Curious how big cities seem to work almost like clockwork despite being…..well, huge? Mexico City, one of the biggest cities in the world (population 114.8 million (UN, 2011)), is taking on the challenges facing all modern cities today like pollution, growing urban populations, traffic, and lack of green spaces, in innovative ways.
Granted, I have never been much of a city girl myself, but I must admit, I am impressed by how they seem to function despite the chaos that appears on the surface. Flying over the vastness of Mexico City for the first time, I was in awe of the city lights sparkling against the blanker of darkness that seemed to go on forever, like the opening scrolling lines from a Star Wars movie. As the plane descended upon the city, the small lights came into focus. Cars dotted the scene below, moving along the mazes of highways. Major streets were lined with lamp posts, billboard screens flashed wildly in the night. It was mind boggling and exciting all in the same moment. I could not wait to get on the ground and explore.
Since that first trip, I have flown over some of the biggest cities in the world. Bangkok, Mexico City, Tokyo, Lima, New York. When I started to be interested in how we can create a more sustainable world (if that is even possible), I began to realize that we must focus on cities. Although it is exciting to build something brand new like a “green office building” that is flashy and has all the new bells and whistles available through the exploding sustainable technology industry, the reality is that we are living in a built-world that needs to be retrofitted. Mexico is on the forefront of this, looking at ways to re-create itself and it’s cities. So, for today’s blog, I looked into something that will be topic that just keeps getting bigger: C*I*T*I*E*S!
Recently I visited Mexico City, seeking out a few innovative examples of how the mega metropolis is dealing with economic instability, crowed urban spaces, and public transportation challenges. The people of Mexico City are doing some pretty awesome things. Today I will highlight three gems I stumbled upon, highlighting a few exciting projects that are sprouting up around the city, that could be a glimpse of what the newly emerging, more sustainable city of the future will look like.
The metro system is a great alternative transportation option, at just 3 pesos a pop (equivalent to about $.24 cents US), it is one of the cheapest metro systems in the world, is pleasantly easy to navigate, and can take you to most points in the city. During this visit, however, I noticed something new. Bikes! Bike share programs are popping up in many cities worldwide, and Mexico City has it’s own: ECOBIKES (In Spanish). Also check out this video with some great photos! (Also in Spanish).
It works like this: You buy a card for $300 pesos a year (about $24 US), and you are able to check out a bike from one of their locations currently located in the Reforma and Insurgentes neighborhoods within the downtown core in 45 minute increments. The cute red bikes are lined up and locked into a bike rack. The city has also committed to creating more bike paths, and ridership numbers have increased steadily in the past few years. They even have road closures every Sunday downtown for Muévete en Bici, where some 15,000 riders come out each week.
Kodos Mexico City for setting up this system to cute down on traffic, save citizens some cash, and get them out and about viewing their city from the seat of a bike. Wind blowing in their hair and all!
More on riding bikes in Mexico City
- –For more info, check out is video (English) about the ride share program.
After passing a few bike racks, I continued walking down Calle Reforma, where I intended to check out Parque Chapultepec. What sprang up before my eyes but an uran garden located in a huge cross roads on Calle Reforma and near the entrance of the park. Nestled along the towering office buildings in the historic core, Vivero Urbano Reforma was the brain child of Sembradores Urbanos. I had done a bit of research online about the urban gardening in the city, stumbling across the organization’s webpage.
Peering in through the chain link fence that surrounded the garden, I saw a gardener or”jardinero”, who I called to asking permission to come in. He waved me in, and as I slipped through the gate, I found myself in a quiet, peaceful oasis that could have been in any town. But in the city? It was pretty cool to see what can be done in a small urban space. I hope to check it out again in more depth later, but here is some info on some of their projects. They even have a page on their webpage that marks projects all over the Mexico City.
Want to know more about Sembradores Urbanos and urban gardening in Mexico City?
- Promoting Urban Agriculture in Mexico City — Sembradores Urbanos (www.cityfarmer.info)
- Mexico City’s Urban Agriculture (CNN video report)
After coming across the garden by chance, I was excited telling a my friend Sarah who lives there about it. She patiently listened, and then said “oh, yeah! I know of that project.” Apparently the founders will also do a beer making workshop if you are able to get a group together. So not only was my friend a good source of info, but she also tipped me onto another cool project to revitalize a street near the centro.
I map-quested (can that be a verb?) Calle Regina, a few blocks in the central district, that has been revitalized. Previously, the dimly-lit downtown street was a dangerous and unwelcoming neighborhood, so the city government paired with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu and funded a massive project to turn the street into a “cultural coridor”, as designated by the Mexican government. The hope is to spread the project into surrounding areas as well, sparking a larger clean up of the entire area.
As I walked through the airy street dotted with sidewalk cafes and benches, I understood how there was now a draw for businesses owners to settle in this location. Now, it is difficult to call this local your own, and in fact, new business owners are slowing agreeing to set up in the adjoining streets to get in on the action. I guess it is working! Read more about it in this New York Times article.
But can a massive city like Mexico ever be “sustainable”?
In my humble opinion, the reality we are facing is that cities dominant the world landscape today. Rather then invest huge amounts of labor and resources into NEW projects, doesn’t it make sense to use the existing urban environment as best we can and creatively adapt it to fit the new realities we are facing? Creating more user friendly transportation systems, turning underutilized urban plots into green spaces or gardens, and putting energy into neglected neighborhoods just might get us a little closer to sustaining these mega cities.
I encourage people to explore Mexico and Mexico City if you have an opportunity. It is safe, and offers many examples of of creative problem solving that puts them on the path of action. Although some question whether our world can ever be sustainable, my answer is, isn’t action better then inaction?
After all, it was Margaret Mead who said “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So, what changes can you do to make a change for the good in the world?
Want to know a little bit more about Mexico City?
- First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capitol of the 21st Century (Book Review, New York Times)
- The Mija Chronicles Great blog chronicling a writer’s adventures in Mexico City highlighting food, culture and travel.