Dispersion as a long-term persistence in the southern highlands of Ecuador


  • Monica Rivera KU Leuven




The study departs from the hypothesis that dispersion is a long-term structure in southern highlands of Ecuador , and not simply the result of stereotypical sub-urbanization as frequently problematized. The concept of structure as “a reality which survives through long periods of time and is only slowly eroded” (Braudel, 1970, p151) is key to understand how since colonial era, a very centralized and hierarchical sociopolitical system transformed but didn’t erased long-standing logics of dispersed territorial occupation in this part of the Andes.
The study develops Cuenca and its surrounding territory as case study. Cuenca is located in the center of the Paute river watershed, it is enclosed by mountains and crossed by four rivers. As other Andean cities, it was founded during the colonial period over previous Inca and indigenous settlements. The city is surrounded by a constellation of small and medium-sized rural villages, whose space of occupation often dates back to pre-colonial times.
During pre-colonial times, the scattered distribution of population in the Andes aimed to control diverse ecological floors in the mountains. Claiming and retaining multiple ‘colonies’ at diverse altitudes allowed the diverse groups to ensure alimentary autonomy (Murra, 1975). During colonial times the productive complementarity between different groups in the southern highlands of Ecuador was transformed from a horizontal to a vertical hierarchical schema. Existing and newly-created villages were used to concentrate indigenous population, while the city of Cuenca was founded to become an instrumental center of territorial and population control. In practice, indigenous population remained to live dispersed in the countryside, although at the same time a co-dependency between Cuenca and the population of the constellation of rural settlements that surrounded it was forged.
By observing the current condition of Cuenca’s settlements, it is clear that scattered patterns of occupation are characteristic of this territory. However, a careful reading of its history in combination with interpretation of the structuring elements of its landscape, might shed light on the interaction between spatial, social and cultural factors that have contributed to render the present patterns of inhabitation.
Three main topics are analyzed across time and in its current condition in order to unpack dispersion in the Cuenca’s territory: Water and communal water systems; Migration and mobility; Natural resources and in-situ productions. This is an attempt for answering to Lefevre’s call for “a new kind of spatial imagination capable of confronting the past in a new way and reading its less tangible secrets off the template of its spatial structures”( quoted in Heyden, 1997, pp19, from Jameson, 1991)
Mapping, comparative analysis and interpretation of historical maps and ortho-photography, in combination with scrutiny of historic narratives is the methodology to be undertaken. Multiple sources of information nourish this case study: historical chronicles and archives, cartographic documents, satellite data and historical aerial photography.
The case study makes a contribution to academic research, by building up understanding about the specific manners of conformation of the Andean city, which have been forged by a complex interaction between city and hinterland.

Author Biography

Monica Rivera, KU Leuven

Phd Researcher, Dept. of Architecture, TU Delft


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How to Cite

Rivera, M. (2016). Dispersion as a long-term persistence in the southern highlands of Ecuador. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(5). https://doi.org/10.7480/iphs.2016.5.1319