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An interview with Enrique Lomnitz, General Director of Isla Urbana

Last year, I had the privilege of gaining insights from industry experts about what the new planning institute in Mexico City should look like (which is in the process of legislation). I met and interviewed architects, civil society organizations, developers, planning entities, academics, and many others. Their invaluable feedback informed two manuals my team and I created for World Resources Institute, Mexico City, which you can read more about in this blog post: A new planning paradigm for Mexico City: Opportunities for meaningful public participation.

So much content was developed in the making of the manuals, including several interview transcriptions, that I decided to post them and share them with you all. Now that I have graduated and took some time for myself (traveling home to California, reading for pleasure, enjoying NYC over the holidays), I finally have the time to clean up and share some of the ones I found to be most fascinating. I wound it down to three interviews, and this post is the pilot of a 3-part mini-series about issues of urban planning and equitable development in Mexico City.

I decided to kick-start this mini-series with perhaps my most invigorating interview. Enrique Lomnitz is the General Director and Founder of Isla Urbana, a not-for-profit based out of Coyacan, a colorful town in Mexico City, that builds rainwater capture systems for households that are disconnected from the city’s main water network. I have done my best to fact-check claims in the transcription where I could; however, due to the richness of Enrique’s expertise of integrated water management and the water crisis in Mexico City, he didn’t leave me with much to do. I mainly focused on the flow of the content.

By pure stream of consciousness Enrique served a free-flowing stream of knowledge and information about the water crisis in Mexico City in our interview. His passion was infectious, as is expected from someone who dedicates their entire life’s work to a higher cause.

After a couple hours of talking with Enrique, it became abundantly clear to me that water is a multi-faceted and complicated issue for Mexico City, and the country of Mexico at large. It was a lot to absorb, but I hope the transcription resonates with you as much as it did for me.

I hope you enjoy reading this post almost as much as I enjoyed learning from Enrique and assembling all the pieces. Wherever you are in world, as always, happy reading!

Why is Mexico City in a water crisis?

The water crisis in Mexico City is characterized by multiple factors. There is a huge water deficit between recharge and use, even if there is no deficit of precipitation and use. Furthermore, solutions proposed by the Water Commission, such as digging deep wells and building more sewage canals, are inefficient, and ultimately unsustainable.

Over 250 thousand people lack access to running water in Mexico City. Why are so many people disconnected from the main water network?

Mexico City experienced exponential urbanization and population growth over the course of the 20th Century. Within the century, the population rose from 1.5 million to over 20 million. One of the main ways Mexico City absorbed this growth was through informal processes of buying and developing land purchased from the Ejiditarios or “townies.” Title transfers were hand-written on sheets of paper, and often-times townies wouldn’t extend resources and infrastructure to “newcomers.” In the case of Xochimilco and Ajusco – towns, or delegations as they are called in Mexico City – the Ejiditarios still have a pretty significant amount of control over things like water management. No government authority can legally mandate that they extend this infrastructure to newcomers.

Many people have settled on conservation land, too. It’s problematic granting them access to running water because that land is protected and cannot be developed, including the necessary piping for fresh water.

Rapid population growth and the lack of formal planning has resulted in development occurring organically, and has cultivated a self-building culture that has resulted in poorly designed infrastructure, such as transportation systems and housing developments in areas that should never have been developed.

“In the end, you end up with these complicated contexts where the infrastructure and the neighborhoods were not planned together, and people are left without necessary resources, like water.”

What entity is in charge of water management and coordination in Mexico City?

No commission has overall jurisdiction of water in the city. So, water management is very fragmented.

Here are the players:

Federal level water management – The trans-watershed system supplies the bulk of water resources from other basins in the State of Mexico and Michoacan through the National Water Commission Conagua. This system accounts for about 30-35% of the water demand in Mexico City.

Mexico City water management –  The municipal water utility of Mexico City is Sistema de Aguas de la Ciudad de México (SACM, or SacMEX), and is responsible for water supply and sanitation in the Federal District. Its head is appointed by the government of the District.

Delegation-level water management – Occurs on a project-by-project basis, and are not connected to the larger system of water management in the City. They coordinate Pipa subsidies and fleets.

Los Pipas (water trucks) – Deliver water to some of the delegations. Many are private companies or people who own trucks.Local governments pay the delegations, the delegations pay the Pipas who deliver the water to people. People pay the Pipas for the service, as well. There is no fixed tariff for this. In short, this system is very corrupt.

Considering so many different entities are involved in water management provision in Mexico City, I presume the situation is politically charged and there are several complications and inequities. Is that right? 

Yes, that is right. There are major divisions between the local delegations, the Mexico City government, and the central government, especially given the competition between political parties. Polarizing politics have impacted the water situation because the city has, in some cases, resorted to sabotage, granting budgets to delegations within their political party, while withholding budgets from delegations of opposing parties. 

It used to be (for the last 18 years or so) that the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) controlled all the layers of government. Now there is a blood bath between PRD and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). MORENA took over a big swath of delegations, and PRD still has a stronghold on the central government and several delegations. This has led to a lot of sabotage over the past 2-3 years. For instance, delegations like Xochimilco and Tlalpan are not receiving their budgets from the central authority in order to stop the growth of this competing political party.

Isla Urbana has supplied nearly 10,000 families in Mexico City with running water by building and installing rain water capture systems in individual homes. Where in the City does Isla Urbana work? In which delegations? And how difficult is it to perform the work given the political and financial challenges you’ve mentioned?

Isla Urbana’s main client is local government because our organization provides a solution that makes a lot of sense for them. Local governments are able to get around water infrastructure limitations and it saves them – and households – money. Due to institutional red-tape, most of the funding Isla Urbana receives from local governments has nothing to do with water. Resources come from some other obscure line items in the delegation’s budget, like social development funds. By paying for rain water capture systems through these obscure funds, delegations avoid directly competing with any other authority – Conagua at the national level and SacMEX at the Federal District level – for water development funds. In turn, investments in rainwater capture systems don’t appear directly on their books.

We predominantly work in the two delegations I mentioned: Tlalpan and Xochimilco. It is difficult to work in these areas because we have to contend with a lot of challenges: the lack of urban planning, direct water management funding, geographical obstacles (i.e. high elevation), informal settlements and poverty, as well as competing authorities. Tlalpan in particular is a challenge because service provision is obfuscated by the Ejidos.

You mentioned the Ejiditarios and the Ejidos earlier. Could you explain what those are and how they are involved?

Most of Mexico is either arranged in Ejidos or Comunas, which are big territories mainly consisting of farmland that belong to the town or community itself. The Ejiditarios is the name for the owner of that land.

The Ejidos became the main land reform system as a direct result of the Mexican Revolution (in the early 20th century). After the Revolution, land was expropriated from the plantations, from the church, and from the federal government and given directly to the communities. These territories can be allotted and inherited, but not bought or sold (the law changed in 1991, but there are a lot of limitations and restrictions). However, rights can be ceded by the Ejidos.

Over time, they have produced very low-income and/or indigenous communities because they disrupt the social function of land. Ultimately, they reduce the capacity of the city to provide public services since the city has little jurisdiction over these areas. The government doesn’t really expropriate Ejido land.

Could you explain further about how did Ejidos contribute to the rise in informal settlements in Mexico City?

Ejidos take up a significant amount of land in Mexico City, or at least they did. Most of the problem was in the 1980s and 1990s when populated explosion came into conflict with this system. The Ejido system was established in the early 1920s when the population was much lower, around 1-2 million. When population increased, there was all this land that wasn’t private property so you couldn’t buy or sell it, yet there was a need to buy and sell the land. As a result, there were informal settlements.

One of the main ways Mexico City grew was through these informal processes of buying and developing land purchased from the Ejiditarios. Property deeds were hand-written on note paper, that’s how bad it was. When a big enough chunk of the property was developed, the community would vote for the re-designation of land and attempt to obtain legal property rights.

Essentially, in the case of Mexico City, and all over Mexico, urbanization was happening before planning. In general, land is not slated for development before anything is built. Normally, the state has control over zoning, density, etc., such as in the United States. But this process is backwards here. Development happens organically and maintains a self-building culture, which I support. But this results in poorly designed infrastructure, such as transportation systems and housing in areas that should not have been developed. In the end, you end up with these complicated contexts where the infrastructure and the neighborhoods were not planned together.

So, you think the Ejido system is bad for residents of the city.

The Comuna and Ejido systems are outdated, but have their positive sides that a lot of people like. But reality speaks for itself. These systems create towns where a very small percentage of the population have rights and authority to make decisions, and the rest of the population does not. There is nothing good about that.

When the Ejidos have control, there are massive amounts of people not connected to the grid. Tlalpan has the largest number of people not connected to the grid, or about 80,000-85,000 people, yet it is the most water-rich part of the city. The situation is similar for Xochimilco. Xochimilco and Tlalpan are the most water-rich areas of the city naturally, but they suffer from water scarcity due to these political and jurisdictional management problems, as well as the property rights issues already mentioned.

To further complicate things, there are a lot of micro-cultural differences in Mexico City, which can be quite pronounced, even between neighborhoods. For instance, Xochimilco and Ajusco, which are right next to each other, are very different culturally. Major cultural differences within and between these different neighborhoods prevent coexistence and cohesion.

You mentioned earlier about people settling on conservation land. How do they get access to water if government programs refuse to establish the necessary infrastructure? Are there larger legal implications for not providing them with water? How is the city being held accountable?

Refusing to supply water to citizens comes into conflict with the constitutional right to water. As a compromise, the government subsidizes (at both the local delegation and city levels) water trucks – Pipas – to deliver water to the people settling in conservation areas and other informal settlements.

“There is no real way to realize the human right to water in Mexico City. Not really. The forces that have the authority to build the infrastructure – SEDUVI, SacMEX, Medio Ambiente – won’t. But the delegations face a..

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Here’s a preview of my visual portfolio!

Click to view slideshow.

To see the full portfolio please download by clicking on the following link: Jordan’s visual portfolio

Want to collaborate?

Need a new team member? Want to know more? Are you in the Greater NYC area and would like to meet up for coffee? Let’s link up!

Use the below contact form to send me an email and I’d be happy to meet you and see how our interests collide! 

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Mexico City elected its first female mayor in July. Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo is a scientist and was the former governor of Tlalpan, one of the 22 delegations/districts of Mexico City.  Tlalpan is one of the poorest districts of the city, and was especially vulnerable to the 7.1 earthquake that struck the city last September. The mayor-elect received a lot of criticism for the destruction in Tlalpan that was caused by the earthquake, especially for the collapse of the Enrique Rébsamen school, which killed 300 people, including 19 children. Some are concerned that the lack of provision over building maintenance and infrastructure in Tlalpan will impact her ability to govern an entire city of 22 districts. Many families want justice for their dead children and loved ones, and justice brought to officials who approved the inferior construction permits.

Sheinbaum will not be able to ignore these demands as mayor if she is going to win favor over her skeptics. She will have to focus on crime, pollution, water shortages, and corruption, especially in terms of building and development processes. During her administration, and with the new Congress and Planning Institute, it is imperative that Mexico City establishes a formal planning process that is professionalized and legitimate. Developers will have to be held accountable, the permit process will have to be re-evaluated, and stronger monitoring and evaluation mechanisms must be enforced on building infrastructure.

Sheinbaum has her work cut out for her over the next 6 years as mayor, but what she was able to accomplish in Tlalpan should not go unnoticed, either, especially considering capacity for development is very low at the delegational level. For instance, as governor of Tlalpan, Sheinbaum supported local water management projects despite having no specific budget for water management. These projects, such as rainwater capture and filtration systems, developed and built by Isla Urbana, provide thousadns of households access to running water that were disconnected from the main network. This is a small, household level project that, since Isla Urbana first began, has helped a very small portion of the city – some 8,000 households (approximately 250 thousand households are without running water in Mexico City), but it serves as a viable solution that avoided political red tape, got people what they needed – and quickly. Plus, this particular project avoids taking a scarce resource (water) from one interest group to give it to another, which was a win-win for all residents. 

To me, this says the mayor-elect knows how to  problem solve and fund innovative solutions that make progress, which is a skill-set that Mexico City probably needs most in its next mayor if it is going to combat long-standing issues. With good counsel by her side that has a similar affinity for progress, Sheinbaum may be able to get a lot done as mayor. Let’s see if she can upscale small projects that work, scrap the old ones that don’t, and test alternative approaches. There’s a lot more to unpack from that last statement, but I’ll just leave it there. For now. 

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I had the honor of working with Jens Aerts, an Urban Planning Specialist at UNICEF, to create a handbook for urban planners to better plan cities for and with children. The general idea is that if cities are planned with children in mind, the most vulnerable population, then cities are made safer for all, and more conducive for a more productive, healthier, and enjoyable life. Below is an introduction to the handbook, its purpose, a list of the 10 guiding principles for children’s rights and urban planning, as well as the essential “Why, What, How” to plan cities for children.

Unfortunately, the handbook has not officially launched yet to the UNICEF website. But with the permission of UNICEF, I will happily share the manuscript via email upon request. I have included a contact form below so you can easily complete the request. Happy reading! 

Image credit: UNICEF/UNI123447/Pirozzi

Purpose of the Handbook

Shaping urbanization for children, a handbook on child-responsive urban planning, presents concepts, evidence and technical strategies to bring children to the foreground of urban planning. By focusing on children, this publication provides guidance on the central role that urban planning should play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from a global perspective to a local context, by creating thriving and equitable cities where children live in healthy, safe, inclusive, green and prosperous communities.

The handbook aims to inspire everyone involved in planning, designing, transforming, building and managing the built environment:

  • Urban planning professionals that use different tools in spatial planning and stakeholder engagement on a daily basis to help shape the built environment;
  • City governments that are responsible for city development and management decisions;
  • Private sector, such as developers, investors, service providers and technology companies that build the large majority of urban infrastructure;
  • Civil society organizations that support local communities in raising their voices to define which spaces, services and land are needed.
The 10 Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles

The handbook is structured along 10 Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles that cities should commit to so they will not only support children’s development, but thrive as homes for future generations:

Principle 1: Investments – Respect children’s rights and invest in child-responsive urban planning that ensures a safe and clean environment for children and involves children’s participation in area-based interventions, stakeholder engagement and evidence-based decision making, securing children’s health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity, from early childhood to adolescent life.

Principle 2: Housing and Land Tenure – Provide affordable and adequate housing and secure land tenure for children and the community, where they feel safe and secure, to live, to sleep, to play and to learn.

Principle 3: Public Amenities – Provide infrastructure for health, educational and social services for children and the community, which they have access to, to thrive and to develop life skills.

Principle 4: Public Spaces – Provide safe and inclusive public and green spaces for children and the community, where they can meet and engage in outdoor activities.

Principle 5: Transportation Systems – Develop active transportation and public transit systems and ensure independent mobility for children and the community, so they have equal and safe access to all services and opportunities in their city.

Principle 6: Integrated Water and Sanitation Management Systems – Develop safely managed water and sanitation services and ensure an Integrated Urban Water Management system for children and the community, so they have adequate and equitable access to safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene.

Principle 7: Food Systems – Develop a food system with farms, markets and vendors, so children and the community have permanent access to healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food and nutrition.

Principle 8: Waste Cycle Systems – Develop a zero waste system and ensure sustainable resource management, so children and the community can thrive in a safe and clean environment.

Principle 9: Energy Networks – Integrate clean energy networks and ensure reliable access to power, so children and the community have access to all urban services day and night.

Principle 10: Data and ICT Networks – Integrate data and ICT networks and ensure digital connectivity for children and the community, to universally accessible, affordable, safe and reliable information and communication.

The “Why, What, How” to plan cities for children

The handbook answers three questions:

  1. Why planning cities for children matters, collecting the evidence on the urban specific vulnerabilities of the most disadvantaged children and explaining how urban planning can support urban programmes for children.
  2. What to plan for children, based on the 10 principles and resulting in sustainable and children’s rights-based urban places, systems and networks that ensure children’s health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity, from early childhood to adolescent life.
  3. How to plan for children, reviewing urban planning tools and practice that illustrates how cities can be planned to be child-responsive, building on three potential strengths of urban planning: to provide space for children, to include children in the process of change and to develop urban policy that is based on child-specific evidence.

Within the handbook there is a central place reserved for a checklist Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles that allows every stakeholder to quickly evaluate what can be done to take up responsibilities and improve the situation of children, respecting capacities and resources. The checklist takes a central place in the handbook, providing the main reference for starting, monitoring and evaluating investments of every stakeholder involved in child-responsive urban planning, in the short-term, mid-term and long-term. 

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To download the manuals (in Spanish) click on the following links: Anexo 8 Manual para el CiudadanoAnexo 7 Manual para el Legislador

An English Translation of the Citizen’s Manual will be made available soon. Stay tuned!

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This year’s presidential election in Mexico was heavily driven by strengthening the country’s flawed judicial system, corruption, and resolving years of tumultuous internal conflict with drug cartels. Violence and corruption made for a bloody election, which was swept by a wave of at least 145 political killings leading up to election day. Mexico’s president elect – a real leftist – Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, made fighting corruption a central part of his campaign. Although his victory is a win for democracy in Mexico, he has a lot of ground to cover come inauguration on December 1st, 2018, as the fight for democracy continues beyond the polls and into practical policy.

For further reading: Mexico Elections: 5 Takeaways from López Obrador’s Victory; A Victory for Mexican Democracy; Amnesty is Not the Answer ; A New Revolution in Mexico

Aside is a new category of posts that are indirectly related to main posts and pages, and contextualize the political arena of main topic issues. This Aside, and others following Mexican politics, are related to the upcoming post: “A New Planning Paradigm for Mexico City & Opportunities For Meaningful Public Participation.” Stay tuned!

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