Moving Heritage Urbanism Up-Market

Since 2013, Cuenca has been part of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)’s group of Emerging and Sustainable Cities, a technical assistance package that helps local authorities define urban development priorities. In Cuenca, the IDB has also provided loans to the city of Cuenca with the aim of increasing local real estate values in downtown areas near prominent informal vending spaces. Renovations to these areas often sees most informal workers displaced.

The IDB has encouraged the construction of condo buildings, which improve urban density, even though many are now being sold to foreigners. Moreover, the Bank has taken a keen interest in expanding the tourist sector, even as this latter increasingly shifts towards longer-term residential tourism mediated by online platforms like Airbnb, which crowds out long-term rental properties.

Higher real estate values push up prices in a city where almost a third of the work force are dependent on informal employment, and where the average family income of about $700 per month (in 2017) hides even deeper poverty, where people struggle to meet basic needs.

Low-income workers seek informal employment in the absence of any better paying economic opportunities. There is no retirement and no expectation of it either. One informal vendor facing displacement for urban renovation told me she admired American retirees for their leisurely life in “third age.” But she would work until “God tells me I will work no more.”

She and others like her haven’t always lived in El Centro. Often, informal workers are the children or grandchildren of peasants who moved to the city since the land reform of the 1960s, where they were dependent (and often indentured) to the landlord class whose buildings UNESCO now enshrines as World Heritage.

Retirement and Global Social Justice

Harry and Sophie described an active life of socializing in bars, restaurants and cafés with new friends from around the US, Canada and even the world. Their adventure contrasts with those of other migrants, relocating from Latin America.

Though Harry and Sophie had no intention of displacing lower-income workers, their own economic precariousness ripples downward, as it creates a new market for lower-income spaces in Latin America and elsewhere in the Global South. Certainly, they bring funds for renovation of degraded historic buildings. But their degredation was itself the product of historic relations of neglect, marginalization, and exploitation of some people by others, who now benefit from the ability to sell local real estate on to wealthier (and whiter) foreigners.

To the extent that Harry and Sophie see their lives and their aging as the product of individual choices, rather than unequal global social structures, they usually are not well positioned to be useful allies in existing struggles for social justice in the city.

It is hard to see a way out of this. After all, as individuals, how can we change global-scale inequalities? The future of the city is, however, at stake, and Cuenca is a signpost of future injustices if real estate continues to be accumulated so unequally on a global scale.

Perhaps some lifestyle migrants identify too much with what they gain materially from migrating to a lower-cost of living: better housing, a more leisurely life, access to service workers and affordable care. As “economic refugees” rather than political actors for social change, they reproduce the very forces of inequality and exclusion they seek to escape.

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