Mexico City: First Stop in the New World
What lessons can other cities learn from Mexico City?
- What gives the city its dynamism today is the resilience, ingenuity, and talent for improvisation of its residents.
- Indeed, throughout the history of the city, no matter what the benefits of living in Mexico, obstacles often seemed insurmountable.
- One Mexican suggested that if I had been a Spanish journalist who came with the conquerors, I would probably have written off Mexico City for dead at the time.
- Gloomy scenarios in Mexico City should also be taken with skepticism. Doomsday has been predicted not only for as long as I have been here but as far as memory serves.
- The cities in the developing world are the true representatives of the future.
Various urbanists and futurists have made two predictions about the 21st century. They suggest that it is shaping into the century of emerging markets — and that it will also be the century of super cities.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and an enormous number of them are concentrated in very few places.
Some futurists see the world as a network of parallel and complementary cities rather than countries — Paris, London, New York, Moscow, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Mumbai, Karachi, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul.
However, the European and U.S. models of cities are resisting change — and some are even ossifying. The cities in the developing world are the true representatives of the future.
With these trends, Mexico City is poised to be part of the vanguard of this century. Culturally, economically and politically, it can be seen as the capital of the Spanish-speaking world.
It is without a doubt among the most important Latin American hubs, along with Sao Paulo — and, regardless of their geographical locations, Miami and Los Angeles.
But what will the future of Mexico City look like? There is a prevalent, nearly apocalyptic scenario, painting the transformation of a megalopolis into a monster that doesn’t yet have a name.
In this version, by 2050 the city will expand some forty miles to the west to envelop the city of Toluca, about sixty miles due south to swallow Cuernavaca, and another sixty miles to the north to absorb Pachuca, resulting in a gargantuan entity of some forty-five million inhabitants.
Commuter trains will supposedly help people go back and forth between homes and workplaces of increasingly long distances.
The Disney version, purported by some architects who are perhaps whistling in the dark, suggests that intelligent urban planning will suddenly kick in from somewhere.
Rather than sustain an endless and unremitting horizontal growth, instead the four central delegations of the city will increase their populations vertically, with apartment buildings of ten, 20 and 30 stories sprouting on principal avenues like Insurgentes and Paseo de la Reforma, and around public parks and squares.
The two scenarios are not exclusive. Indeed, they are both in the works. The city’s largest office tower was completed just a few years ago at Reforma and the Periferico (an inner-city throughway).
On the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes, in another tower that is part of the St. Regis group, they are pre-selling apartments at the unheard-of price — in Mexico, anyway — of $4,000 per square meter.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a construction boom of apartment buildings of between five and ten stories in the central area, with condominiums generally selling for between $150,000 and $400,000, depending on the neighborhood.
As these developments suggest, the growth of the center will depend on the will of the limited number of people with money — and the expanding sector of individuals with access to credit.
However, the central area will likely be increasingly less available to the poor, who will need to continue to populate the ever-extending outskirts in the only housing they can afford — one- or two-story brick bunkers.
In the short term, obvious vulnerabilities for Mexico City’s future include the lack of tangible steps to improve public transportation.
Plans are frequently announced to add more lines to the metro, to update the polluting and inefficient system of peseros — and to increase the number of routes of the Metrobus, the inner-city trolley.
So far there is only one line, on Insurgentes, with another in the works. Apart from the establishment of the Metrobus, the only completed transportation project in recent years has been the assembly of a second story in the Periferico.
Expansion of the inner-city throughway only benefits people with cars, as does the increasingly easy access to loans for new cars that banks and credit agencies are making available to Mexico City’s residents.
Political will here seems to favor the automobile industry rather than the citizenry or the environment.
On the other hand, there are some positive signals. In December of 2006, the D.F. established a science and technology institute to encourage study in those areas — and for 2008 it was funded to the tune of $64 million.
In January of 2008, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard committed to build 186 miles of bicycle paths around town by 2012 (although convincing residents to use them might prove harder than setting them up).
There is some evidence that, despite the rampant inequality in Mexico City, the dynamic of the economy is trickling down.
As the rich grow richer, it is becoming easier for people who struggle to maintain themselves at the margins of the middle class to obtain credit for cars and housing.
While this is generally good news, the fate of Mexico City is more than ever tied to the global economy.
Should world markets continue to suffer, Mexican banks could become titleholders to hordes of apartments and houses whose owners can no longer pay the mortgages.
Gloomy scenarios in Mexico City should also be taken with skepticism. Doomsday has been predicted not only for as long as I have been here, but as far as memory serves.
One Mexican suggested that if I had been a Spanish journalist who came with the conquerors, I would probably have written off Mexico City for dead at the time.
“Who are these idiots who built a city in the middle of a lake, with no room to expand, frequent floods, and no hope for a practical future?” he said I’d have surmised.
Indeed, throughout the history of the city, no matter what the benefits of living in Mexico, obstacles often seemed insurmountable.
In the colonial period, 90% of the indigenous population was wiped out, mostly by imported diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, measles and flu.
Between the mid-16th century and the beginning of the 17th, there were five major floods in Mexico City (including that of 1629, when the city was submerged under six feet of water, from which it didn’t emerge until five years later).
Accounts from the 18th through the 20th centuries name rampant crime, illness due to more flooding and poor sanitation, and inequality as among the problems from which the city suffered.
Yet Mexico City is still here. Despite its foibles, it’s still going to grow, it’s still going to be important — and most significantly, it’s still going to be driven by ingenuity and improvisation.
What gives the city its dynamism today is the resilience, ingenuity, and talent for improvisation of its residents.
There is a spark of tough cleverness and a spirit of entrepreneurship, however basic, that you can see on any central street corner.
It would be wonderful if there were a sudden consciousness and will on the part of the powerful, both in politics and industry, to alleviate or even solve the city’s worst problems.
Unfortunately there is little evidence of that determination, so for the moment, the chilangos will continue to exercise their own — a day at a time.
Editor’s Note: Reprinted from First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century by David Lida with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2008 by David Lida.