Nestled within Mexico City and home to approximately 1.2 million residents, Ciudad Neza has grown into one of Latin America’s largest slums. Salvador Herrera, Deputy Director of EMBARQ Mexico, remembers a time when Mexico City led the world in the creation of urban green space and says it can be a source of inspiration for returning Mexico to a city for the people.
La Alameda Park, in the heart of the metropolis, holds the distinction of being the first urban park in the “new world”, and Herrera believes that Mexico city and its residents can re-claim their tradition of sustainable urban development through Transit Oriented Development and better use of the existing built environment. “Mexico would benefit from remembering its tradition of successful urbanization and make Transit Oriented Development available to individuals across all income brackets—especially alongside goals of economic growth”, said Salvador Herrera. To do so, we must move away from flashy new projects and focus on making better use of the existing built and unbuilt public spaces, through reform of codes and laws, and retrofitting, with a focus on making public spaces and transport equitable.
Integrating equitable transport alongside urban growth
Historically, Mexico City has a long track-record of urban growth and development. Villages such as Coyoacan, the location of the EMBARQ Mexico office, provided opportunities to walk to meet most needs. As the city has grown, this has changed, with longer distances requiring motorized transport. The public transport system (buses, metros, and trains) has provided that link between home and work for many chilangos, as residents of Mexico City’s suburbs are called. But for individuals with upward economic mobility, the automobile remains both an icon of economic prosperity and a practical necessity. Yet in light of rising death tolls in auto-related accidents, rising gas prices, and increasing air pollution, “walking away” from this option would benefit Mexico City’s citizens across socio-economic strata.
Shifting from a car-oriented to a transit-oriented urban environment
“If you live in a car-oriented environment,” posits Herrera, “you will end up moving by car.” Three of Mexico’s largest urban areas– Mexico City, Guadalajara and Leon—are among the cities in Latin America with highest number of accident deaths. (See the presentation from Salvador Herrera at Transforming Transportation 2013.)
The current cost of transit-oriented development often rules out these areas as a combined housing and transportation option for lower-income households. Herrera further explains that many in this demographic group resort to walking, but as individual wealth grows, so does the impetus to grow into a city built around cars. The main challenge facing developers is the question of how to retain a dynamic conducive to both human health and urban efficiency across such demographics.
Focus on meaningful change in urban codes, laws, and existing space
In order to affect such changes, Herrera maintains that urban planners and local governments must adjust their focus to address a number of “non-sexy issues,” in urban development, such as urban codes and laws, and the retrofitting of existing space, which often are bypassed in favor of investment in the new and flashy projects. Main elements of progress in Mexico City include increasing access to public transportation with bus stops every 300 meters; expanding green areas; allowing more space, and extending access routes for pedestrians and cyclists; and increasing by 15% the number of integrated and mixed-use spaces.
In a recent post, I asked readers, “What does good urban development mean to you?” In Mexico’s history of responsible urbanization lies a promising precedent for future development, leading to a higher quality of life for residents of all demographics. By recalling Mexico City’s historic tradition of sustainable urban development and in acknowledging solutions, such as Transit-Oriented Development and the retrofitting of the existing built environment, Salvador Herrera and his team at EMBARQ Mexico are on their way toward an answer.
Benoit Colin and Elise Zevitz also contributed to this piece.