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Mexico City's Sustainability and Culture, a plea for hybrid sustainabilities for a baroque and labyrinthine city

Mexico City's Sustainability and Culture, a plea for hybrid sustainabilities for a baroque and labyrinthine city
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  Mexico-City, sustainability and culture: A plea for hybridsustainabilities for a baroque and labyrinthine city Hans Dieleman ⇑ Center for EcoAlfabetizacion and Dialogues of Knowing, University Veracruzana, Campus Xalapa, Mexico Av. de las Culturas Veracruzanas s/n., C.P. 91060 Zona Universitaria CampusUSBI, Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico a r t i c l e i n f o  Article history: Received 9 December 2012Received in revised form date 18 April 2013Accepted 4 May 2013Available online 15 August 2013 Keywords: Urban sustainabilityLatin AmericaHybrid culturesArt a b s t r a c t This article focuses on Mexico City’s sustainability plans and politics, as well as some related art projectsand practices. Where Mexico City was declared the most polluted city of the world in 1992, it is nowknown for its very pro-active environmental politics and related initiatives. At the same time the cityis gaining attention as a cultural city and hosts a growing creative class. The article shows how thesetwo, sustainability and the cultural/creative, are interrelated in various ways. In one way the city’s sus-tainable policies reinforced the gentrification process of the city’s historic center. In another way the cul-tural elites respond to the city’s activities in sustainability in terms of an increased interest in eco-artisticprojects. In a third way the article shows how the introduction of the Western concept of sustainability isproblematic in a Latin American cultural context. It runs the risk of – again – reinforcing the existingcleavage between well-educated Western oriented elites on the one hand and the mestizo masses andindigenous people on the other hand. Moreover it disregards the fact that Latin America has a fundamen-tally different kind of modernity and culture that can be labeled as labyrinthine, baroque or hybrid. TheWestern concept of sustainability most probably will not function within such a culture, a reason why thearticle makes a plea for the design of a concept of hybrid sustainability (or sustainabilities) that match thecharacteristics of the Latin American reality in general and the reality of Mexico City in particular.   2013 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Introduction Mexico-City is part of the Metropolitan Zone of the Val-ley of Mexico (see Fig. 1). The city in the strict sense hassome 9 million inhabitants whereas the whole Zone hasapproximately 20 million. Due to its altitude and positionin a valley surrounded by mountains on basically all sides,the city has particular problems with air pollution as wellas with water availability. At 2.400 meters altitude thecombustion of gasoline is imperfect and even though theair pollution is considerably lower than 20 years ago, theMetropolitan Zone still is a huge emitter of greenhousegas with the transport sector being the main source of pol-lution. Water is the next key area of attention. 60% to 70% of all the water consumed in the city is coming from variousnatural areas around the city. These areas and the soils inthose areas that function as water-reserve for the city areunder threat due to the rapid and still on-going expansionof the city. The average temperature of Mexico-City hasincreased by 2–3% in the past 100 years, mainly due tourbanization and – in the last years – climate change. Asa result, the last years show much more heavy winds, high-er temperature fluctuations with periods of extreme heatas well as extreme rain. The combined effect of urbaniza-tion and climate change results in a situation of highly in-creased vulnerability and risk of flooding, hailstorms, ice,wind, temperature fluctuations and forest fires (Secretariadel Medio Ambiente del Distrito Federal, 2008) .Since the year 2000 the city is governed by the left-wingadministration of the PRD (the Radical Democratic Party),from 2006 until 2012 headed by Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. Be-fore joining the PRD Ebrard was a member of the GreenParty, and his interest in environmental issues has beenclearly present during the period of his administration(2006–2012). In 2007 his government published the Gen-eral Development Program 2007–2012, of which the GreenPlan is one of the seven policy lines. The Green Plan with atemporal orientation of 15 years is the overall frameworkfor the city’s environmental politics and comes with a num-ber of specific plans such as ‘‘The environmental agenda of Mexico-City 2007–2012”, ‘‘The Sustainable Water 1877-9166/$ - see front matter    2013 Published by Elsevier Ltd. ⇑ Tel.: +52 01 228 8421700x10858. E-mail address:  hansdieleman@gmail.comCity, Culture and Society 4 (2013) 163–172 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect City, Culture and Society journal homepage:  Management Program for Mexico-City” and ‘‘The Mexico-City Climate Change Action program 2008–2012” (Secre-taria del Medio Ambiente del Distrito Federal, 2008).In the Green City Index for Latin America, a comparativeanalysis of 17 Latin American cities that was published atthe end of 2010 (Friederich et al., 2010), Mexico City isespecially recognized for its environmental managementperformance. And indeed, Ebrard’s administration has beensuccessful in developing and implementing various policyplans as well as in realizing a number of concrete projects.In 2010 he was nominated as the ‘‘world’s best mayor” bythe Project World Mayor, 1 not in the least due to his effortsin the environmental field, and particularly in climatechange. In 2009 he was appointed Chair of the World MayorsCouncil on Climate Change. Some of Mexico City’s environmental successes The Green City Index for Latin America indicates thatMexico-City still has some work to do to catch up withthe most advanced cities in the region (notably Curitibaand some other Brazilian cities), and that this work shouldbe concentrated in the areas of air and water. Yet the studyalso states that the city’s accomplishments are impressive,especially knowing that in 1992 Mexico City was consid-ered the worlds’ most polluted city according to the UN(WHO/UNEP 1992). At this moment a large variety of pro- jects is in process, such as the use of solar energy in apart-ment buildings, metro stations and in public spaces, theconstruction of so-called sustainable houses that integratesustainable solutions for water, waste and energy, as wellas a city-wide program for the separate collection of wasteand the construction of an incinerator for all urban wastes.Yet the city is attracting most of its attention and positiveappreciation due to a number of specific projects that allhave a high level of visibility.One of those projects is the project ‘ Ecobici ’. In 2009 thecity launched its ‘ Ecobici’   bike sharing program. This systemis comparable to bike sharing programs that can be foundin many cities today, and has some specific similaritieswith the systems of the cities of Paris and Barcelona. It rap-idly developed to be the largest year-round bike-sharingsystem in North America (Shaheen et al., 2012). The systemhas 85 stations, primarily in the Cuauthémoc delegationand in particular in the districts of La Roma, Condesa, SanRafael, the historic center and the city’s main avenue ‘Paseode la Reforma’ (see Fig. 2). The program’s promoters ini-tially hoped to garner 24,000 subscribers and by 2011 theactual number of subscribers is 28,000. Together they madein that year on average 9,000 travels per day. To facilitatethe bikers the city constructed some 300 km of bike lanes(Gobierno del Distrito Federal, 2012).The historic center now has various car free streets thatserve as pedestrian shopping areas while the entire historiccenter as well as the city’s main avenue ‘Paseo de la Ref-orma’ are car free during the Sunday mornings and earlyafternoons. During those hours the center is converted intoa fun place for bikers, skaters and the like. A trolleybus sys-tem has been created on a number of large avenues that Fig. 1.  The Metropolitan Area, Mexico City and the three more affluent zones within Mexico City. 1 (last visited 7-12-2012)  Fig. 2.  Ecobici  project.164  H. Dieleman/City, Culture and Society 4 (2013) 163–172  cross the delegations of Cuauthémoc and Benito Juarez, asystem that is proudly yet euphemistically called the‘‘Zero-emission Green Line”. A free bus lane system – acopy of Curitibas bus system – called the ‘‘Metrobus” wasintroduced in 2006 with just one line, and has been con-verted in a system of various lines, basically in the city cen-ter but with some lines going quit beyond the center intothe suburbs.In 2010 Martha Delgado, the city alderman for environ-ment and since 2009 the vice-president of the ICLEI, theGlobal Association of Local Governments for Sustainability,announcedyetonemoremayorproject.Itconcernsthecon-version of 30,000 m 2 – about six football fields – of down-town roof terraces on government buildings into aerialgardens. The project implies creating green roofs/gardenson public schools, hospitals and on rooftops of some metrostations,aswellasopeningthoseroofs,includingtheoneonthecity’stownhall,tothegeneralpublic(GobiernodelDist-rito Federal, 2012). At that moment the government explic-itly invited the private sector to join in and various MexicoCity based architects and designers specialized in greenwalls or so-called vertical green gardens responded to thatinvitation. As a result rooftops as well as walls are in a –gradual – process of being greened (see Fig. 3).The green roof project also resulted in the constructionof a number of very interesting green sculptures, part of the project ‘ Respira ’. Respira is an initiative of the NGO‘‘VERDMEX” (Green Mexico), a group of architects, urba-nists and entrepreneurs and designers aims (among otherobjectives) to create art in public spaces that is aestheticand functional in the sense that it cleans the public spacesof the city (see Fig. 4). In 2012 VERDMEX realized threegreen so-called breathing sculptures covered with grassand other organic material in big avenues of the city, onein the city centre and two in the commercial areas east of the city centre. The sculptures are called ‘‘breathing” asthe inhale the air with its CO2 and exhale O2. The Spanishword ‘respira’ means ‘to breath’.On April 9, 2012, the New York Times paid attention tothe VERDMEX ‘respira’ – sculptures and concluded thatthese sculptures are the ultimate signs of Mexico City’sdevelopment into a sustainable city and as proofs that thecity definitely arrived among the first class and first worldcities. The successes however should be placed in the rightperspective. Mexico City’s sustainability as an elitist project Many of the illustrative projects have been realized in arather small part of the city, the historic center with exten-sions to the fairly affluent delegations of Benito Juarez andCoyoacan in the south and the affluent business anddomestic areas in the east (see Fig. 5). These (colonial)zones of the city host no more than 2 million inhabitants,which constitutes an important limitation of the city’s sus-tainability actions. Yet there is more. It looks like the citygovernment not only aimed to create a ‘showcase of urbansustainability’ that mainly served the rich but used this ef-fort also to start a process of gentrification of the Historic Fig. 3.  Vertical green garden. Fig. 4.  Breathing sculpture as part of the VERDMEX ‘‘Respira”-project. H. Dieleman/City, Culture and Society 4 (2013) 163–172  165  Centre and neighboring districts. In order to understandthis we need to know some more of the history of the city.Since Mexico’s ‘discoverer’ and first  conquistador   HernanCortes arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the conquistadoresalways preferred to live in the city center as well as inthe Coyoacan district. Cortes was known for his interestin Coyoacan and commuted frequently between the citycenter and Coyoacan passing by the area that is now thedelegation of Benito Juarez. After the independence andmore precisely near the end of the 19th century the citycenter (later called the Historic Centre) and the neighbor-ing district of ‘La Roma’ hosted the rich traders and sales-men whereas Coyoacan developed into the area of theartistic and intellectual elites (Coyoacan is well known asthe Bohemian place where Diego Rivera, Frida Kalo, Trotskyand others lived at the beginning of the 20 est century). The60s of the previous century showed a migration of the richsalesmen and traders out of the historic center and the LaRoma district to create the new rich zones near the east.At that same time poor migrants from all parts of ruralMexico came to the city, creating the immense suburbsthe city has today and starting to use the historic centerfor their trading of anything that could be traded. As a re-sult the historic center entered in a process of decay, rathersimilar to that of many cities world-wide during that time(Brown & Moore, 1970). Up till 2005 the streets of the his-toric center were constantly blocked by too many carswhereas the sidewalks were completely occupied andblocked by perambulate salesmen.Shortly after Mayor Ebrard took office he decreed theperambulating commercial activities in the historic centerto be illegal and started a rather harsh campaign to removethese salesmen, without offering them any alternative loca-tions to work or means of income. At the same time hestarted the refurbishing of the historic center, declaredsome streets to be car free and created the entire car freeSunday mornings and early afternoons. In this way a pro-cess of gentrification of the historic center and the La Romedistrict was rather aggressively started.To put the situation in a wider perspective it is impor-tant to take the globalization process into consideration.During the first decade of this century Mexico City has beenable to gain a solid position in the international economyand within international networks of leading cities in theworld. According to the Global Economic Power Index,Mexico City is the 16th most powerful city in the world, be-fore cities like Melbourne, Singapore or Shanghai (Floridaet al., 2009). The city hosts many multinational companiesand has developed itself as one of the leading cultural cap-itals of Latin America. The city hosts an ever growing crea-tive class that is looking for houses and apartments thatsuit their preferences, and the historic center fits thesepreferences very well. So what Ebrard realized (either pur-posefully or not) was to deprive the poor of their workenvironment and to create a nice clean and green ‘‘fun”environment for the new (creative) elites, with ‘ ecobici’s ’ , ‘ breathing sculptures ’ and the like. It was a rather typicalprocess of recreating the old colonial parts of the city in‘plug-and-play’ communities in the way Florida (2002) de-scribed these communities: communities that have arather universal and uniform character where the ever mo-bile creative class can ‘‘plug-in” and feel at home in notmore than a few weeks.  The creative classes responding to the city’ssustainability plans One can rigorously condemn this process (I will comeback to that later) and also analyze the effects of it in amore academic/neutral way. Doing the last it needs to berecognized that Ebrard created a city center ready to beoccupied by an ever growing group of artists, architects,designers and entrepreneurs that take sustainability as anew and important element in their work. Over the pastyears the Mexican artworld – and especially the estab-lished/elite artworld – indeed discovered sustainability asa theme and realized various projects. The previously Fig. 5.  Visual impression of the affluent and colonial parts of Mexico City.166  H. Dieleman/City, Culture and Society 4 (2013) 163–172  mentioned VERDMEX group with their ‘Respire’-sculpturesis an example of this development and so are many otherprojects and groups.In 2010 the prestigious journal ‘‘Artes de México” pub-lished a special issue on art and climate change with contri-butions from various highly respected Mexican artists. Inthe streets and in the national school of art (ENAP, EscuelaNacional de Artes Plasticos) sustainability has beenadopted as a new theme and various Mexican City basedartist collaborate internationally on eco-art projects. Fig. 5shows the project ‘‘Rodar y rodar, Equilibrio Urbano””, acollaboration of the Mexican artist Sergio Madrazo andthe two Danish artists Claudia Cohen and Claudia Ardeath,an installation based on photos made by real people bikingin Mexico-City‘‘. The project ‘‘Rio Piedad” created by thegroup ‘‘Taller 13 Arquitectura” proposes to re-open riversthat used to exist in the city until the sixties of the previouscentury and were closed to serve as roads (see Fig. 6).Reopening the city’s closed rivers is indeed an importantstrategy for strengthening the city’s resilience (Dieleman,forthcoming) and it is interesting to see that the creativeclass is asking attention for this strategy in the form of con-crete plans and designs. Through the policies that resultedin gentrification of the city’s center, the Ebrard administra-tion contributed as well to the creation of a creative classsensitive to sustainability that, while living in their gentri-fied urban areas, started to think in solutions for the city’senvironmental problems. For the more affluent zones of Mexico City, the past years politics to strengthen the city’ssustainability really can be seen as a success story. Mexico City’s unsustainability for the remaining 7million inhabitants What is happening in the other parts of the city wherethe remaining millions of inhabitants live? Many of theseparts have been created after 1950, during the period of the massive migration from the countryside to the capital.The city lacked the means to respond to this massiveimmigration in a planned and organized way and allowedthe newcomers to build their own houses in the ways thatthey were able to. The result is a huge urban jungle of basi-cally grey rectangular concrete boxes, with limited indoorspace of usually not more than one area for living and cook-ing and one bedroom (see Fig. 7). Even though most of these houses have electricity, water and a connection tothe sewage system, they are not designed to host largeand often extended families; whereas the neighborhoodsare not constructed to cope with contemporary levels of traffic, energy use, waste production and water consump-tion. It is here where many of the threats and risks previ-ously mentioned are predominantly present, such asflooding’s and water scarcity, in combination with prob-lems related to waste collection, sanitation, electricity, vio-lence and safety (Bassols & Arzaluz, 2002).In terms of public transport most of these neighbor-hoods are not connected to the new public transport sys-tems previously mentioned. Neither are they connectedto the metro system that was not extended when the citywas growing during the last part of the previous century.One accomplishment of the Ebrard administration howeveris the construction of a new metro-line all the way into theTláhuac district in the south-east of the city. It is the firsttime in many decades a new metro-line is constructed.The inhabitants of the other parts of the city howevermainly rely on the use of the so-called microbuses, smallprivately owned buses that range in size from the oldVolkswagen vans (that still are used massively) to smallsized regular buses. The city hosts some 100.000 of thesemicrobuses that are as a sector well organized and havebeen able to uphold environmental regulation to lowertheir emissions. As a result most of them are large scaleemitters of pollution, contributing considerably to the poorair quality in the parts of the city where they are most fre-quently found. Here as well the Ebrard administrationmade a positive change. Within the framework of the ac-tion program on climate change, the administration re-placed a considerable amount of the old buses by new Fig. 6.  Examples of two projects coming from the creative class within the affluent zones of Mexico City. H. Dieleman/City, Culture and Society 4 (2013) 163–172  167
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