uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Lilia Del Río. Every city is an island: Reflections from a Mexican perspective.

There is a joke about Mexico: When God was creating the Earth, he chose to give something to every area of the planet. To Northern Europe, he gave snow and cold winters, forests and water; to Africa he gave harsh conditions, extreme weather, dryness and floods; to Mexico, he gave good weather, biodiversity, natural resources, fishing, agriculture, oil, silver, gold, beaches and natural beauty. And then the Angels asked God why he was giving all these privileges to that country? And he answered: “Wait, I have not finished; wait until I put in the Mexicans.”

I have found it hard to talk about urbanism in my home country of Mexico. Looking at the vastness of the country, there are thousands of different examples of cities. Their processes and history do not always match, so it is very difficult to get a glimpse of what is really going on. In this monologue, I have chosen to talk about a few experiences which can exemplify the sort of development and trends that my country can share.

Today I discovered completely new worlds inside my own home city of Guadalajara. All these years, I had no idea that such places existed right beside the streets I travel every day. I realised that as much as I think I know of this city, it is very different for all of us. For some like me, the ring road is a connecting line, but for others it divides their neighbourhoods from the rest of the city.

We humans fall into routines very easily. Taking the same roads most of the time, we miss the surprises of other areas. But when a new road is opened, we rediscover the world as if it had never existed before.

Yet the city constantly expands sideways and upwards. It can make itself flexible, like rubber, so that all of us fit in it. The sewage system keeps carrying away our refuse, and we forget about it. More and more people move to the city and it still provides space, air and water for the new and old inhabitants. But the main question is: do we care? What do we give back to our city? Forget taxes and politicians. How do you contribute to the wellness of your city?

Cities in Mexico have grown on top of each other. Spaniards built their churches on top of ancient pyramids and our development has always been too dense. The Mexican temperament has given us many children to populate the once small settlements, which have usually grown in an unregulated way, like human life. Some of the small towns became more important, and swallowed others on their way to eating up the land. Thus, we have towns, within a metropolitan area, next to elevated highways and high-rise CBDs.

Our cities have been growing incredibly quickly recently. For me, it is unimaginable that only 100 years ago Guadalajara was a fourth the size it is today, and 200 years ago it was one-eighth of the city we know today. Contemporary people really like owning land, as if that could replace the emptiness inside.

You can see the same housing trends in Estonia that have existed in Mexico for a while, and that are growing exponentially nowadays. Big-scale residential developments (usually now in gated communities, which, by the way, have everything except a sense of community) play an important part in eating up the areas around a city. Even our public housing is horizontal. Everyone likes to have their own house on their own land, even though it may be as tiny as 30 square meters for the building and 45 square meters of landi, with a façade of barely 3.5 meters. With a price of only 200,000 EEK, these kinds of houses are being inhabited by millions all over the country.

Politicians, urbanists and architects don’t build a city. It is done by the regular citizen. Politicians, urbanists and architects just follow the trends, the demands, the wishes of the masses. It is the developer, the housewife and the regular worker who must learn how to create the city and its environment. As a parent, I wouldn’t buy a house if I were aware that it might one day be in a flooded area. If others considered this possibility, there would be a nature-protected area in low areas instead of thousands of cheaply built houses. I experience this all the time in Mexico: floods like the recent ones in Tabasco, hurricanes, earthquakes which devastate cities, and gas station explosions. If people were aware of what kind of houses they were living in, what kinds of areas they were, then they would think twice before buying.

“Papa Gobierno” (father government) is not going to prevent us from doing all these things. It might try to help us afterwards, but that might be too late. Ironically, it is usually politicians who control the urban grid, continuing to build and allowing those things which are important to their ideology, and thereby leaving the normal citizen, (aware or unaware) thinking that Papa Gobierno will keep them safe.

The whole history of urban development in Mexico can be summarised in a few words: Do-it-yourself urbanism.

Working for a big company means that you have to serve an unfair boss, and for the explosive personality of many Mexicans this is out of the question. If you want your life to improve, for most people that means starting your own business. Small enterprises have flourished incredibly as we keep growing in population. More people move into cities and set up their family businesses and shops all over the city. You see millions of tiny shops in the avenues, in which people try to make a living by competing within the neighbourhood. In this economy, they have control over their work life and earn a living. Survival has meant becoming a merchant, because the system does not work properly.

But nowadays the big fish end up eating the small ones. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (ironically NAFTA), big brother USA has applied its wise strategy of modern invasion, filling up the Mexican territory with its businesses. So we have all those multinationals which come in promising “employment”, but in reality displacing thousands of small family enterprises. The biggest offender is Wal-Mart: they came to destroy thousands of different sectors in the market. Beginning with the corner shop, the Wal-Mart ideology has destroyed ice cream shops, bakeries, toy sellers, open air markets, fruit sellers, tortillerias (traditional tortilla and flour shops), furniture shops, house decorators and drug stores. You name it, they have wiped it out.

Nevertheless, thousands of new small shops keep appearing in Mexican cities every day. The city is again a palimpsest in which you can see the human touch. It might look ugly and out of harmony, but this is the result of our impotence in attempting to create a system that works. So we have found harmony within chaos.

I have heard people say that somebody needs to do something and “fix” something because the city is in such a mess. Well, my friends, the city is made by all of us. It adapts to our needs; we mould our city. But, do we really know what our needs are? Do we even know what we are getting out of life? The things that are left after we die are our remnants in the city. So how can our cities make us happy?

We think we want bigger, better, faster; we like beauty, wealth, peace, green, power, control… We are the most selfish product of the world and we created the city to serve our egos. But the city stands and waits. It is patient. Each of us has given a grain of sand. If we are aware of what kind of city we want, not for our pockets but for our children, then we can contribute to its healthy development.

In these years I have been living in Estonia, every time I go back to Guadalajara I see big changes. The city looks more and more like India. Despite the traffic and many deficiencies in urban management, when you live in such a place and you forget about its aesthetics, either you spend more money in building up your own tiny empire of beauty or you fight against the current. Instead of planning and visions, our cities become more and more fragmented. And I have discovered that this is what makes our cities real. They are the mirror of our economy. Thus, the physical city is not to be blamed.

People move into urban areas because living in a city means having more opportunities. The city cannot always be perfected; actually, it will keep fragmenting and “imperfecting” itself to provoke a feeling of discovery, that around the corner you might find a surprise and a cosy environment of your own. Cities are islands because we have made them so. After all, we mould the cities ourselves, with only our thoughts and ideals of the city. What if we stopped thinking about “my” city and started thinking about “our” city? Leaving our egos and tiny empires aside, the city waits for us to reach agreement with each other. The city is intuitive; it knows our intentions. So please first clarify your intentions and understand yourself, then let the city understand you.

Every city is an island. Every city has its processes. Monterrey is forward-looking, while Oaxaca still feels its recent scars. San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas and other magic towns might be at the edge of keeping or losing their beauty and charm in their uncontrolled growth, while others grow harmoniously. Some cities think more about services, while others focus their attention on schooling or business development. Conservation and identity are primary to others, such as Mazamitla and Morelia. Unfortunately, I cannot describe all the other wonders of urban life in every city. Yet, some of the processes and events here described apply to cities around the world. It all depends on how aware and open the citizens and city professionals are, to what extent they are willing to diminish their egos and give more to the city.