Notes from Mexico City

Gabriel Kozlowski, a SMArchS thesis student in the Urbanism program, travelled to Mexico City over MIT’s Independent Activity Period (IAP) this January. He writes about his travels from the centers to the peripheries of Mexico City examining neighborhoods constructed by an imported model of subsidized housing. We’ll hear more about how this project develops over the semester. – AK

While doing my initial research on Mexico City, and long before defining my thesis, I came across a text by Jose Castilho that said if you fly to Mexico City you should take a left window seat on your way in and a right one on your way out in order to see the city from above. After some months, when my research got serious, I received a MIT grant (MISTI) to visit the city, and this advice indeed proved itself very useful.

Arriving in Mexico City on a clear day is an impressive experience. You can see this enormous city stretching endlessly throughout the territory. It is difficult to recognize the borders and limits, of both the city with its surrounding landscape, and the neighborhoods in-between. The city fabric is, at first glance, homogeneous. Apart from the business districts such as the one along Avenida de la Reforma, the city’s urbanization follows a pattern of low-density constructions, two- or three-floor buildings, confined on an orthogonal, Cartesian street grid. The grid pattern is only disturbed by the large industrial footprints on the northwest of the city and the slums that encircle the bottom half of the hills. The dramatic effect of the continuous extension of the grid is accentuated by the pollution that blurs the horizon, hiding the outskirts of the city while merging the grey sky with the built ground.

The purpose of my travel to Mexico City was to move away from my research desk and experience the object I had so coldly been studying. Through reading, writing, collecting data, and drawing maps one gets too confident about their knowledge of a city to the extent that it seems worthless to visit it. However, the presence of a city is undeniably powerful. Visiting a new city with the purpose of understanding how it works is an experience of immersion that can rapidly change many of the preconceptions and assumptions that one had before; it gives a granularity of textures, colors, sounds, smells, and memories to the before ink-and-paper maps, which transforms one’s analytical reading.

Mexico City smells like fried oil. There seems to be one taco stand for every two street corners, and these are the best places to eat. Mexico City balances between the formal and the informal, with those stands representing one aspect of this informality. While the formal is concerned with order and cleanness, assuring high end places suitable for tourism and propagation of a specific image of the city, the informal gives life to the boredom of those places and are a genuine expression of culture. This informality is sufficient to make you constantly aware of your surroundings but not extreme enough to make you uncomfortable. This adds a layer of unpredictability to the experience of the city, which builds a fertile ground for creativity – the way people assemble their temporary kiosks, carry and sell goods, and provide specialized services on the streets – that sets the rhythm of their daily lives.

Coming from Brazil, I am used to this coexistence between formality and informality, yet in Mexico the two seem to inhabit more extreme poles. Depending on where one goes, Mexico City can be both perceived as a ‘first world’ city, with many beautifully design museums with priceless collections, shiny towers, and well kept parks with free wi-fi; or as the worst of a ‘third world’ city with extreme poverty, poorly built houses, and a lack of basic infrastructure. The Mexico City I visited is somewhere between the two: the first half of the trip I spent on the city core, that relates to the former description, and the second half, I begun my excursions to the peripheries, up to the edge of the city.

Although it is easy to identify a center in Mexico City because of the Zócalo, to understand what is periphery is a bit more complicated. If it is to be defined geographically, in relation to the built area, than the periphery of the city is pushed 30 km far into the state of Mexico. However, if the periphery is defined by its political relation to the city’s governance, then the marginalized or peripheral areas form a thick ring around the center that represents 80 per cent of the city. The periphery I am interested in is the one that started to be built in the 60s, which comprises neighborhoods solely built of subsidized housing developments. These neighborhoods are peripheral in the two senses mentioned above: they are both underserved and politically excluded form the city’s decisions, and occupy the most distant, peri-urban, sites.

The subsidized housing neighborhoods have become the urbanization model of Mexico City’s growth. This is a model that was imported along with neoliberal measures where individuality is the most important quality of a person, and to own a house with a private garden and a car is one’s highest achievement. Urbanization is reduced to the simple provision of shelter. These neighborhoods are created out of the restless multiplication of one type of single-family house, without proper provision for basic infrastructure, disconnected from mass transportation lines, and lacking public spaces and amenities. They are built on cheap land on the limits between the city and the countryside, normally sharing borders with agricultural fields or vacant lands.

The two most interesting examples of this type of neighborhood I visited are each located 30km away from the Zócalo. Northwards, I took the Tren Suburbano until the neighborhood of Cuautitlán; and southeastwards, I went to visit San Buenaventura, a fraccionamento – as those types of housing developments are called – in Ixtapaluca, the case study of my thesis.

The effect of the massive repetition of one housing type and the homogeneous landscapes it generates is overwhelming. Once inside, these neighborhoods seem to have no end, with the pattern of houses only occasionally interrupted by empty lots overgrown by weeds. The search for identity to escape homogeneity comes through the owners in the form of the colors used and the self-built extensions either on the front yard or on top of the house. Although densely built, both Cuautitlán and San Buenaventura were very quiet; I could walk minutes and meet very few people. As a matter of fact, because of the intentional exclusion of other programs or uses from the design of those places, they ended up becoming dormitory cities. As if reviving a failed modern dream, sleeping is again an activity to be separated and performed on the suburbs. Today, 40% of the units in these types of neighborhoods, throughout Mexico City, are vacant by failing to provide a more contemporary way of living, one necessary to survive in this metropolis.

As an answer to the growth of the city, it is clear that this model is not working. In the coming future, a change in strategy now could mean a major restructuring of the role of the periphery in relation to the city. These places have the potential to become a key component in the large-scale transformation of Mexico City. Because of its edge condition, the neighborhoods can act as either barriers to the city growth, absorbing the growth while imposing a physical limit to it, or as seeds for decentralization, developing as satellite poles of agglomeration. Regardless of the strategy, the most important thing is to recognize the need to break with the current process of urbanization and rethink what housing provisions should mean.

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