BROOKLYN, New York — Mexico City faces unique challenges, including a history of rapid growth, geographical complexity and widespread inequality. Not to mention, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the country hard. By February 14, 2021, Mexico City noted 32,000 deaths from COVID-19. Most alarmingly, low-income communities of the cities accounted for the areas with the highest numbers of infections. With household incomes reducing due to the pandemic, and with 57% of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods not receiving “social protection payments,” the inequity that marginalized communities in Mexico City experience only increases in severity. Rehabilitation efforts in Iztapalapa, a borough in Mexico City, aim to transform communities.
Recently, the government and urban design experts have tapped the region’s creativity to better ensure access to transportation, economic opportunity and global connectivity. Addressing inequity is key to urban development strategies and the initiatives below explore the ways that the government is addressing spatial inequity with the goal of alleviating poverty in the city.
A Neighborhood Fighting Against Stigmas
Iztapalapa is one of the most populous peri-urban areas in the Americas and many once considered it the most dangerous borough in Mexico City. With a population of more than 1.8 million as of 2022, Iztapalapa is the most populous borough of Mexico City and it is also the most populous municipality in the country. According to data from Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social (CONEVAL), “In 2020, 37.3% of the population [faced]moderate poverty and 6.56% [endured]extreme poverty.”
Due to Iztapalapa’s safety challenges, the neighborhood and city government have implemented several public safety projects to increase the overall safety of residents. Women are especially prone to violence and feelings of insecurity as femicide is prevalent. According to statistics, in 2021, Iztapalapa was one of the top 25 municipalities in the country with the highest rates of femicide and the worst neighborhood in Mexico City in terms of sexual assault.
Increased Mobility Through Cable Cars
In 2021, Iztapalapa completed the construction of the longest cable car in Latin America with the capacity to connect the isolated area to a vast swath of the city, opening economic and educational opportunities for the community. According to The New York Times, the cable car has reduced by 50% the commute time for many of the workers in the borough. Iztapalapa’s cable line is the second in the city and the current administration is planning several more. The city expects to complete the third cable line in 2023.
Innovative mobility initiatives encourage inclusivity for communities like Iztapalapa that are seeking to shed their negative reputations. The installation of the cable car serves to help the Mexico City government achieve three of its primary objectives: reduce travel time, provide cleaner transportation options and improve mobility. The two existing cable cars expect to lower the city’s emissions by 16,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
In Iztapalapa, the cable car also brings a series of less tangible changes. According to Rodrigo Diaz, Mexico City’s deputy director of Planning and Policies with the Ministry of Transportation, the project “rescues public spaces…it brings the city closer and dignifies the trip.”
The new mode of transportation halves the commute of many Iztapalapa residents as most jobs are located in or near the city center. Urban cable cars also have the advantage of not requiring large swaths of space, allowing neighborhoods to improve and provide facilities. The cable car permits the once isolated and stigmatized Iztapalapa to grow more integrated into the city.
The Importance of Mobility
In an interview with The Borgen Project, an urban planning graduate student from Hunter College, Salome Gvinianidze, said that “Mobility is an integral part of the city planning process because it is impossible for modern cities to thrive without it,” arguing that “a city’s success directly [correlates]with and [depends]on it.”
Gvinianidze explained that “increased mobility leads to more access and opportunity for all, but especially for low-income and marginalized populations. Well-designed and properly planned public modes of transportation can make education, jobs and health services accessible for those living in poor urban peripheries, and therefore, lead to more equitable cities.”
Gvinianidze gave an example of several housing projects built on city peripheries. “Without proper transportation, many residents have trouble accessing jobs and services, therefore, leading to low occupancy rates, or a poor quality of life for those living there,” she said.
Gvinianidze explained further that these housing projects without mobility, also known as “disconnected citadels,” are unsuccessful overall. “Mobility must be integrated [into]every step of the planning process if we want to build more socially just, sustainable and equitable cities for all,” she said.
Rehabilitation Efforts in Iztapalapa Through Art
Thousands of public art pieces in Iztapalapa aim to ignite citizens’ feelings of pride for their heritage while beautifying the neighborhood. Because the homes frequently comprise cinder blocks, the murals add color to the buildings that would otherwise be gray. In Iztapalapa, there are more than 7,000 public murals, many of which convey or celebrate the neighborhood’s vibrant history and notable residents.
Gender-based violence inspires the themes of many of the murals. The walls don paintings of iconic figures like Frida Kahlo, world champion boxer and current resident Lupita Bautista and images of elderly women signifying the struggles of all women.
The Iztapalapa Mural Collective told The Borgen Project that as of March 2022, there are more than 7,900 murals in the neighborhood, making it the largest mural project in Latin America. The collective is just one component of broader rehabilitation efforts in Iztapalapa initiated by the Iztapalapa Mayor’s Office to “dignify public spaces.” The project is a collaboration among artists, activists, community residents and political officials. Moreover, Iztapalapa Mural Collective holds workshops for the neighborhood’s youth.
Ultimately, the mixture of mobility, security and beautification efforts as carried out and supported by the neighborhood’s residents addresses both practical and less tangible concerns. The cable car benefits residents by improving their commutes and newly installed lights make streets safer while the murals provide a sense of community cohesion, ownership and pride.
Rehabilitation Efforts Across Latin America
In 2004, Medellín, Colombia, inaugurated the first cable car in Latin America specifically for the purpose of equitable urban transportation, with the goal of helping marginalized communities improve their living conditions, gain greater access to job opportunities and to promote an overall sense of civic pride.
The cable car has also prompted stigmatized communities in Medellín, like Comuna 13, to build a library, museum and gardens. During the 1980s and 1990s, Comuna 13 was “one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world,” serving as a transit route for drug trafficking and a stronghold for gangs and paramilitaries. According to The New York Times, the cable car system in La Paz, Bolivia, addresses social and racial segregation issues that have long divided communities.
Cable cars create an equitable city environment and help improve the built environment through the enhancement of public space and the sense of pride that accompanies the murals of historical and heroic figures that reflect the cultural heritage of a particular area. These rehabilitation efforts in Iztapalapa and other areas in Latin America encourage a more equitable and inclusive society that ultimately improves the lives of the residents.
– Jennifer Hendricks
Photo: Courtesy of Iztapalapa Mural Collective