Guardians of the Hill

Portoviejo, Ecuador

The Urban Living Lab ‘Guardians of the Hills’ (2019-2021) of the ‘Cities Challenge: 2030 Agenda meets Urban Climate Action’ increased the climate resilience of vulnerable neighbourhoods in Portoviejo by strengthening female leaders as decision-makers for urban climate action. The Urban Living Lab’s vision was to make the San Pablo neighbourhood more resilient by providing safer and more liveable public spaces, for instance by implementing ecosystem-based adaptation measures designed through participatory methods.

Female leaders or ‘Guardians’ organised and changed their neighbourhood by appropriating public space and making it healthier, greener, safer and more secure through a community-based disaster management and pandemic monitoring, as part of the municipal risk management system. The scope of the Urban Living Lab has expanded further as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A stronger focus was placed on preventing violence against women, an issue which was exacerbated during the pandemic.


  • WHO

Guardians of the Hills, Parish Committee of San Pablo, Portoviejo Municipality, Association of Risk Management Professionals of Ecuador, Academic Network for Urban Sustainable Development.

  • WHAT
Guardians of the Hills is an Urban Living Lab aimed at increasing climate resilience of vulnerable neighbourhoods in Portoviejo.
  • WHEN
July 2019 – August 2021
Portoviejo, Ecuador
  • WHY
Female leaders or ‘Guardians’ organise and change their neighbourhood by appropriating public space and making it healthier, greener, safer and more secure through a community-based disaster management and pandemic monitoring, as part of the municipal risk management system.
Intermediate Sustainable Cities Programme, CityRegions 2030, Programme Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Rights.
93,000 euros initial budget
216,900 euros after COVID-19 pandemic extension

Zoila Moro

is one of the “Guardians of the Hills” in Portoviejo, Ecuador

 Zoila Moro: “What mobilises people is social action”

One female leader and matron of the parish stands out: Zoila Moro inspires her neighbours with her enthusiasm and her commitment to take ownership of public spaces, which she wants to make friendlier and safer. Zoila feels a strong sense of belonging to San Pablo and speaks of her neighbours as her ‘great neighbourhood family’.

The community characterises her as a brave, enterprising, and hard-working leader. Zoila herself says, ‘I do a bit of everything, I’m not scared of work and I am the pillar of my family’. In the mornings she works in the cafeteria of the Juan Montalvo school, in the evenings she dedicates herself to her bazaar. She inherited a small shop from her father, but she lost a lot in the last earthquake: ‘Bottles of oil and fizzy drinks were broken; I lost everything… but anyway, I didn’t stop, I took out a loan and I established a mini-bazaar.’ 

Zoila Moro is a community leader and twice-elected president of the parish. She smilingly admits to being ‘involved in almost everything. […] I am also a health promoter and I organise bingo events and, of course, the festivals…’ She remembers that in the 1960s, the hills of San Pablo looked totally different. ‘My father arrived here more than 60 years ago when this was nothing but forest; very few families lived here.’ By now, less trees cover the hills of San Pablo. This leads to heavy rainfalls during the rainy season, causing landslides in surrounding hills and flooding of the urban centre. Zoila dreams of seeing her hill ‘green, full of carob, kapok and tamarind trees’. She shares the stories that her grandmother told her when she was a girl: ‘She told me that the hill used to be full of carob trees, which were very large, and which gave them a lot of shade’. Smiling playfully, she says that, ‘since there were so many hills, trees and fauna, there were said to be elves’.

Zoila is convinced that they should restore the hill. This is why she decided to be involved in the Guardians of the Hills Urban Living Lab. She mentions that ‘what mobilises people is social action’. Therefore, she aims to include the community in her struggle of restoring public spaces, encouraging the community to paint houses and arranging flowers and plants on her block. Furthermore, ecosystem-based installations such as orchards, terraced slopes, eco-paths and/or playgrounds, which stabilise the slopes and allow for increased rainwater infiltration, aim to help mitigate the risk of landslides and support the restoration of the hill.

Many of the people involved with Guardians of the Hills are women. This makes for a further positive effect of the initiative: through becoming group leaders, many women are encouraged to speak up on domestic violence, and to identify and guide procedures to support women affected by violence. Zoila says that transforming your neighbourhood is how you fix up your house: ‘based on needs but in an organised and entrepreneurial way’.For her, every day her struggle is in recovering public spaces, calling upon the community to paint the houses and arrange her block with flowers and plants.

The community leader emphasises that awareness and sensitivity to the needs of animals are crucial aspects of a well-functioning community, explaining that ‘in the neighbourhood there is room for us all; animals are part of our lives. How people take care of them and love them says a lot about the wonderful people that we have in our parish’. Her generosity and impetus to serve her large family is touching. ‘I am silly when it comes to doing something for us. I could spend days on end knocking on doors until we achieve our goal.’ This is Zoila Moro, a sensitive fighter who mobilises people, enables them to understand how a community is built, and encourages every ‘family member’ to become a more proactive person, making for a committed and resilient neighbourhood. 

Learn more about the Guardians of the Hill

Creating the Urban Living Lab

The San Pablo neighbourhood, home to around 12,000 people, is located in the hills of Portoviejo, the capital of the coastal province of Manabí in Ecuador. Due to frequent and heavy rains in the winter months, San Pablo faces the challenge of landslides on its slopes, which endanger housing, infrastructure and the lives of its inhabitants. As the frequency and intensity of rainfall increases due to climate change, the risk of landslides rises. San Pablo also suffers from a weak social and economic structure reflected, among other things, in the particularly high social vulnerability and crime rate in the parish.

Violence against women is a core issue that has intensified significantly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While women lead 62 percent of households in San Pablo, most have no secure employment, which further impacts their social and economic vulnerability. GIZ is already present on the ground in San Pablo through the country programme entitled Intermediate Sustainable Cities.

This country programme assists the Government of Ecuador in implementing policies and instruments for climate-friendly urban development as well as municipal environmental protection and climate change mitigation throughout the country, as well as in opening up financing options. Portoviejo is one of six pilot cities with ‘urban laboratories’ that develop local experiences and urban development strategies to incorporate them into the national urban development agenda. The Urban Living Lab Guardians of the Hills was recognised as having shown great potential to be replicated in similar underserved neighbourhoods and to raise awareness about disadvantaged and ‘forgotten’ neighbourhoods – often informal settlements – among policy-makers and the general public.

In neighbourhoods such as San Pablo, existing vulnerabilities further exacerbate the significantly higher disadvantages that women and girls suffer from climate change effects compared to men. Therefore, the Urban Living Lab Guardians of the Hills focused on the empowerment of women as a way to strengthen community co-responsibility and multi-level articulation for any action within risk management and climate adaptation.

The collaboration with the ‘Guardians’ as female leaders identified by their own communities makes for an innovative approach that is tailored to the challenges faced in San Pablo, but that can also be scaled up to other contexts.

The health emergency generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to generate public policies focused on making cities and human settlements more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. In this context, the Urban Living Lab re-emphasised the need to strengthen local responsibility and the cooperation of different stakeholders – municipality, academia, professional associations, community – in order to successfully manage risks. New priorities such as preventing violence against women and using alert systems in the context of a pandemic arose during the Urban Living Lab.


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Resilient and safe public spaces

Public spaces in the San Pablo neighbourhood were integrated into the natural features of the slopes through ecosystem-based measures such as relief wells, ecological stairs and a communal area. The small-scale construction measures support the slopes’ natural ecosystem to stabilise, facilitating the infiltration of rainwater into the soil and ultimately reducing the risk of landslides. As a result, these attractive community areas give children a new space to play and provide safe social and recreational activities for women and children. Opportunities for self-sufficiency through urban gardening can arise from these spaces.

Construction measures were designed by multidisciplinary groups from local universities and the municipality in collaboration with the Guardians and other community members.

Thanks to the Guardians’ involvement in the Gender Violence Prevention Strategy, a gender-oriented process throughout the design phase of the Urban Living Lab’s activities was ensured. At the same time, the Association of Risk Management Professionals of Ecuador implemented a capacity-building strategy for participatory planning, construction and maintenance of the ecosystem-based solutions intended to increase social development, inclusion and resilience. The final phase of the Urban Living Lab involved the construction and implementation of the adaptation measures, along with technical advice to generate a Local Plan of Public Space Appropriation and Social Resilience.


Community alert system

Experts from the Association of Risk Management Professionals of Ecuador assisted the municipality and local community in the implementation of a community alert system. The objective is for the community to be directly involved in monitoring threats of landslides and fires. This is achieved by applying technological tools and protocols to assist the community in prevention and response activities, in cooperation with local authorities.

The community warning system includes community alarms installed in strategic locations, a pilot plan to train the local population on prevention and emergency plans when the alarms are activated. Through this alert system, the neighbourhood is connected to the municipal alert system composed by Neighbourhood Risk and Emergency Committees, fire brigade, police departments, ambulance and the local government. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, alert systems have been used to monitor the spread of cases and alert neighbours about infection dangers.


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Neighbourhood risk and emergency commitees

The Guardians of the Hills are part of four emergency committees implemented in San Pablo that are part of a functional system under the leadership of the municipality. Through these emergency committees, the community assumes responsibilities to plan actions and organise the attention of the emergencies presented in their neighbourhood thus contributing to the efficiency of the municipal crisis response capacity. The main goal of these committees is to train the community to recognize risk situations induced by climate change, implement self-protection measures and support evacuations if necessary. As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sustainable Intermediate Cities Programme, together with the Association of Risk Management Professionals of Ecuador, expanded the intervention of this Urban Living Lab to support the implementation of the Neighbourhood Risk and Emergency Committees as a means to fight against and monitor the pandemic within the City of Portoviejo, including the provision of humanitarian support. This allowed a flow of information and direct communication between the neighbourhood leaders and the local government in order to identify COVID-19 alert cases and other risk factors. These are being monitored in a Municipal Alert System Platform that supports the political decision-making process.

Gender-bases violence prevention

A group of 20 women and men from San Pablo form part of the Urban Living Lab’s capacity building strategy. They aim to generate more social awareness on violence and discrimination against women, provide care for victims of violence, and create a local network for the prevention of violence. In the context of increased violence against women due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Neighbour’s Recipe Book with tips for nurturing ties between neighbours was developed, in cooperation with national and international institutions. In addition, the gender-based violence prevention strategy was adapted to cater to the challenges of virtual interactions and social isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Sharing the experience

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, several workshops took place to train women in the participatory production of communication materials to share their inspiring stories as ‘Guardians’ combating the impacts of climate change. This included the construction and painting of a ‘mural of dreams’ with the participation of local children, and the elaboration of a digital tale that rediscovers the cultural traditions and socio-environmental qualities showcasing the resilience of men and women in San Pablo. A book with memorial articles and interviews about San Pablo in times of the COVID-19 pandemic was also produced.

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