A New Layer in History

Mexico City and the Quest for Socially Responsible Transformation Through Design

Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director behind The Revenant and Birdman, once said that his native Mexico City is “this big, complex monster of a city that has always had real problems and needs,” going on to explain that he’s “always found [his] way through it in different ways.” But it’s not just the Mexican capital’s denizens that have found different ways to inhabit and traverse its space; the city itself has been a remarkable example of mutability during its nearly seven-century-long story.

It’s partly thanks to this powerful story that Mexico City has been named as 2018’s World Design Capital (WDC) by the World Design Organization (WDO). This designation is awarded to a different city biennially, based on the city’s commitment to using design as a tool for economic, social, and cultural development. Mexico City joins the five previous WDCs (Taipei, Cape Town, Helsinki, Seoul, and Torino) as the first city in the Americas to receive this honor. Throughout a yearlong event program, WDCs showcase best practices for design via sustainable, design-led urban policies and innovations that improve quality of life for residents.

Mugendi K. M’Rithaa, WDO president and professor of industrial design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, hopes that “Mexico City will serve as a model for other megacities around the world grappling with the challenges of urbanization and using design thinking to ensure a safer, more liveable city.” To that end, WDC CDMX 2018’s official theme, “Socially Responsible Design,” was chosen to reflect “an ambition to promote the role of design and creativity as agents of social and cultural change within the urban context.” But even as it transforms itself to better confront the growing challenges of massive urbanization in the 21st century, Mexico City will need its design to be respectful of the communities it seeks to improve. This tension between revolutionary change and the permanence of tradition and history is of particular relevance for the Mexican metropolis, which is not just one of the most populated urban areas in the world, but also the oldest capital city in the Americas.

Growing Pains

Since its origins as Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Aztec Empire) in the 14th century, throughout its history as the crown jewel of the Spanish Empire, and even today, as one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world, Mexico City has always been “a city of superlatives.” As Juan Miró, an architect and professor at the University of Texas in Austin, explains: “Few, if any, can rival the richness of the layers beneath it.”

Nestled in a large, mountainous valley 2,240 meters above sea level, the city’s footprint grew from around 80 square kilometers in 1950 to a metropolitan area of about 8,000 square kilometers in the span of 60 years. During the same period, its population went from around 3 million inhabitants to about 22 million.

Harvard Gazette reports that for José Castillo, an architect and lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, “Mexico City as a megacity can serve as a universal paradigm that cities should learn from in the future. The allure of the megalopolis becomes very appealing as an object of study.”

But even though Mexico City’s enormous size, frenetic growth, and rich diversity are all part of its charm, they also represent challenges that would be hard for any city to confront – let alone one that now houses close to a fifth of its country’s population and economic output. Deficits in affordable housing (in both quantity and quality), air pollution, water mismanagement, trans- portation infrastructure issues, and the effects of terrain subsidence stand out among the many challenges stemming from the city’s rapid and unplanned urbanization.

In the eyes of the World Bank, “the rapid and uncoordinated growth of urban footprints” has exacerbated these challenges with sprawling development that is “distant, dispersed, and disconnected,” and which has underused the city’s “potential to boost economic growth and foster social inclusion and liveability.” Overcoming these challenges only becomes more complicated as time goes by and the city’s sprawl grows, increasingly bleeding into surrounding districts and requiring even more coordination between local, state, and federal authorities. Reporting for Inverse, Neel V. Patel predicted that Mexico City “will spend the next hundred years tackling the problems of the previous 30.”

Designing Solutions

Faced with these mounting urban challenges, Mexico City has increasingly turned to design as a source of innovative solutions and interventions to become more sustainable and, ultimately, more liveable.

This influence was visible at a recent lecture co-sponsored by Harvard’s Department of Urban Planning and Design, where Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, shared some of the city’s efforts and commitments to combatting climate change and its effects. This collaboration between the city’s government and the design community can also be seen in the way the Mexican capital pitched itself to the WDO through a joint bid led by Design Week Mexico (DWM), a non-profit organization that promotes design as an engine of social change.

Started in 2008, DWM’s yearly event program creates an important opportunity to showcase the work of designers of all stripes, provide platforms that bring together actors in the creative community, and push for the use of design as a tool for economic, social, cultural, and environmental development.

“Mexico City has a vibrant design scene, which has gained increased international attention over the last few years,” says Emilio Cabrero, cofounder of DWM and head of the office responsible for organizing WDC CDMX 2018. “World Design Capital presents an opportunity to challenge and demonstrate our ability to use design solutions to address the social and urban challenges our city is facing. Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Design Week Mexico, we are determined to create a moment for design professionals, creatives, and the general public alike to come together and rethink the role of design in our society in an impactful way.”

As cofounder of multidisciplinary architecture firm C Cúbica Arquitectos, Cabrero emphasizes the importance of collaboration, stressing that designers can “support specialists tasked with making things functional, sustainable, and aesthetic, because through design you can rehabilitate public space and therefore improve people’s quality of life.” He adds, “Design is everything. Through design, you can improve everything, from parks and public space to mobility tools that impact quality of life. Who benefits from design? We all do.”

Cabrero hopes that WDC CDMX 2018 will “build a platform for collaboration not just between design disciplines, but also between countries,” explaining that “[WDC] seek[s] to create a hub of global creative industries that have an impact on their societies.”

Respectful Transformation

Although WDC CDMX 2018 seeks to change Mexico City for the better, the initiative acknowledges that in order for design to be truly socially responsible, it shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater; transformations must be performed with respect to the valuable elements that already exist, whether those come in the form of physical structures or more intangible social and cultural ones. After all, cities aren’t inert, monolithic agglomerations of buildings; rather, they are living organisms built upon the interactions of thousands of individual human beings.

Cabrero asks, “How are we going to generate communication and dialogue networks between different sectors? How can we try, through design, to make the city more plural, more inclusive, so that not everything is stratified by socioeconomic sectors? How can we make the city of the 21st century different?” These are the challenges of a city that has been messily growing for nearly 700 years, expanding horizontally by absorbing neighboring towns and vertically by building on layer upon layer of history.

Perhaps the most famous example of the latter phenomenon can be seen in Mexico City’s Historic Center, where the remains of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor (Main Temple) were discovered in the 20th century. The Aztec ruins were found buried beneath modern houses and streets next to the Spanish colonial architecture of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, and the Plaza de la Constitución (more commonly known as El Zócalo). The Aztecs believed that the Templo Mayor was located at the center of the universe and El Zócalo, the city’s main square, embodies that myth. For centuries, the wide, flat expanse of stone has remained an important gathering place, both for Mexico City residents and the country at large, in times of celebration and of protest.

In her magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” As Marco Coello, also a cofounder at C Cúbica Arquitectos and DWM, points out, “Political parties change, agendas change, all the time. But what makes this city are its inhabitants.”

Socially Responsible Transformation Through Design

Respecting local social issues in the midst of necessary change and upheaval is challenging for any city, but this becomes particularly difficult in a cosmopolitan megalopolis of over 20 million people – especially one that acts as a melting pot in a country of close to 130 million people. Nevertheless, success stories do exist.

Diane Davis, chair of Harvard’s Department of Urban Planning and Design, has highlighted the work of Mexico City’s Public Space Authority (known as the AEP in Spanish). Since its inception in 2009, the AEP has implemented several projects to renovate and create public spaces in order to improve sustainability, social engagement, and economic development. The AEP’s work combines urban design with public consultation, resulting in a positive impact that does not sideline community involvement or self-determination. In some cases, this engagement has even led to the formation of neighborhood institutions that have endured after the intervention is finished.

A controversial example of what happens when design seeks to intervene in a space without fully taking the existing culture into account can be seen in the Corredor Cultural Chapultepec (CCC) project. The CCC, a proposed multi-level urban park that would have run alongside Avenida Chapultepec, evoking New York City’s High Line, was cancelled after intense backlash from local residents. The project’s rejection, made clear via public consultation and protests, stemmed from concerns about gentrification and the displacement of long-time residents, as well as questions concerning just how public the finished space would be, with critics likening the project more to a private mall than a public park.

However, as difficult as it is to achieve respectful and inclusive change at a large scale, neither continuing business as usual nor reducing communities to a static life as cultural dioramas are promising answers to the challenges of urbanization. Transformation is still required for Mexico City to thrive; the World Bank indicates that the status quo of unplanned expansion has affected the city’s “ability to foster liveability and social inclusion and [has] exacerbated spatial disparities in access to services, urban amenities, and job opportunities.”

Mexican writer and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz said that resilience was one of his country’s most popular virtues. “We admire fortitude in the face of adversity more than the most brilliant triumph.” Throughout its long, diverse life, Mexico City has witnessed volcanic eruptions, years-long floods, the violence of war, earthquakes, and an ever-growing influx of people placing demands on it – and still it stands. However, if the city is to be more than an example of fortitude and resilience, if it is to thrive and not just survive in the face of its current challenges, it must once again transform itself.

Socially responsible design can be the instrument that achieves this transformation without forgetting the importance of what has come before it. Becoming a WDC is a great honor for Mexico City, a testament to the achievements of its citizens, and an opportunity to push for design to have an even greater positive impact in its surroundings. But that great honor comes with great responsibility. It’s an opportunity that must not be squandered and that should be viewed as the start of a new chapter in the city’s narrative, one that the city’s denizens can be proud of.

the author

Rolando Hinojosa

Rolando Hinojosa is a researcher and editor at Idea Couture.

the author

Yadira Ornelas

Yadira Ornelas is director, IC Mexico.