Historic photo of the month: Mexico City cave-dwellers

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Jul 232015
 

A shout out to Marcia Ambler for sharing, via email, her memories of Mexico City in the 1950s. Among other things, she recalled how she lived as a child with her family, “in a suburb of Mexico City, where there was a deep barranca with people who lived as cliff dwellers in the barranca walls. There was also a cave nearby with a deep drop which I went in with my friends.”

Her email brought back some fond personal memories of Mexico City from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shortly after I moved to the city, Time Life published The Great Cities: Mexico City, by John Cottrell. I found this book fascinating at the time, and a quick re-read earlier this week confirms that it still well worth looking for (inexpensive copies available via Abebooks) if you are interested in what makes one of the world’s largest cities tick.

Mexico City cave dwellers. Photo by from The Great Cities: Mexico City" (Time Life books).

Mexico City cave dwellers. Photo by Harold Sund in “The Great Cities: Mexico City” (Time Life, 1979).

Like most Time Life books, it is lavishly illustrated, which brings me back to the caves and cave dwellers, since one of the photos (above), by Harold Sund shows the area that Marcia remembers, and which was also my first introduction to the curious world of relatively modern-day troglodytes in Mexico City.

Sund’s photo shows the Belén de las Flores community, relatively close to western end of Chapultepec Park, though there may well have been, and almost certainly were, several similar settlements elsewhere. This short newspaper article, from the Bangor Daily News in 1978, describes the “year-round comfort” that can be enjoyed in such caves.

I haven’t had the opportunity to revisit this area of Mexico City for more than thirty years, so I’m anxious to know what it looks like now.

Sincere thanks, Marcia, for your message which certainly took me on a trip down memory lane!

Source of photo:

  • John Cottrell. 1979. The Great Cities: Mexico City (Time Life Books, 1979). Photography by Harold Sund.

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Mexico’s urban hierarchy

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Mexico’s urban hierarchy
May 072015
 

Mexico’s urban hierarchy is still very dominated by Mexico City, its primate capital city. Even though the Mexico City urban area (ZMCM) has grown relatively slowly during the past 30 years, by 2000 it had a population of 17.8 million, almost five times larger than Guadalajara, instead of twice as large as expected from the rank size rule.

The concept of urban hierarchy is more complicated than the rank-size rule, which is based solely on population size. Urban hierarchy is based more on the functions provided by urban centers and their relationships with their hinterlands. An urban hierarchy is conceptually similar to an organization chart or layered pyramid. At the top is the largest center, the dominant financial, economic, and often political center of the country. It has the widest range and most complex set of urban functions and services such as international banking, stock exchanges, trade organizations, and major media and communications centers. It is the center of power of the country: the place where the most important decisions are made.

Fig 21-2 of Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

Fig 21-2 of Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

At the second level are a few regional cities that are the centers of power in their region or hinterland. They provide high level services that are not available elsewhere in the region. Such services might include investment banking, an important international airport, as well as sophisticated business, legal and medical centers. At the third level are a larger number of subregional centers which are the focus of economic activity in their subregion. At each succeeding lower level, there are a greater number of centers serving as the economic foci of their smaller hinterlands.

Often a center’s population is a guide to its level in the hierarchy, but not always. Some centers may have a large population, but do not provide a wide range of key economic functions to surrounding areas. For example, Puebla is Mexico’s fourth largest urban area, but does not serve as a real center for a national region because it is so close to Mexico City. In other words, Mexico City is so economically dominant in central Mexico that Puebla has been unable to carve out a substantial hinterland of its own. The same can be said for Toluca, Mexico’s fifth largest urban area.

Tourist centers like Cancún and Acapulco are other examples of cities that have a reduced regional importance despite their relatively large populations. They provide vacation and recreation services for visitors from around the world. However, neither is a state capital, and they are not necessarily the key functional center in their respective regions.

Given their complexity, the specific delineation of urban hierarchies has often been as much art as science. So far, no uniformly accepted, easy to use criteria have been developed for this purpose. Efforts to delineate urban hierarchies have traditionally used information on the range of services provided; financial, communication and transportation flows; as well as a center’s location, its surrounding hinterland, and the distance to competing centers.

Mexico City is at the apex on the Mexican urban hierarchy; Guadalajara and Monterrey are key second level cities. Beyond these three centers, there is less agreement concerning the appropriate levels of other urban centers. Some think there are only two genuine level two cities, while others have argued that Toluca, Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez should also be considered level two cities. There is even less agreement when it comes to specifying cities in levels three and four. The exact delineation of the levels is less important than understanding the basic concepts of urban hierarchy and realizing that a city’s level is related to the range of functions it provides to its surrounding hinterland.

The suggested current urban hierarchy of Mexico (see map) is based on objective and subjective information on the urban center itself, as well as the population in its hinterland and its distance from a competing urban center. This hierarchy is only suggestive. Intermediate levels could be added indicating centers that could arguably be included in either the level above or level below.

The current hierarchy is not static and is very different from the urban system of the Colonial era, or even of the 19th century. The one constant is that Mexico City has always been at the apex of the hierarchy. The positions of  individual cities may change drastically with changing economic and political conditions. For example, Guanajuato was once an important level two city, but with the decline of its silver mines, it dropped below level five.

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Author David Lida on Mexico City’s transportation systems

 Books and resources, Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Author David Lida on Mexico City’s transportation systems
Apr 272015
 

David Lida is a well-known and highly respected author who has lived in Mexico City (on and off) for over twenty years. His books include First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century and the short-story collection Travel Advisory: Stories of Mexico. He also blogs about Mexico City:

lida-bookHis article a few months back in the Guardian about life in Mexico City – An urbanist’s guide to Mexico City: ‘Transport is an adventure and often a nightmare” – is an informative account of his love-hate relationship with the city. The following short extracts from his article, relating to the geography of the city, should sharpen your appetite to read more:

“The greater metropolitan area of Mexico City is home to about 22 million people (known as chilangos) and is laid out over about 600 square miles…. The most recent study, from 2007, says that it takes chilangos an average of an hour and 17 minutes to get from one place to another.”

“Half of the working population toils in the informal economy – parking cars, cleaning houses, packing groceries, selling things on the street. The middle class is squeezed month by month rather than daily, while perhaps 10% has a jolly time with plenty of discretionary income. According to Forbes, Mexico’s elite upper class is made up of 1.7% of the population.”

“Although it is not comprehensive, and the stations are spaced further apart than they are in some other places, if your destination is on the route the metro is the fastest, cheapest and best way to get around Mexico City…. Taxis are abundant and cheap, and depending on your route, can also be quick. As in any big city, you want to avoid getting stuck in rush-hour traffic whenever possible.”

“Bicycling has definitely become more popular in the city, but because of the way people drive cars, I think it is a terrifying prospect.”

“What I believe we are seeing here is a worldwide phenomenon in which the well-to-do are getting sick and tired of long commutes from gated communities on the outskirts and want to move closer to the centre. Many of the poor will probably end up being shunted further and further away from where they have to work.”

“In greater Mexico City there are about 85,000 streets and 5,000 neighbourhoods. Of those streets, about 850 are called Juárez, 750 are named Hidalgo, and 700 are known as Morelos. Two hundred are called 16 de Septiembre, while 100 more are called 16 de Septiembre Avenue, Alley, Mews or Extension…. Like London’s A to Z or Michelin’s Paris Plan, there is a street map in book form here called the Guía Roji, which weighs in at over 150 two-sided pages of maps. If you only own one book while you live here, better make it the Guía Roji.”

Extracts come from David Lida’s – An urbanist’s guide to Mexico City: ‘Transport is an adventure and often a nightmare”. Enjoy!

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Ground subsidence in Mexico City threatens 10,000 homes

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Ground subsidence in Mexico City threatens 10,000 homes
Feb 052015
 

The local authorities in Iztapalapa, in the eastern section of the Mexico City Metropolitan Area, and one of the most interesting locations in Mexico in which to witness Easter celebrations, calculate that around 10,000 homes are in the area are at “high risk” of serious damage due to ground subsidence. Some parts of the city are falling in elevation as the ground contracts by up to 40 cm/yr.

Low-lying Iztapalapa is one of the most densely populated parts of the city, and is also prone to frequent flooding. Experts say that the severe damage evident in many buildings in the area has been occasioned by ground subsidence, due to the excessive volumes of water being pumped out of the subsoil to satisfy the insatiable demand of Mexico City.

In a short 3-minute news video in Spanish that is linked to in this recent article, Lourdes, a local resident offers us a tour of her home, showing us the damages caused by subsidence. She describes how “the crack that started from outside the house has widened every day and is now almost the width of a hand.” The video shows how the walls of her home are separating; the house is clearly in danger of collapse. Lourdes lives in this house with her four children; some rooms are already far too damaged to be safely used by the family.

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The Codex Mendoza, a key resource about Aztec times, can now be viewed online

 Books and resources  Comments Off on The Codex Mendoza, a key resource about Aztec times, can now be viewed online
Jan 192015
 

The Codex Mendoza, which we have referred to in several previous posts, can now be viewed via an amazing online interactive resource organized by INAH, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, in association with Oxford’s Bodleian Library and King’s College, London.

Compiled in 1542, and richly illustrated, the Codex Mendoza is one of the key primary sources from Aztec times. It was completed at the instigation of Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza and provides exquisite details about Aztec history, the expansion of their “empire” and the territorial tributes that they received from every quarter of their dominions. The Codex also chronicles daily life and social dynamics.

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

Tribute page from the Codex Mendoza

The interactive online version has images of the entire document and allows viewers to mouse-over the original text for translations into English or modern Spanish. Clicking on individual images offers more detailed explanations and information.

The digital codex can be viewed online, or downloaded through Apple’s App Store as a 1.02-gigabyte app.

The original Codex Mendoza resides in the library of Oxford University.  (The ship carrying it from New Spain (Mexico) back to Spain in colonial times was attacked by French buccaneers. The booty was subsequently divided up, with the Codex eventually reaching the university library.)

The online Codex Mendoza is  a truly amazing resource. Hopefully, some of the other Mexican codices that currently reside in Europe, too also be “virtually repatriated” in the near future, making it much easier for Mexican scholars to consult them.

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Mexico City looks to expand its metro network

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico City looks to expand its metro network
Dec 222014
 

Plans to expand Mexico City’s metro network, announced by the federal government, will require investments totaling around 2.8 billion dollars. The first contracts are expected to be awarded next year, with most projects due to be completed by 2018, the final year of this administration.

Mexico-City-Metro-MapThe major proposals affect three metro lines:

Metro Line A (Pantitlán to La Paz) will be extended 12.9 kilometers to the southeast, with six new intermediate stations, to Chalco in the state of Mexico, at a cost of about 1 billion dollars. [Update – March 2016 – officials have described the proposal to extend line A as “cancelled“]

The lengthening of Metro Line 4 (Martín Carrera to Santa Anita) northeastwards to reach Tepexpan will require investments of 1.5 billion dollars and add 19 intermediate stations as well as a terminal in Tepexpan. It will have improved links to other Metro and Metrobús lines.

Metro Line 12 will be extended northwards beyond its present terminus in Mixcoac to include new two intermediate stations and a new terminal station in Observatorio. This line will improve transit through Observatorio for passengers, including those using the future high-speed train link between Toluca and Mexico City.

Note that the elevated (above ground) southern section of Metro Line 12 between Tlahuac and Atlalilco stations, closed for repairs since March 2014, remains closed and is not expected to reopen until the second half of 2015. A replacement bus system has been established between those stations.

Useful links:

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Recycled plastic boats for Xochimilco?

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Recycled plastic boats for Xochimilco?
Oct 092014
 

What will they think of next? Officials in Mexico City have plans to provide the tourist zone of the Xochimilco canals with environmentally friendly boats and barges and to gradually substitute the usual wooden ones, which have very high maintenance costs. The plan was unveiled a few weeks ago by Mauricio León, director of infrastructure, modernization and innovation for the Federal District.

Xochimilco (Wikipedia; creative commons)

Xochimilco (Wikipedia; creative commons)

Apparently, the traditional wooden vessels, known as trajineras, with their colorful arches, formerly used mostly to transport goods but now dedicated almost exclusively to tourism, require “an enormous expense” each year since they need to be renovated annually, in part due to “the deterioration in recent years” of the water quality in the canals. According to León, the water contains high levels of fungi that degrade the wood. (Q. In that case, why not clean the water, and keep the traditional designs made of wood?)

Mexico City officials have already launched a prototype of the new, plastic, ecologically-sound craft, and hope that the owners of the traditional gondola-like non-motorized boats will form a cooperative to gradually replace them. The design of the new “technoecological” vessels was created by scientists at the National University (UNAM) and preserves the typical characteristics that have made it a widely recognized symbol of tourism in Mexico.

The great advantage of the new boats, made of recycled PET plastic (some of it no doubt pulled from the canals), polyethylene and volcanic clay is their greater durability and stability. Proponents claim that since they are made of recycled material, unlike the traditional ones for which 20 trees have to be cut down to make each trajiinera, the new boats are much cheaper, require less maintenance and their durability is much greater, with the potential to last up to 120 years.

There is one slight problem: the cost of the machinery required to make them. Authorities hope to persuade the boatmen to form “a cooperative able to get financing for the machines,” which will require an investment of some 5 million pesos ($380,000).

This is a long-term plan, because even when the machines are installed, they can produce only about three or four boats a week, and there are an estimated 1500 trajineras currently plying the canals in Xochimilco.

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Test wells being drilled to assess Mexico City’s deep water aquifer

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Test wells being drilled to assess Mexico City’s deep water aquifer
Sep 132014
 

Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil giant, will start drilling the first of two deep exploratory wells in Mexico City later this month to investigate an aquifer deep below the city that is believed to hold vast quantities of potable quality water. For further background, please see our previous post on this topic:

The test wells are part of a $30 million multi-agency study now underway that incorporates experts from the Water System of Mexico City (SACM), the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), the engineering and geology departments of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and Pemex, which is providing the technology to drill the wells.

Later this month, Pemex will start drilling the first 2000-meter-deep test well in the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City area, in the eastern part of Mexico City. Each well will cost an estimated $7.6 million to complete.

Schematic stratigraphy of the southern portion of the Basin of Mexico.

Schematic stratigraphy of the southern portion of the Basin of Mexico.
Source: Adapted from Mooser, 1990.

Ramón Aguirre, the CEO of SACM, says that the two test wells will target two different zones, increasing the chances of demonstrating the value of the aquifer as a viable source of water for Mexico City. In particular, Aguirre expects the wells to help confirm that there is an impermeable cap of clay separating the deep aquifer from the principal aquifer in the area (from which water is already extracted). An impermeable layer would mean that water could be safely removed from the deep aquifer without leading to downward drainage of water from the aquifer above. It is expected to take about two years for the initial studies to be completed.

In its National Water Plan, CONAGUA has warned that population growth in the Valley of Mexico could result in serious water shortages by 2030, reducing annual availability from about 4,230 cubic meters/person to less than 1,000 cubic meters/person.

The major aquifer currently used lies at a depth of between 60 and 400 meters and is heavily over-utilized. There are about 630 wells in the Federal District alone; all are overexploited and have an average life expectancy of 30 years. Current extraction from the aquifer is around 17,000 liters/second, while its natural recharge capacity is only 8000-9000 liters/second. It is believed that the deep aquifer could be capable of supplying approximately 5000 liters/second.

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A new airport for Mexico City

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on A new airport for Mexico City
Sep 032014
 

The Mexico City Benito Juárez International Airport handled 31.5 million passengers in 2013, but is operating at near capacity. To ease its congestion, the federal Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) has announced plans to expand the airport eastwards, by annexing 5500 hectares of adjacent federal land bordering Lake Texcoco. The expansion will take several years to complete.

A long-term 9.2-billion-dollar master plan for the airport, with two main phases of construction, was developed by engineering consultancy Arup.

Earlier this week during his second state-of-the-nation address, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that the winning proposal for designing the new terminal building that forms an integral part of the first phase was submitted by UK-based architect Sir Norman Foster and his Mexican associate Fernando Romero, Carlos Slim’s son-in-law, in association with Netherlands Airports Consultants.

Peña Nieto described the new airport as “the biggest infrastructure project in recent years… and one of the biggest in the world.” He emphasized that his administration was not adopting the easiest short-term path, but “choosing the responsible path”, adding that a project of this scale would inevitably extend well beyond his time in office.

He expected that the new airport would boost tourism, allow more airlines to serve Mexico City, and also help to regenerate an area that has previously suffered severe environmental degradation.

The winning design for the iconic new terminal (see video) takes the shape of an “X”, incorporates national symbols in its details, and offers ample space for airport operations, passenger services and exhibitions. The architect is confident that the new airport will be the most sustainable airport in the world, and exceed LEED platinum standards, the highest level of LEED certification.

The first stage, due to be concluded by 2020, involves construction of a new terminal building, control tower and all the infrastructure for operating two runways simultaneously, handling up to 50 million passenger movements a year. Initial work on drainage and foundations will begin later this year. The first phase will generate an estimated 50,000 direct jobs and 160,000 jobs in total.

By 2050, a second phase would have added four more runways and more than doubled the airport’s capacity to 120 million passenger movements.

Record passenger levels in Mexican airports

During the first five months of 2014, Mexico’s airports registered 26,797,688 passenger movements (about 45% international, 55% national), a new record, and 10.8% more that for the same period in 2013. Aeroméxico, the nation’s flagship carrier, accounted for 35.3% of all passenger movements in Mexico, followed by Interjet (23.4%), Volaris (23.3%) and VivaAerobus (12.5%). Aeroméxico recently added several new routes, including links from the northern industrial city of Monterrey to Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosí, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos.

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Recent progress in waste water treatment in Mexico

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Recent progress in waste water treatment in Mexico
Aug 252014
 

Two wastewater treatment plants have been in the news recently. The first is the $230 million Agua Prieta wastewater treatment plant, located north of Guadalajara in Jalisco, which was formally inaugurated last month. It is the first stage in a plan to restore the heavily polluted Santiago River back to health. The Santiago is the outflow from Lake Chapala and receives pollutants from the industrial zone of El Salto outside Guadalajara. The initial capacity of the Agua Prieta plant is 6,500 liters/second, almost all of which is returned to the river after treatment.

The plant was built by a consortium led by ICA subsidiary Conoisa, Atlatec, and Servicios de Agua Trident under a 20-year concession. President Enrique Peña Nieto claims on his government webpage that, “Integrated, sustainable water management is a government priority. The challenge is even greater because almost 50% of the wastewater returned to the environment does not undergo any form of treatment… The Agua Prieta Wastewater Treatment Plant in Zapopan… [will] improve the quality of life of 3.3 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara… It will treat 82% of the wastewater in the area, and 100% when the complementary sewage works are completed.”

agua-prieta-wastewater-According to government figures, waste water treatment coverage at the national level is currently 50.3%, with a 2018 target of 63%. Agua Prieta has raised national coverage to 53.3%, and will boost it to 54.3% once the plant is operating at full capacity and treating 8,500 liters/second of wastewater. At the state level, Jalisco is now treating 32% of its wastewater.

The Agua Prieta plant is currently the largest of its kind in Mexico and is powered by biogas derived from the wastewater sludge. However, an even larger plant is under construction, in the state of Hidalgo in central Mexico. The Atotonilco Wastewater Treatment Plant is being built by a consortium, including Mexican construction companies ICA and IDEAL, Mitsui subsidiary Atlatec and Spanish firm Acciona Agua, that won the concession to design, build, and operate this plant for 22 years, at which point the plant will be transferred to federal ownership. Work began in 2010 and is due to be completed by 2015.

The Atotonilco Wastewater Treatment Plant will be the largest wastewater plant in Latin America and one of the largest in the world, with a biological treatment capacity of 23,000 liters/second (1.99 million m3/day). The wastewater treatment is performed by a series of conventional processes, with an additional chemical process during the rainy season. Treated waters from this plant are already being used in agriculture without any additional cleaning steps. The plant is self-sufficient in terms of energy usage, since it converts the methane offgas from the wastewater sludge into electrical energy.

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