AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico — Jessica Lopez, a four-year old with a shy smile, has suffered severe chronic asthma attacks since she was born. Her condition always worsened in the fall, when dust rose up from the abandoned fields that bordered her family’s modest one-room house.
Last year, city officials here turned those dusty fields near Jessica’s house into a gleaming park with trails, playgrounds and shaded pavilions. Then in the fall, something remarkable happened in the Lopez home: Jessica’s asthma attacks did not come. It's impossible to say that the park is what turned Jessica's health around. But her mother has no doubts. The park, Maria del Refugio Lopez insists, saved Jessica's life.
Jessica's story is one of many good things happening along a sliver of land that cuts through a crowded corner of this city of 1.3 million people. Those fields outside Jessica's house, strewn with garbage and a haven for criminals, followed the narrow path of an underground oil pipeline that traverses one impoverished neighborhood after another. In the past three years, the city has reclaimed almost all of this passage for the 300,000 people who live near it. The result is a 7.5 mile linear park that is one of Latin America’s most extraordinary urban green spaces: La Línea Verde — The Green Line.
The park's lush lawns march up and down the small hills of this arid city, kept green with reclaimed water from a nearby treatment plant. Solar-powered lamps light up the walkways at night. And in the afternoons, when children come home from school, the park is typically busy with families out walking, biking, exercising or just gathering in the park’s many social spaces.
La Línea Verde is the brainchild of Lorena Martínez, the mayor of Aguascalientes until just a few weeks ago. Located 325 miles northwest of Mexico City, the city had already spruced up its colonial-era downtown with pedestrian malls and museums to attract tourists who flock here in July for Mexico's largest open-air state fair.
Martínez wanted a different kind of urban renewal project. More neglected parts of the city, especially in the city’s southeast where Jessica’s family lives, were engulfed in drug-related violence. She wanted to do something that could help reconstruct the tattered social fabric in those colonias. "Before we came here, the common wisdom was that these (low income) communities just needed more police patrols," Martínez says. "I wanted to focus on crime reduction. But I did not want to follow the same policy of more cops and guns."
No Time to Waste
A tall, lanky woman of 49, Martínez is part of a wave of female leaders in Mexico who are finding new ways to create social impact. A lawyer by training, she served two terms in Mexico’s national Congress as a member of the traditional ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. She also headed the Aguascalientes Sports Commission and the local office of Profeco, Mexico's consumer protection agency. Martínez is single and has no children, and is known for an exhausting work ethic that frequently has her logging 16-hour workdays.
Mayors in Mexico serve single terms limited to just three years. So Martínez knew she had no time to lose if she wanted to make an impact in Aguascalientes. As soon as she was declared winner of the mayoral election in the summer of 2010, she and a group of staff members traveled to Brazil and Colombia, in search of innovative urban projects.
"It was in Curitiba that we found our project," Martínez recalls. She was particularly impressed with how Jaime Lerner, the legendary former mayor of that city in southern Brazil, had turned abandoned lots into parks. It reminded her of the scrubby pipeline land back home and got her thinking about whether that too could be turned into a community asset. She asked her planners to begin sketching out some ideas. "I learned that big urban changes are carried out in smaller municipalities," Martínez says.
As soon as Martínez took office in January 2011, she got to work on La Línea Verde. Her team held lots of meetings with community groups to get their input. Getting an opportunity to weigh in on a government project was not something they were accustomed to. "We had to convince local neighborhood groups that the project was theirs," Martínez says. "We would show them our plans, and they had the liberty to say if they liked them or not," she says. "We don’t want basketball courts, we want a skating ring. 'Our children have skates,' they told us. That's what we wanted to hear. If people don’t think something belongs to them, they won’t take care of it."
Finding the Funds
The mayor's team drew up a master plan; design work was done in-house. Martínez also assigned a project director who answered directly to her, something unusual for municipal projects in Mexico. "Few government projects select project directors, but private sector projects always do," Martínez says. "The planning and a clear line of authority were both extremely helpful."
Also helpful was the mayor's political savvy, which helped in raising funds for the project. La Línea Verde cost 500 million pesos, or about $40 million in U.S. dollars. When approaching the national government for money, Martínez divided the larger park project into a series of smaller funding proposals targeted to the interests of various federal agencies. "I knocked on the doors of friends and political contacts I made in the last 25 years," Martínez says. "The main goal was to make alliances."
The strategy paid off: Several federal agencies gave funds. For instance, the National Federation of Sports gave the municipality $10 million to build the park's bicycle lanes, running trails, sports parks, sand boxes and a large public pool. The National Ministry for Communications and Transport granted $7.5 million for completing La Línea Verde Avenue, which borders the park on both sides and included the construction of a bridge.
The most critical ally was Pemex, the national oil company that owns the pipelines crossing through all those neighborhoods. (The land was owned by the state of Aguascalientes, of which this is the capital city.) To assist in the operations of the park, Pemex made an in-kind donation of 1.4 million liters of gas, with a value of $1.1 million.
More important, Pemex became a cooperative partner in a plan that it could very easily have scuttled. Pemex spends a lot of money on security to guard its pipelines from drug gangs who siphon off gas and sell it at a profit. Aguascalientes does not face that type of problem, but vandalism was a common threat in the area before the park was built. At La Línea Verde, the pipelines are now protected by a group of park rangers who serve as a security detail, and are assisted by local police patrols. Martínez gives Pemex credit for being flexible. "Our plan was not part of their traditional thinking or model," she says.
In all, Martínez found ways to get Mexico’s national government to cover 80 percent of the project cost. Only $7 million came out of city funds. Martínez says building La Línea Verde simply would not have been possible any other way. "A municipal budget is too tiny to carry out something of this size."
'The Park Changed it All'
Among the major attractions of La Línea Verde is a low-cost gym and other spots where people exercise outdoors. These facilities offer use of a swimming pool, dance classes and exercise training for local residents. Mothers take their young children for swim lessons while the moms take Zumba classes. Two state-of-the-art boxing rooms are also a big draw.
The park’s social programming is provided by a robust social welfare program called Convive Feliz. This, too, was an idea Mayor Martínez borrowed from somewhere else — this time from Medellín, Colombia. Convive runs La Línea Verde’s cultural and sports activities. Initially the park and Convive were two separate projects, says Octavio Cardenas Denham, the urban planning director under Martínez. But the two projects were complementary and quickly became joined together.
“What we are doing with the park is social acupuncture,” says Gabriel Ramírez Pasillas, director of Convive Feliz. The program holds social meetings which have brought the local residents closer. Convive also manages an entire cultural program that includes concerts, dance and movie festivals.
The Aguascalientes municipality claims that in the year the park has been in operation, robberies and assaults have declined by more than 50 percent and that health outcomes in the community have improved. These claims are difficult to verify, as city-level data collection is spotty in Mexico.
But the story of Jessica and interviews with other residents who live near La Línea Verde suggest living standards have improved for many. "Before the park we had no place to walk," says Juanita Cuapio, a longtime resident in the area. "Everybody was suspicious of each other."
Jessica's mother says that before the park was built, she was seriously considering moving away. Jessica's asthma attacks were distressing, and crime in the neighborhood made her family feel unsafe. Now, she's happy to stay put. She’s even adding a second bedroom onto her tiny house. "The park changed it all," Lopez says.
Martínez left office a few weeks ago, her three-year term complete. As she ponders a run at a higher office such as state governor, the advisers who helped her get the park built have been hired by the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. According to Martínez, Nieto has expressed interest in implementing urban projects similar to La Línea Verde at a national level. These days, it is common to see local leaders from across Mexico and from other countries pay Aguascalientes a visit, to see La Línea Verde for themselves. (The project received recognition in the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation.) Martínez says there are many potential Línea Verde parks around the world.
Her primary advice to any city looking to build their own: Be creative and tenacious about finding money to pay for it. And paying for it doesn’t just mean construction costs. It also means operating and maintaining the park into the future. At the end of her term, Martínez convinced the local city legislature to create a $400,000 trust fund to continue running the park and its programs, and to handle future donations. "This project can be re-created anywhere," Martínez says, "but you need leadership, administrative structure and the support of the local community."
Daniela Guazo contributed reporting to this story.
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.