Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Capital Badly in Need of Urban Regeneration

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Aug 19 2010 (IPS) - Is urban regeneration feasible in Mexico’s capital city? This is a question asked by planning experts and by a large proportion of the city’s population. Some projects currently underway indicate that the answer could be yes.

Ecological architectural design, green rooftops, vertical gardens and the principles of permaculture (management of land, water, energy and human settlements based on natural interrelations) are the foundation of a new kind of development that aims to make urban spaces more habitable, friendly and sustainable.

“Regeneration is possible. We have a lot of areas in our city where we can restore the soil and the environment and connect them with human activities,” Elías Cattan, head of Taller 13, a regenerative architecture firm, told IPS.

Urban regeneration involves environmental, physical, urban, social and economic aspects, and proposes alternative designs to improve quality of life for people in a district or entire city.

Founded in 2001, Taller 13, together with the architecture department of the private Ibero-American University (UIA) in Mexico City and the Regenesis Group in the U.S., offers workshops to promote this design approach, which has gathered momentum over the last decade.

“It will be neither an easy nor a small-scale undertaking, but I do think it is viable,” José Antonio Flores, founder and head of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Efecto Verde (Green Effect), told IPS.

“Part of our project is simply to encourage actions that do not necessarily imply concern for the environment per se, but merely making an improvement to our surroundings,” he explained.

Efecto Verde, established in 2007, concentrates on projects that include harvesting rainwater and introducing ornamental plants and vegetables on the rooftops of apartment buildings.

Vertical gardens, in contrast, are usually built on to the lower walls of buildings.

Mexico City proper, which is home to some eight million people, in addition to the 12 million people who live in the surrounding conurbation, suffers from traffic problems, over-exploitation of groundwater, too much garbage and severe air pollution for several months a year.

The leftwing city government has been implementing a Green Plan since 2007, consisting of a set of strategies such as encouraging the use of public transport and facilitating citizen participation.

The 2007-2012 plan was based on the results of a broad public input process (the “Green Consultation”) carried out in 2007, on proposals to improve transport, water and waste management, among other issues.

Successful urban regeneration initiatives have been carried out in cities like Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia, and Curitiba in the south of Brazil.

“What other cities that have similar levels of conflict have shown us, is that it can be done. But bold government measures are needed to overcome the prevailing apathy,” Gerardo Moncada, an expert on sustainable transport, told IPS.

Twenty million cars circulate in Mexico, approximately four million of which are on the streets of the capital.

To deal with traffic congestion, the city government headed by Marcelo Ebrard, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), wants to build the Supervía Poniente, a toll highway that will link neighbourhoods in the southwest of the city.

But the superhighway has encountered fierce opposition from residents and environmental organisations.

Previous city administrations have also built roadworks, for example, a 25-kilometre elevated freeway was added above the Periférico ring road in 2006. Ebrard has already announced that construction of the superhighway will begin in October.

Taller 13 has renovated several buildings, and built others that meet the standards of regenerative urban development. Meanwhile, the Regenesis Group has been advising the construction of the ecotourism development of Loreto Bay, in the northwestern state of Baja California Sur, and maintains a close alliance with Cattan’s firm.

Efecto Verde has created 500 square metres of roof gardens this year. The NGO estimates that a vegetable plot measuring just nine square metres can provide 80 percent of the vegetables consumed by a family of four.

“The aim is to become potentiators of resources, not usurpers. It isn’t expensive, what’s needed is more creativity and thinking outside the box. Regeneration only requires simple actions,” said Cattan, who graduated in architecture from UIA, where he now teaches.

Efecto Verde has developed its own technology, using flowerpot containers made of biodegradable plastic, and producing fertiliser by biodegrading city garbage.

“This is a way of making savings, and a means of combating the food and economic crises. It’s an intelligent way of looking ahead and providing an alternative,” Flores said.

The city government has implemented two routes for the Metrobus Corridor System, a rapid transit model with a confined lane especially for buses, and plans to add a third. By 2012, the network of routes is expected to cover 200 kilometres.

Ebrard is also keen to add a new 24-kilometre line to the metro (underground) system, to connect the east and west of the city, also by 2012.

Another facet of the transport policy is encouraging bicycle use. The Ecobici bike-sharing programme got under way early this year with 85 cycle stations and more than 1,100 bicycles available to clients of the service.

“If the Green Plan is fully implemented, we will see some very interesting things happening in the city. But if there is no match between the proposed goals and the policies put into effect, it is highly unlikely that the city will be viable in future,” Moncada warned.

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