Making way for urban reform in Mexico

Improved institutions, including a national department focused on Urban Reform, have set the stage for necessary changes to Mexico’s cities. Photo by World Bank Photo Collection.

78% of Mexico’s population is urban, and 88% of the country’s gross production can be attributed to 93 cities. However, until recently, Mexico lacked a national urban policy, and the consequences have been disastrous. Finally, changes have begun to take place. Urban policy has started to receive some of the national attention it deserves, but there is still a long way to go.

In the past three decades, Mexican cities have followed a “3D” growth pattern – new developments have been Distant, Disperse and Disconnected, resulting in the fragmented and unplanned expansion of urban sprawl. According to estimates by the Ministry of Social Development (SEDESOL), the urban population has doubled in the last 30 years while urban land area has expanded six fold. This kind of sprawling urban development turns out to be highly unproductive, deepens inequality, raises pollution levels, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it increases urban vulnerability to the impacts of climate change as cities spread into areas particularly susceptible to extreme weather events.

The “3D” model of urban development is largely the result of a weak and fragmented institutional framework and the lack of a comprehensive urban planning system. Urban policies and responsibilities are scattered across a number of departments that individually lack the capacity to influence cities’ development. The problem is worsened by existing legal frameworks, which neither favors territorial planning nor discourages land speculation. In failing to provide adequate incentives for urban development within the existing footprint of Mexico’s cities, the existing legal framework has contributed to rampant sprawl.

Fortunately, important measures are underway to reverse this situation. The creation of  the Ministry of Urban, Territorial and Agricultural Development (SEDATU) at the end of 2012 is a strong start. It places the creation of national urban policies center stage, at the ministry level, allowing the possibility of aligning and strengthening programs that were previously scattered. In turn, the National Development Plan (PND), presented on May 2013, clearly identifies objectives and specific strategies to address the huge economic, social and environmental costs posed by urban sprawl. Progress on the discussion on the General Law of Human Settlements also contributes to the creation of an adequate legal and institutional framework for the sustainable development of cities.

These critical changes are in part the result of the hard work of a number of non-governmental organizations pushing for comprehensive urban planning and improved urban spaces. Among the proposals included in the National Development Plan are six key reforms, proposed by a coalition made up of EMBARQ Mexico, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), and the Mario Molina Center for Strategic Studies of Energy and the Environment (CMM). These organizations united under the banner and Twitter hashtag #ReformaUrbana to push for the needed changes through an effective and large-scale social media campaign.  For the first time in Mexican history, the national plan mentions the need to integrate urban development with mobility policies. It highlights the importance of implementing integrated urban transport systems, promoting bicycle and pedestrian mobility, and setting the rational use of the private car as national policy.

The next step will be to get more specific. EMBARQ Mexico has proposed 100 Ideas for Urban Reform for the government, addressing specific actions and tactics for pursuing the goals laid out in the PND. These proposals are the result of massive public input (both in person and through Twitter), as well as guidance from experts. Now that urban reform is at the forefront of the public agenda, it is time to make changes. The 100 ideas resulting from this experience will be published at the end of September.

Mexico urgently needs a structural reform aimed towards giving the country a legal, institutional and financial framework focused on triggering the huge social and economic potential of its cities and improving life quality for the 90 million inhabitants of those cities. The first, critical steps have already been taken, but there is a ways to go. As urban reform slowly but consistently permeates national government actions, we can all hope for more livable and productive Mexican cities.

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