On Contingencies and Urban Development

  • 1 Dec 2017
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Some days ago, I landed at dawn in Mexico City International Airport (MCIA). As I left Terminal 2 at daybreak by cab, I found the usual procession of vehicles running along Miguel Alemán Viaduct to reach workplaces on the west side, most of them with one person on board per car.

Inevitably, the driver spoke to me about the environmental contingency we are living (which we are still suffering as of the cut-off date for this edition), due to the concentration of emissions produced by transport, with particular atmospheric impact. The cabbie was worried because the authorities had once more changed the daily program for traffic restriction, and if this went on, he might have to invest in a new car.

From the conversation amid a sea of vehicles, it seemed clear to me that no vehicle traffic restriction could resolve the daily need of millions of people to move on the public transport currently available… and thus, the situation would have to be tackled from a more radical point of view. I’ll explain why.

The metropolitan area of Mexico City is one of the four largest urban concentrations in the world, where over 20 million inhabitants live. The city grew very rapidly in the 60s, causing the appearance of numerous suburbs, some precarious and provisional. Due to the scale and speed of the process, the authorities were unable to implement adequate planning, and many of these colonies today continue to lack basic utilities, such as water and sanitation, power or transport… the three basic pillars of any urban formation.

Since then, CDMX has observed a pattern of suburbanization, where the basic functions of the metropolis – employment, health services, leisure and recreation – concentrate in a few central areas, while the population leaves the city to reside on the outskirts. There, in the suburbs, land is cheaper, although vehicles become indispensable, given the lack of public transport.

This emulates certain American cities, where the greatest amount of power per person in the world is consumed, and also where the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are produced. Although other factors justify these patterns, such as purchasing power or the consumer habits of the population, there is a clear relationship between contaminating emissions and urban density: the less the density, the higher the per capita emissions.

A person living in the center of a large city contaminates much less than one living in the suburbs. If he has to work, it would probably be faster and much cheaper to ride a bicycle, a subway or a metropolitan bus than his own private car. However, these are not very feasible options for someone living on the outskirts.

Nonetheless, the costly prices of land in city centers, where residents have to compete with the rates paid by businesses or offices, puts life in the center outside the reach of a large percentage of citizens. Thus, urban policies should aim at three fundamental strategies:

Densification of urban spaces where jobs and services concentrate through the improvement of infrastructure and systems for measuring the capital gains in land value, to enable more efficient land occupancy in buildings; i.e., to build higher.

The promotion of new urban centers in the areas of city expansion that can provide resident access to quality jobs and services, facilitating the use of public transport and making vehicle use less needful.

Containment of city growth and new land consumption. It is needful to protect the areas along the city bounds to prevent urban centers from growing like oil stains on the land. The creation of natural or agricultural reserve zones is very common in cities implementing these policies.

Of course, programs such as traffic restrictions, technologies such as electric vehicles, the use of clean energy or programs allowing for remote work stations, and citizen awareness put into practice through more responsible consumption, help mitigate the problem. However, its roots lie not so much in the emissions that each specific vehicle may produce, but in the number of daily trips necessary for people to perform their activities and satisfy their daily needs.

Making the city center denser is a long-term task, as against the immediate threat of atmospheric contamination. However, to prevent the possibility of another environmental crisis happening within 10 to 15 years, it would be necessary to begin to re-plan our cities to create a dense multi-central urban model: generating new centers for jobs and services to discourage massive movement while at the same time promoting collective transport and introducing the technologies necessary for us to gradually contaminate less.