Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The city in Mexico

I recently came back from a month teaching in Mexico. Gave me a chance to think about cities and how people organize them. While there's a lot we don't want to emulate about Mexican cities, there's also a lot we can learn from them. I was teaching linguistics in the city of San Luis Potosí this year and in 2007, and I've visited the states of Jalisco (Guadalajara, Chapala, Ajijic, and Mezcala); Oaxaca (Oaxaca city, Mitla, Jalapa de Díaz, and Tuxtepec); Guerrero (Tlapa); and Mexico City itself.

City Growth

Mexico had cities long before we did in the US, so there's a lot about them that's more like the old cities of Europe and Asia. Most of them grew "like Topsy", without any pattern or preplanned design. There appears to be little or no zoning - no effort to channel growth of certain types into desired areas. On the other hand, almost all Mexican cities have a clearly defined center built around a town square, known in Mexico as el zócalo. Around this square one finds the main church, government buildings, and shops. Often there are historic residences of a colonial governor or other high official. The middle of the zócalo usually has a shelter, variously used as a monument, a band shell, and a place for couples to share romantic moments. Most zócalos have trees, benches, statuary, and fountains - originally the main source of the town's drinking water. Weekend evenings often see bands playing, people dancing, and families strolling in the zócalo. (Mexicans tend to be more likely to spend time together as families than we are in the US.) The zócalo of Mexico city is an exception, in that it is entirely paved and has no greenery - it is in front of the Mexican equivalent of the White House, and is used mostly for political rallies, demonstrations, and parking for tour buses. The equivalent gathering places for this city (largest in the Western Hemisphere at 19.2 million in 2005) are the Alameda Central and the Bosque de Chapultepec, reminiscent of New York's Central Park.

From the zócalo most Mexican cities have grown outward organically. Thoroughfares mainly following the natural contours of the land. The smaller streets are defined more by blocks of buildings, rather than blocks being defined by streets. This follows an ancient pattern found, for example, in Roman cities. There, a "block" was called insula, an "island". This insula presents a solid front, right up to the sidewalk. The original purpose was defensive, and that purpose has not changed. There is still, and probably always will be, a need to protect one's goods and family from marauders, whether the are enemy tribes or burglars. Residences and shops are found in all neighborhoods. Above most shops are the residences of the family that owns them. One block may contain several small eateries (taquerías), a couple of auto repair shops, four or five general stores (abarrotes), a laundry, and perhaps some offices. This "mixed use" pattern makes it possible to make most purchases without driving anywhere, or even walking very far.
By comparison, a US neighborhood of approximately the same socioeconomic bracket is more spread out, with wide setbacks from the street and spaces between the houses, most of which are segregated from shops.

Open space

Instead of open space on the street - what we call "setback" in US zoning codes - there are walls right up to the sidewalks. The lawns and gardens are within the walls or behind the houses, perhaps in the form of a courtyard. This too is based on the Roman insula pattern. Gardens in upper-class houses are quite sizable, but the average open space in urban Mexican middle-class housing is much more modest. Lower-class houses have a multi-purpose open space used for cooking, washing, and possibly a vegetable garden, depending on the size and on what the family wants to do with it. The result is much more compact or "dense" housing, but with a greater sense of privacy when in "the family". For a sense of community, the Mexican family typically goes to a park and mingles with other townsfolk in the evenings and weekends. Parks are much more heavily used and more "decorative" than many US parks, in that they have more statuary, fountains, and flower gardens, where a typical US suburban park is mainly grass and trees with some children's play equipment. It is common to see lots of people jogging, walking dogs, bicycling, playing soccer, necking, and just "chilling out" in parks from early morning to late evening.


Private cars are very popular in Mexico, and though SUVs, big pickups, and minivans are much in evidence, the average car is somewhat smaller than in the US. There are several small US models from Ford and GM that aren't available in the US, such as the Chevy C2 Comfort. Traffic is so bad in Mexico City that there is a "rationing" system, prohibiting cars with certain license numbers from entering the city on given days of the week.

Public transportation is frequent and reliable in most of Mexico (I can't speak first-hand about the southernmost parts, Chiapas and the Yucatán region). Mexico City has 12 subway lines, plus Bus Rapid Transit, light rail, and has recently added a commuter rail line. Guadalajara, though a distant second in population, has two subway lines. All other Mexican cities rely exclusively on buses and taxis. In comparison with US buses, Mexican urban buses are simpler and less expensive. They are not air conditioned, all have manual transmission, most are somewhat smaller (25-35 passengers), none are low-floor or "kneeling" buses. All are made in Mexico and probably cost one quarter to one third of what a US transit bus costs. On the other hand, they are very frequent, they run on many different routes, inexpensive (typically about 50 cents US) and the bus drivers will always make change for you (unless you give them a large bill for a small fare). During the day (including weekends) they run frequently enough that you don't have to worry about the schedule. There will be a bus on your route every 5-10 minutes. This is made possible by the compact urban design and relative density of the population. What they lack in elegance, Mexican urban buses make up in good service. (Intercity buses, on the other hand, offer both elegance and good service.)

Taxis are much more available and inexpensive than in the US. Though rumors of unscrupulous taxi drivers circulate, I have never had a problem with any. Well, hardly any. There was one taxi, a large American car that waited outside the tourist hotel in Mexico City where I stayed a couple of times, that had no meter and charged me the equivalent of $10 USD for less than two miles on a Sunday morning. (But the driver was very friendly and helpful, and it was Sunday.) All the other taxis had meters and charged exactly what was on the meter - no round-about routes, no charge for extra passengers, and no tips expected. Typical in-city fare in San Luis Potosí was $2-3 USD. Oh yes: taxis to and from airports and major bus stations - the "safe" kind that you pay for in advance inside the terminal - are at least twice as expensive. You pay for your "security".

The typical taxi in Mexico these days is the Nissan Tsuru, a model based on the 1991 Sentra and made in Mexico (Aguascalientes), not available in the US. It's a compact 4-door model, said to be quite reliable and economical. The taxi drivers all liked them pretty well. Much safer and more roomy than the previous Mexican taxi favorite, the classic Volkswagen beetle, also made in Mexico and usually with the front passenger seat taken out for ease of access, known affectionately as a Vocho.


The design of Mexican cities is chaotic in many ways. It's easy to get lost in most because of their unplanned street arrangement - the main exception being Puebla, which was designed and laid out with rectangular blocks and straight streets in 1531 by a priest (local legend says by two angels). The dense design makes it difficult to widen transportation corridors. Sometime in the last century, Mexico City planners superimposed a system of axial roads to make cross-town travel simpler and quicker, but it must have been done at the expense of many old buildings that stood in the way. Later, they did the same to add expressways. Other transportation features, such as the intercity bus terminals, have often been added in inconvenient places, far from the center of town, though close enough in that buses have to fight considerable traffic to get in and out of towns.

Still, I like a lot about Mexican cities: the compact design, the convenient shopping, the central zócalo bringing a beautiful human and social focus to the urban center, the omnipresent, convenient public transportation, and the generous, artistic park spaces.

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