulting in human casualties. This southern region generally faces threats from mass movement events. Thus, we face complex geographic challenges and are constantly working on solutions. We are also preparing a contingency plan for the potential onset of the El Niño phenomenon, anticipated later this year or possibly next year. Given this array of natural threats, our efforts are ongoing. 

MP: Of course. As you mentioned, these challenges are shared across the region. The climatic and geographic variability exposes us to numerous threats, and addressing them is a significant  challenge for public and private housing initiatives. So, tell me about Ecuador’s new national  urban policy. How has it tackled disaster risk management and the impacts of climate change, especially concerning housing? 

JCS: The national urban policy, as you pointed out, is a tool currently being developed by the ministry. It has been under construction over the last 12 months under Minister Aguilera’s leadership. Its development has involved multiple stakeholders: the private sector, academia, central government, and local government. This comprehensive approach ensures the policy addresses a broad spectrum of issues, including mitigation effects due to climate change. 

Especially in housing, we have segments mainly designed to transform social housing. These housing incentives that the ministry has, can become, not prototypes that can be implemented throughout the country, as they have been doing, but that these multi-family homes are adapted and respond better to the climatic floors that exist, precisely because of the conditions of the country. 

In that regard, we have diversified housing options to ensure their construction considers the multifaceted needs of the country.  For instance, we’re developing housing typologies in the Amazon region through citizen participation and academic collaboration. In this case, we have two specific projects, for example, with the University of Ikiam in the Amazon region to the north of the country, where we are developing a citizen participation project with the Awano community to develop this typology that better adapts to cultural conditions. This is one of the also important ones that we must respond to.

And another project with the SUAE University in  the south of the country is intended to receive options through an architecture competition through an equal participatory process in indigenous communities of the Amazon region. In our country, there has been extensive vernacular construction over the years. 

However, this practice has waned as construction has modernized, and globalization has influenced local building practices. We know these traditional materials have a lower carbon footprint, and some construction typologies, like those using Caña Guadúa, are also seismically resilient. And the mechanisms within the ministry, through the Ecuadorian construction standards, allow for regulating these types of constructions. So the response that we see with these types of alternatives is much more well accepted, first, through the norm, as I tell you, but we have had a bit of resistance from social acceptance instead. 

So you have to always be with this double discourse, let’s say like this, that is, manage the regulations, but also manage the social part to implement this type of typology. 

MP: Indeed, and to conclude, I’d like to ask about existing housing, particularly those built by their inhabitants. These were most affected by the earthquakes in Esmeraldas and elsewhere. What challenges do you face in improving these existing homes to ensure they are adequate  and safe? What opportunities do you see? 

JCS: Well, we have just listened to a fascinating conference in the first panel of authorities, in the presentation of the forum, where, for example, the minister here in Colombia mentioned that we do not have to fight against informality but that we have to do our side because it is also a way of building the cities of our region. And this reality is something we cannot cover up at all. It is also the majority, in general, of our homes. 

Faced with the issue that although they become vulnerable because they are informal and in poor conditions for example, in emergency zones in cities, logically, they have to work on that vulnerability they have. Part of that, I think, the regulations can respond to the implementation of the existing regulations because we have, as I mentioned, the Ecuadorian construction norm, which will have the mechanisms to make these constructions viable at a structural level at the country level.  

But many times, this is not respected precisely because of its economic vulnerability and the lack of access that people have to use the regulations. So this should be worked on, and we are also looking for the mechanisms to implement the regulations correctly. And this is done… 

MP: And affordable for people… 

JCS: Affordable for the people, and the only way to do this is to work with local governments.  

This link between the central government and the local government is vital because, in the end, they are the ones who in the territory lead to the proper use of this regulation, and they have this approach precisely with the people and control these informal neighborhoods that are formed in the city in a better way. And once identified, for example, you were talking about Esmeraldas; we mentioned the previous time that you were there in Quito precisely that we had recently had this phenomenon of this earthquake that happened in the urban area of Esmeraldas where the  primary damage to housing turned out to be informal neighborhoods. 

So this lack of an excellent constructive form, good guidelines, reasonable regulations, and application is evident, above all, in these sectors, so these dedications in the context that we are vulnerable in many ways at a natural level can be. They can result in a better way, a response in a better way so that it does not cause damage at the level, for example, of human losses and this type of thing. 

MP: Well, Juan Carlos, thank you very much for joining us. Thank you. A pleasure to have you here and  congratulations for all the efforts in the construction of this national urban policy and the efforts for more resilient housing in Ecuador. Thank you very much.

This link between the central government and the local government is vital because, in the end, they are the ones who in the territory lead to the proper use of this regulation.

Ecuador’s Ministry of Housing recently announced along with the World Bank a $100M program to advance housing resilience and urban development. Read more about MIDUVI’s activities across the housing and habitat sectors!

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