In some ways, Los Angeles already resembles Mexico City. Both are sprawling, polluted and diverse. And the comparisons run deeper than what's evident on any airplane's descent into these urban jungles.
The obvious first point of similarity is geography: Like the Los Angeles basin, Mexico City's metropolitan area is also built in a basin with mountain ranges spiking up around it. The valley was a series of shallow lakes that megalomaniac colonizers filled. As in the L.A. region, as Mexico City's metropolitan area continues to creep outward, it stretches far beyond the original city limits — here called the Federal District — and is rapidly saturating the Mexico basin. In 1960, the metropolitan area claimed five million inhabitants. Today, that figure nears 20 million, spread over 1,400 square kilometers.
The city's subway system illustrates its growth. Like Los Angeles', it is geographically skeletal. The majority of today's 11 metro lines were constructed in the first three staggered phases of construction, from 1967 to 1985. While the 110 miles of metro lines were never intended to stretch all the way to the edges of the city, the final subway stops today don't even approach the limits of the metropolitan zone's populated area, which spills much farther north than the longest metro line. Overlay a metro map and a density map, and the metropolitan area's planning shortcomings are woefully clear. Even as the periphery extends with residential neighborhoods, it's mainly the working poor who use the subway, just as in Los Angeles.
Government control over growth is minimal, which is where comparisons with Los Angeles' current situation diverge. Everyone acknowledges a dire need for stricter, enforced urban-planning regulations. Failure to enact new laws or implement old ones is due in large part to the separation of political entities that govern the metropolitan area: Both its population and its governance are split between the Federal District and the outlying suburbs in the state of Mexico.
In 1994, the state and federal governments formed joint metropolitan committees focusing on water and sanitation, transportation and roads, and public safety. While this has increased communication on essential issues, it hasn't had significant policy impact. “There has been communication, but not decisions,” says Roberto Eibenschutz, director of the University Program in Metropolitan Studies at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana. Policy experts agree that the time to enact up-to-date, realistic planning regulations, enforce current laws and even reanalyze the city boundaries came long ago. It could be argued that if in Los Angeles, the zoning laws and other clear regulations are routinely circumvented, even by legal means, the policy landscape of the two cities may not be so different after all.
In Mexico City, the diffused decision making and regulatory power make it easy for the working poor and developers, who build housing for Mexico's rising middle class, to bypass regulations. In both cities, growth is driven by a precarious balance of necessity and greed.
“It's urban planning with many holes, that can be modified by corruption,” says Arturo Ortiz Struck, director of the MXDF Research Institute, a group composed of local architects. Struck is speaking of Mexico City, but he could easily be describing L.A.
Take Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's recent policy Bando Dos, implemented during his tenure from 2000 to 2006 as Mexico City mayor, as a classic example of well-intentioned planning co-opted by special interests. The policy, a major political measure meant to densify the city center, took as its premise the reality that downtown Mexico City has infrastructure, while its outskirts in the state of Mexico and in the south of the Federal District do not. The policy granted the same kind of developer “incentives” for areas such as the city's historic downtown that L.A.'s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been trumpeting in El Norte. But, as architect Jose Castillo notes about Mexico City, “Six years of the program have proven that the main beneficiaries are landowners and developers, who enjoy increased land values that subvert the original purpose of the program, [which was] to create affordable housing.” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has been making exactly the same complaint about Los Angeles.
And so, Mexico City's periphery continues to grow, either in low-rise developments similar to the urban sprawl in San Bernardino and Riverside counties or in informal cinder-block houses erected of sheer necessity. The first consequences are for the people who live in these areas. As they are groups of houses, not cities, they lack many basic services, such as infrastructure, schools and hospitals. The environmental consequences follow quickly behind: the destruction of forests and the decreased efficiency of the city's underlying aquifers. Then there's the question of transportation. Many of these de facto residential communities offer scant employment opportunity. Public transportation and city streets strain under the amount of transit to and from employment hubs in the city center.
The one glaring distinction between the two cities is that Mexico City's middle class is on the rise, whereas in Los Angeles, it's shrinking. But L.A.'s population growth is driven by Latino births in households with a family income of between $23,000 and $26,000, which, for a large family, is poverty-level. Given that Mexico's middle class is growing from a lower point than Los Angeles', the argument stands that the demographics of the two cities are coming closer to the same center. And in both cities, the need for affordable housing for that very demographic is strikingly similar. Given enough time, lax regulation and avarice, the sister cities may look even more alike.
Julia Cooke is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. Her specialties are design, art and architecture.