May 212012

The internal geography of cities is closely related to transportation technology. Pre-Columbian cities in Mexico were walking cities; the wheel had not been developed and animals were not used for transport. Human power moved people and goods, but not very quickly or efficiently. As a result, cities were relatively compact and congested; densities were high. Despite these transport restrictions, at least one urban center in pre-Columbian Mexico had a population estimated to exceed 200,000.

The Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of a lake, and was a thriving city when Hernán Cortés arrived. After the conquest, the Spaniards built their colonial city directly on top of Tenochititlan’s main buildings and large central plaza or Zócalo. Spanish colonial urban centers were explicitly patterned after cities in Spain, with a grand central square or plaza at the center (large enough for displays of horsemanship). The streets were laid out following a north-south, east-west grid. In larger cities, smaller plazas might be planned every four blocks or so.

Panoramic view of Mexico City during colonial times

Panoramic view of Mexico City during colonial times. (Talavera tiles based on unattributed oil painting in the Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City).

Colonial Mexico City conformed closely to the Latin American city model. Important government, commercial, and religious buildings, such as the Cathedral, faced onto the square. Status was largely correlated with distance from the main plaza, the hub of all activity. Wealthy and important colonial officials had large homes in a zone surrounding the main square. This zone tended to be square or rectangular given the grid pattern of streets. Less important, middle income families lived in smaller houses farther from the main plaza; lower status groups lived even farther from the main square. The lowest status mestizos and Indians lived around the outside of the city. The city was very compact and congested. The wealthiest residents in the center lived relatively close to the poorest families on the periphery. With the very high densities, there was considerable noise and congestion, as well as sanitation problems and other health issues.

As Mexico City and other major Latin American cities grew throughout the 300-year colonial period, they tended to maintain a roughly concentric pattern; however, the growth of important government and business activities as well as wealthy residential neighborhoods usually favored one side of the city.

As these high status activities expanded they slowly took over middle status areas, which in turn expanded into poorer neighborhoods. The poorest groups were pushed to the periphery or to undesirable steep hillsides or low areas prone to flooding. The rate of spatial expansion never managed to keep pace with the growth of population and economic activity. Densities and congestion increased.

From the very beginning in Mexico City, a high status sector extended west of the Zócalo. The Aztecs considered Chapultepec Hill, six kilometers (3.6 mi) west of Tenochtitlan, a royal retreat. They built a castle there, connected to their island capital by along causeway. Spanish King Charles V declared the zone a nature reserve in 1537. Early colonial Viceroys built palacial residences there. In 1592, Viceroy Luis de Velasco constructed an impressive park, the 90-hectare (216-acre) Alameda Central about a kilometer west of the Zócalo. The area between the Alameda and the Zócalo became the city’s highest status area. The development decisions made during the 16th century solidified the west as the preferred direction and set the pattern of growth for the next 400 years. Similar high status sectors evolved in virtually all Latin American colonial cities.

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