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CH Inefficient, but Smart

Quita, Ecuador. Image via  Unsplash.

About a decade ago, I had the opportunity to live in Quito, Ecuador for a little under a year. I think every North American who wants to build more productive places can benefit from experiencing a city of the Global South as a resident, not just a tourist. While there’s an enormous amount of variation among these places in urban form, architecture, and culture, there are some important commonalities too. One big one is that the infrastructure of day-to-day life and commerce exhibits a lot less of the formal order and standardization we’re used to encountering in the United States. Things are just messier.

I was led to believe, before living in Ecuador, that Things Just Don’t Work as Well There As They Do Here. I left Ecuador, on the other hand, feeling like there are some lessons the United States would do well to consider. Order and efficiency aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Let me explain via a story about the day I furnished my apartment in Quito, in comparison to the same process in the States.

Furnishing an Apartment: Ecuador Version 

My housemate and I had rented the upstairs apartment in a stunning old colonial duplex with hardwood floors and ample natural light that would not have been out of place in California, except of course for the price tag. The elderly landlady lived alone downstairs with her three dogs. The place came totally unfurnished, so we set out on a Saturday to get what we needed to call it home for the coming year.

This meant, first, hopping on a bus. Quito has a BRT (bus rapid transit) system (and now a subway under construction), but its three BRT lines are extremely crowded and run along the city’s north-south axis, leaving east-west trips more difficult.

Image via Flickr user  Malcolm K.

Fortunately there was an enormous amount of informal public transit to be had: big blue buses run by private operators would ply every major avenue, with a bevy of signs—up to a dozen—in the front windshield listing major destinations: neighborhoods, universities, other landmarks. No route map, no advance schedule—but with a little basic geographic knowledge of the city, I found you could reliably hop a bus from anywhere to anywhere for 25 or 50 cents with no more than a 5-minute wait time at the stop. 

Scarcely any U.S. city can compete with Quito—a place I was told would be poor and dysfunctional—in the ease of getting around on public transit. The network of these informal bus lines has not been coordinated from above: it took me an hour of Googling to understand that there was no master schedule and system map in one place. The system is chaotic but smart: if there is demand for a trip (in the form of overcrowding on buses between points A and B), someone is going to figure it out and capitalize on it. What this system lacks in legibility—I do enjoy poring over transit route maps online and planning out my trip before I leave home—it gains in rapid, iterative adaptability.

We went to a part of town comprised of a few blocks heavily populated with furniture stores. Each individual store was quite small and had a limited, idiosyncratic selection. But with a half dozen of them in close proximity, it was easy to wander and comparison shop. Within an hour or so, we had a dining room set we loved, a couple lamps and a couch. A used stove and refrigerator we procured from individual vendors at a vast open-air market where you could buy practically anything. In both cases we insisted they plug the unit in for us and then we came back in an hour to verify that it worked. Haggle over the price, put down a deposit, and it was time to look for transport. 

The furniture market on the right, and trucks for hire on the left. Image via Google Street View.

The furniture market on the right, and trucks for hire on the left. Image via Google Street View.

Transport consisted of two guys with an unmarked truck. A whole street outside the mercado seemed unofficially devoted to these trucks: just find someone parked and waiting, let them know what they’d be hauling, and pay a little extra if you wanted them to help you get it up the stairs and into the apartment (we did). In a few hours, several hundred dollars poorer, and having experienced an anxiety-inducing ride in the bed of a pickup truck next to a refrigerator secured with ropes, we were home and near-fully furnished.

We loved the furniture, though the oven soon broke and required tracking down a maintenance man through word of mouth who could get the right replacement parts. Meanwhile, I learned to cook a lot of unlikely things on the stovetop! It was a nice gas stove fueled by a large free-standing tank of propane (which you could get delivered by a truck that made the neighborhood rounds a couple mornings each week).

Furnishing an Apartment: United States Version

The whole experience stands in contrast to my experiences furnishing homes in the United States. Here, the process always involves a drive to a big-box store (few of these are convenient via transit, especially if you need to make multiple stops), a credit check, some paperwork to commit to a multi-month payment plan, a scheduled delivery a week or two out, and often some hassle with the delivery company requiring a phone call in which I sit on hold.

For that trouble I get a much greater degree of protection against things going wrong. When a dishwasher arrived at my house last year with a large dent already in the side, I was not out any money; they took it away, apologized, refunded me the delivery charge, and allowed me to reschedule for a replacement unit a week later. A few years ago, we bought a couch that, it turned out upon delivery, was impossible to maneuver through a tricky doorway in our backyard ADU (unusually narrow at 29 inches, but also a tight 90° turn). No problem: returned the couch and went to pick out another one. 

You’d think a greater range of choices would be a perk of the U.S. system, but it wasn’t for us: the selection at the big boxes was repetitive and heavily influenced by current market trends. There was not a single couch in all of Rooms To Go small enough to make the turn and get through the door into our living room. When I made this observation to the salesperson, she mockingly told me I should consider a bigger house. (True story!) We left and bought a couch from a different big-box store down the road. It was delivered on schedule two weeks later.

Quito, Ecuador. Image via  Ricardo Velasquez .

The Hidden Costs of Efficiency

It’s clear to me that the way the middle classes do things in the U.S.—the Home Depot / IKEA / Rooms to Go model—has its advantages, especially in reduced risk for the buyer of being scammed and left without recourse. But worth contemplating are the hidden costs of the quality and reliability that these stores promise.

The biggest such cost is the much higher bar of entry for producer, retailer, and consumer alike. You don’t find many small proprietors selling furniture and appliances in the U.S.; it works in cities like Quito because of the physical model of an open-air marketplace with many small retail spaces in close walking proximity to one another. (There are of course now online options for small vendors—Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc.—but that model has its own substantial downsides for something you really want to be able to touch and test out before purchase.) The big-box stranglehold on the market shuts out smaller and artisanal producers, as well. And for the shopper, the price of being a happy consumer without hours of extra hassle, annoying transportation logistics, and uncertainty is often debt, in the form of the car payment and the credit card.

There was something really, really liberating about the experience of furnishing a home in Quito, as two foreigners with questionable-to-good Spanish, no local bank accounts or locally-accepted credit cards, and fairly unfamiliar with the city. The amount that we were able to get done in a single afternoon was astonishing. The range of options was actually quite good. Getting around was a breeze. 

The U.S. system—the big box store with the vertically integrated supply chain, the warehouse and shipping network, the proprietary credit line—is efficient for one particular group of people: owners of capital. That is to say, executives and shareholders. This model of retail about as effective as could be at extracting profit off the top, by squeezing every bit of redundancy out of each part of the supply chain. 

And the U.S. development pattern, too, plays into that particular model of “efficiency” from the CEO’s (or city manager’s) vantage point. Separated land uses; giant shopping plazas with giant parking lots; stroads built for 18-wheelers; and transit-only on designated corridors: all of these things favor the big box model of commerce. 

For everyone else, I think there’s a strong argument that we’ve swung too far in the direction of top-down order and efficiency, and that a swing back toward a messy city and a messy marketplace full of small proprietors—what I’ve heard called “capitalism with more capitalists”—would yield surprising benefits. I just had to go to South America to see a few of them.

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Daniel Herriges (Twitter: @DanielStrTowns) serves as Senior Editor for Strong Towns, and has been a regular contributor since 2015. He is also a founding member of the organization. Daniel has a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota. His obsession with maps began before he could read. His budding environmentalism can be traced back to age 4, when he yelled at his parents for stepping on weeds growing in sidewalk cracks. His love of great urban design and human-scaled, livable places has also been lifelong. Daniel has a B.A. from Stanford University in Human Biology with a concentration in Conservation and Sustainable Development. After college, he worked as an environmental activist for several years, in support of indigenous people’s rights and conservation in the Amazon rainforest. He can often be found hiking or cycling. Daniel is from St. Paul, Minnesota, and now lives in Sarasota, Florida.

Interested in writing for Strong Towns, or got a story you’d like Strong Towns to cover? Please email Daniel.

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