Nation & World

The makeover of Mexico City

long read

Aided by Harvard experts, officials are tackling housing, pollution, and traffic problems — and solving them

MEXICO CITY — In a poem, Octavio Paz called the vast, colorful, ever-expanding metropolis of his birth “a paradise of cages.”

It is, after all, a city where tenuous but imaginative informal housing sprouts amid the grid of formal architecture, a city where shanties, wash lines, and water tanks pop up on the rooftops of high-rent buildings. In greater Mexico City, home to 22 million people and covering 3,700 square miles, more than half of the architecture is built without regulations.

Paz also wrote of a Mexico City that “in its circular fever repeats and repeats.” That image applies to the city’s traffic. In the central, historical heart called the distrito federal, or D.F. (pronounced “day-efay”), 9 million residents of 16 boroughs live in a 570-square-mile tangle of traffic. It’s riven day and night by cars, trucks, and microbuses — more than 3 million vehicles, a third of them more than 20 years old. For commuters on the outskirts of the D.F., congestion is so bad that the daily trip to work can take up to three hours.

The same traffic contributes to air pollution. (“I am surrounded by city,” Paz wrote plaintively in another poem. “I lack air.”) In 1992, the United Nations called Mexico City’s air quality the planet’s worst, so bad that flying birds, overwhelmed, would fall dead from the sky. By 1998, the U.N. called Mexico City the world’s most dangerous city for children’s health.

Thanks to stringent regulatory reform in the last two decades, the situation has dramatically improved. Air quality in Mexico City now resembles that in Los Angeles: not wonderful, but not catastrophic. New laws have reduced the city’s once prodigiously dirty industrial footprint, which had included lead smelters.

The metropolitan area (41 municipalities outside the D.F. in the states of Mexico and Hidalgo) is in the Valley of Mexico. It constitutes the heart of a nation where “geography has been destiny,” said Jose Castillo, M.Arch. ’95, D.Des.’00. Castillo is a Mexico City architect and a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD).

That destiny includes volcanic mountains, which make the mile-high city dramatically beautiful, but also create air inversions that cloak it in trapped pollutants.

And that destiny is both wet and fragile. Hundreds of years ago, Mexico City was a soggy maze of 45 rivers and five lakes atop an ancient volcano. The lakes mostly have been filled in, and the rivers have been covered by roadways. But subsoils still wiggle like Jell-O when an earthquake hits. (The biggest recent ones rattled through in 1985 and 1957.) In the same soils, pipework supplies city water, 35 percent of which is lost in transit.

Urban challenges, Harvard initiatives

Problematic housing, snarled traffic, and stubborn air pollution are three of the most prominent challenges in greater Mexico City, which is the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere and the fifth-largest in the world. They are the same problems that threaten to overwhelm megacities worldwide. And they are problems that Harvard has a hand in studying and mitigating in Mexico City.

Last year, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) started work on the Mexico City-Harvard Alliance for Air Quality and Health. The five-year, bi-national collaboration will study how well two decades of air quality regulation in Mexico have improved health and economic outcomes.

Similarly, at GSD, long-term initiatives are investigating housing and traffic problems. Experts there see the growing city as a vast, mutating, proximate laboratory for studying the common challenges of megacities.

In the last four years, GSD has picked up the pace on its Mexico studio courses, research fellowships, and summer and Wintersession offerings, which included one last month. Faculty members Felipe Correa and Carlos Garciavelez Alfaro published “Mexico City: Between Geometry and Geography” (2014), a study of how the capital gradually took shape as an urban center starting 600 years ago, when it was the heart of the Aztec world.

“Mexico City as a megacity can serve as a universal paradigm that cities should learn from in the future,” said Castillo, a point the new book also makes. “The allure of the megalopolis becomes very appealing as an object of study.”

One GSD program is the Mexican Cities Initiative, launched in 2013 to study urban vulnerabilities and innovations. Its faculty coordinator is urban development expert Diane Davis, the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism. She wrote “Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century” (1994) about the political and economic complexities of urbanization.

At GSD, Davis co-directs an initiative on sustainable urban development through the lens of “social” (affordable) housing, along with sustainable-cities expert Ann Forsyth, a professor of urban planning. Forsyth is director of GSD’s masters program in urban planning, an expert in planning methodologies and tools, and a blogger for Planetizen, an urban planning news and education site.

The sustainable urban development initiative at GSD is funded by Mexico’s National Worker Housing agency, Infonavit, a government-run mortgage bank established in 1972 to aid production of low-income housing. Infonavit is administered through a tripartite system, with equal participation from private-sector employers, labor, and the federal government. Workers pay into the mortgage fund through salary deductions, the private sector builds the housing, and labor has a voice in the process.

In 1992, the United Nations called Mexico City’s air quality the planet’s worst. Today, the air quality in Mexico City now resembles that in Los Angeles: not wonderful, but not catastrophic. Ned Brown/Harvard Staff

Smart housing

Paz was 15 in 1929, the year that some experts say marked Mexico City’s transformation from a sedate corner of Hispanic culture — a locale central to the poet’s nostalgia — to a booming metropolis. During Paz’s boyhood, Mexico nationalized its railroads. It was a time of industrial growth, land reform, and the new oil economy. The era also spurred the poet’s oblique obsessions, including the fate of housing that Paz equated with beauty, tradition, and the safety of a village.

In Mexico City’s D.F., housing is a big challenge. At least 40,000 units a year are needed, and half of them must be in the affordable category. But only 20,000 a year get built. This housing deficiency has an ironic counterpoint: There are abundant units of abandoned housing. Most were built on cheap land on the far outskirts of the D.F., but ended up being unsustainable culturally. They were too far from workplaces and poorly connected to rapid transit.

Part of the Infonavit-funded project is within GSD’s executive education program, directed by Rena Fonseca, Ph.D. ’91. Her office is less than a year into a three-year cycle of programs on affordable housing in Mexico, building connections with Infonavit’s executives. Insiders call the goal “capacity building,” which Castillo said creates “an ecology of knowledge” connecting Harvard with housing experts in Mexico. Last month, an executive education advance team was in Mexico City preparing for a May event at Infonavit.

With $60 billion in affordable-housing loans outstanding, Infonavit controls 70 percent of such mortgages in Mexico, co-finances 15 percent of the rest, and underwrites about 500,000 new loans a year. One in four Mexicans lives in an Infonavit-financed house. (Affordable-housing units have an average price tag of $30,000.)

Infonavit is also the largest mortgage holder in Latin America, with 5.5 million loans on its books. “That’s a big number,” said Sebastián Fernández Cortina, one of three controlling directors at Infonavit, where he represents private-sector interests. With size comes responsibility as well as opportunity. “Mexico City has grown exponentially,” he said, explaining the need for the nation’s chief test case for the resilient, sustainable urban housing of the future. “We need to do this in very organized ways.”

Population growth adds to the pressure for new housing. At present, much of what gets built is informal; no architects need apply. Visible from any high vantage in Mexico City is what megacity watchers call “the urban tsunami.” Clay-colored waves of informal housing seem to lap higher onto the mountains that enclose the city like the rim of a vast bowl.

There are 825 informal settlements in greater Mexico City, with some sweeping up into the hillsides. Up close, in one such hillside area, the D.F. below shimmers like Oz, spiked with skyscrapers and organized around straight boulevards. Paseo de la Reforma is one, its curbs lined with the same species of trees as its model, the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The hillside settlement is no Paris, but its unpaved streets are charmingly crooked and narrow and its housing, no higher than a few stories, colorful and individual. The city below, though, with its promising jobs, is hard to get to.

Drawing those waves of housing back toward the city center is central to the GSD/Infonavit initiative. Design experts such as Davis and Castillo call this “re-densifying,” that is, repopulating urban centers in ways that shorten commutes, save energy, create attractive high-density housing, and reduce social strains.

Before the Harvard collaboration, in 2008, Infonavit had already shifted its focus to “green” mortgages. These require that buildings support social good and a clean environment. By 2011, all Infonavit mortgages were required to be green, and included provisions for community-building and environmentally sustainable standards for electricity, gas, and water.

“Urban development that is not well planned has a high cost in the future,” said Cortina, who attended a 2006 executive education program at Harvard Business School (HBS). That cost could include failing to respond to climate change and failing to provide attractive housing for Mexico’s young people. Financing housing “in a much smarter way,” he said, means “housing not only for people to live in, but places where people grow.”

“Places where people grow” sums up Infonavit’s emphasis on housing that guarantees not only good infrastructure, but a chance at building community.

A year ago, Paulina Campos, M.P.P. ’07, took up that challenge as CEO of an Infonavit-founded nonprofit whose mission is community-building at affordable-housing complexes. “It’s not just about physical space,” said Campos, who has an office at Infonavit’s dramatically modern headquarters in Mexico City. “It’s about taking responsibility.”

In the end, she said, the appearance, safety, and social cohesion of social hosing is in the hands of its residents, who are often faced with starting life over in housing that cannot match the village-like atmosphere of informal housing.

“As a country, we have developed the capacity to build houses massively,” said Campos, who works closely with Cortina. “But in the end it’s not complete without building communities.” Without the right social dynamics, affordable housing can slip into decline. Maintenance is slack, neighbors don’t interact, and security is sketchy. With a sense of community, residents share common goals, organize soccer leagues, and schedule cleanup days. “This is social capital,” said Campos.

Social capital, by way of housing, is hard to recover or even maintain. Late one afternoon last fall, Castillo took guests on a roadway tour of the city, talking as he steered through traffic, down grand boulevards that gave way to four-lane streets bordering vast boroughs set aside for residents without much money. East of the D.F.’s grand core, he gestured to the right, toward Iztapalapa, a borough of 2 million and the poorest in the city, where it is hard to find potable water and where about a quarter of the homes still have damage from the 1985 earthquake. “This is part of the drama of the city,” said Castillo. To the left is another poor borough of 2 million.

Castillo pulled over and parked and stood by one of the subway stops that his firm, arquitectura 911sc, had designed. The landscaping had devolved to dried tall grass and discarded bottles. In the growing dark, on an ill-lit patch of remote Mexico City, microbuses glided past without headlights and boys gathered to skateboard.

The next day the wiry architect sprang up a set of stairs at Integrara Zaragoza, an affordable-housing complex his firm also had designed. (The firm employs 24 and has about 40 projects underway.) From the rooftop, Castillo pointed to the urban tendrils creeping up the distant foothills. But then he pointed closer, to the street, where the informal city was on display, “the public life external to the home,” he said: food stands, shops at the curb, and soccer games on the street.

Typical affordable housing can discourage the social genius of the informal sector, he said. Often, it even follows a socially destructive pattern. Tiny courtyards discourage social gathering or the possibility of plantings or gardens. A crush of parking places outside the buildings eliminates precious public space.

But in this development — the third designed by his firm, with 640 units on a former industrial site — there are spacious courtyards with handsome plantings. Parking is a half-level down from the first floor (“We hide all the cars,” said Castillo), and condo-like dwellings are small (ranging from 400 to 560 square feet) but flexibly designed to accommodate the needs of small families as well as students and single workers. “The diversity of the demographics,” he said, “has to be reflected in the typologies in the buildings.”

This housing is close to transportation, 100 meters from a subway line and 300 meters from a modern Metrobús line. And the housing project is dense: about 500 units per 2.5 acres. The aim, said Castillo, is “as many units as possible without overcrowding.” (An American suburb has 12 to 24 units in the same space.) Such urban compression, in neighborhoods reclaimed from the industrial past, and with design strategies that reclaim social capital, like the hidden parking and first-floor room for village-scale retail, “is a revolution,” Castillo said.

Campos was still at Infonavit in the spring of 2013 when Cortina, Davis, Fonseca, and Eric S. Belsky signed a letter of intent with Infonavit to create the Harvard initiative, which Campos called a think tank on sustainable urban planning and affordable housing. (Belsky, now at the Federal Reserve Board, was then managing director at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and a GSD lecturer in urban planning.) “That’s how the Harvard idea started,” she said.

As she talked, Campos stood atop Infonavit’s headquarters on the largest green roof in Latin America. Employees jog there at lunchtime and harvest greens and vegetables in a hothouse they planted. From the roof, Campos had a 360-degree view of the growing city, including its streams of endless traffic. As for social strains in housing, she said, “long commutes make a big difference.”

Smart transportation

In Mexico City, only 26 percent of commuters use personal cars. Others use city-subsidized modern buses, painted a proud, bright red, in a five-line system with 65 miles of routes. Some commuters hop on handsome, low-fare trolley cars of pale green. Millions of daily commuters board the city’s efficient subways, which are routinely quicker from point to point than a car. But none of these transportation systems are growing fast enough to meet demand.

Harvard is trying to help reduce commutes and promote alternatives. Davis directs another GSD initiative called “Transforming Urban Transport,” TUT to insiders, funded by the Volvo Research and Education Foundations. The idea is to use case study research to see how political leadership aids innovations in transportation. “Mobility is political,” said Castillo. “It’s not just a technical problem.”

One of the case studies is Mexico City, said Onesimo Flores Dewey, senior researcher at TUT and a GSD lecturer in urban planning and design. During the 1970s, when Mexico was flush with new oil money, he said, “There was a flurry of investment in public transportation.” But it was never enough to keep up. In Mexico City, 60 percent of commuters still depend on informal (and unregulated and polluting) microbuses. The reason is simple: Poor residents living farthest from the D.F. need access to transport that has informal stops and flexible routes.

Things are changing for the better, said Castillo. Modern, low-polluting buses with official routes are gradually replacing microbuses and displacing cars. On six-lane roads once devoted to automobiles, two lanes are reserved now for bus traffic, “a new form of equity,” he said.

One day last fall, Mexico City urban planner Laura Janka, M.A.U.D. ’11, peered at her native city through a chain-link fence atop the 47-story Torre Latinoamerica, or Latin-American Tower. Traffic glittered in silvery streams below, along wide avenues that radiated in spokes toward the mountains. Long commutes not only add to pollution, they tear at the social fabric, she said.

The traffic represents a clash of two cities, said Janka, one of 9 million people in the D.F. and another of 5 million commuters from the enormous encircling periphery. The D.F.’s budget for water, power, transportation, and parks is enough to cover 9 million, not 14 million, she said, “but we have to share it.”

Sharing of another kind reduces traffic congestion. Some Mexico City streets now have one lane for pedestrians and one for cars, as on 16 September Avenue. “I love this street,” said Rodrigo Díaz, who studied with Davis when she was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Chile-born architect and urban planner is an expert on urban land use who prefers the trolley for travel in Mexico City. Once at Infonavit, he now works for EMBARQ México, a Mexican nonprofit that developed a bus rapid-transit corridor that links road to rail.

Díaz showed visitors an even more radical recipe for reducing urban car congestion. Calle Francisco I. Madero, once choked with cars, is now a perambulatory corridor for 200,000 pedestrians a day. At one end is the Zócalo, a vast central square that has been the political and spiritual heart of Mexico since Aztec times. At the other end is the city’s busiest intersection, its oldest park, and the towering Torre Latinoamerica.

Another strategy involves EcoBici, a bicycle-sharing system, the largest in Latin America, said GSD’s Flores Dewey. It draws close to a half a million riders a month and grew 60 percent in 2014. (Membership, heavily subsidized by the city, costs $30 a year.)

The user demographics defied expectations. “Public transportation is for people who can’t afford a car,” said Díaz. “But not EcoBici.” Eighty percent of its members are male, and many of them young, but that is changing too. He passed a bike-share rack near a subway stop. There was one bicycle left.

Nearby, four streets of traffic hem in the treeless Zócalo, where on hot days visitors stand in a line in the narrow shade cast by the central flagpole. But at the plaza’s periphery, another lesson is at hand from Mexico’s informal sector, which tends to fill in sidewalks and public spaces in creative ways. The city has taken over part of official streets and created pocket parks, islands of benches and greenery, “Twelve in the last two years,” said Díaz. “If you come at noon, it’s hard to find a seat.”

The same willingness to learn from the informal sector may be the keystone of urban resilience in Mexico City, where the cultures of rich and poor, formal and informal, seem to clash fruitfully. To get the modern Metrobús system started, city officials negotiated with microbus owners to form cooperatives that buy and run bigger buses. To invent a system of pocket parks, city officials drew on informal sector habits of taking over streets in search of human scale.

In a city that is still, underneath, a place of “lakes and volcanoes,” said Castillo, resilience and adaption is built into the culture. The city grew up around first an Aztec and then a Hispanic colonial core. It absorbed forests, lakes, and villages. It burst into modernity at the same time that Paz was putting boyhood behind him. The Nobelist would go on to call his changed city “a subverted paradise.” But Harvard and its design experts and city residents see hope and progress.

“What do we do with this reality?” asked Castillo of his complicated city, with its rough road to its present. “We can’t relocate 21 million people. We can’t spend our lives whining about the bad decisions we have made. We have to actively adapt.”