Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Critics say the Corredor Cultural Chapultepec is not the kind of public space the city desperately needs.
It’s a fact that Mexico City, with nearly 9 million residents and high levels of poverty, suffers from a lack of public space. Now officials are planning the city’s very own “linear park,” evoking New York City’s highly successful High Line. But critics say it’s misguided.
On its face, the ”Corredor Cultural Chapultepec” (CCC) sounds great, and the renderings look even better. FR-EE, the architecture firm leading the project, proposes an 0.8-mile, multi-level urban park running alongside Avenida Chapultepec, a busy thoroughfare in the Roma neighborhood.
An estimated 75,000 cars tear through the Avenida’s 10 lanes daily. Crossing those lanes as a pedestrian can be hairy, and sidewalks are narrow to begin with. The CCC will remove some of the lanes and replace them with green space on which to walk and bike, and water features that play off the ancient aqueduct near the street. Plus, retail stores.
"We have sacrificed public space for cars," Fernando Romero, general director and architect at FR-EE, told Curbed. "[A]nd the Avenida Chapultepec is organized in a chaotic manner. The avenue is 80 percent cars, and we want to flip that to create a cultural center and platform for transportation."
But critics say such rhetoric is disingenuous. David Ortega is a former employee of the Mexico City Ministry of Urban Development and a planning scholar at the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterey, where he focuses on the distribution of public space. Relative to other neighborhoods in the city, the Roma is well-served when it comes to transit, retail, and namely, green space, says Ortega. The Avenida Chapultepec stretches from a busy intersection near the well-developed center city to Chapultepec Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world.
Ortega tells CityLab that the Avenida Chapultepec needed attention of some kind, but not this: “They just needed to fix the street and the crosswalks. In terms of priorities for constructing something like this, there are so many other places that need urgent intervention.”
Ortega says the city talks about the need for public space and mobility, yet distributes projects unevenly, mostly in parts that are already well-developed. He’s not the first to point this out. A 2015 paper on public space in Mexico City includes a map of recent government-led projects, both revitalizations of existing spaces and new areas like gathering spaces underneath bridges. The map shows a concentration of projects in the center boroughs of the city. The paper’s author writes:
[I]t would be reasonable to believe that the vast majority of projects concerning public space are concentrated towards the center north because it is where growth began and it would be likely to have more inhabitants there. However, the most densely populated boroughs are located to the east… where the activation of projects is very scarce.
For example, the Iztapalapa borough is the most populous in the city, with some 1,815,786 residents. It’s poor, crowded, and struggles with infrastructure deficiencies. But there have only been two projects there since 2000, according to the paper.
Ortega also points out that the CCC project’s development process has been questionable. Instead of first identifying the need for a project, holding public hearings, finding investors, and conducting a proper competition for the design, Ortega says that the city went backwards: Behind closed doors, “They found the investor, and let the investor decide what to do with the site,” he says.
Which highlights another question: Will the CCC be truly “public”? Many critics worry that it’ll turn out to be more like a mall. Protests have broken out over this point (#NoShopultepec is one popular Twitter hashtag). Others, including one of Mexico City’s congressional representatives, say that the project will raise property values in nearby neighborhoods, to the extent that longtime residents will be displaced.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has defended the project, affirming that it won’t be dominated by retail, and that the city’s approach to finding private investment first was smart business. “Otherwise the problem would be, who would want to invest without knowing they would recover some of their money?” he told El Universal (link in Spanish; this is a rough English translation). An official website goes to great lengths to characterize the project’s “transparency.”
Will the project actually get built? Ortega’s impression is that it will. At the very least, he says, “People are starting to find out what the project is about, and join the discussion. That’s exciting to see as an urbanist.”