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Mexico City Urbanization Case Study

Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development


Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development
 ("UAS") (founded in 1972 as Urban Anthropology), publishes issues of volunteered articles and special issues on world processes: urbanization, economic development and underdevelopment, colonialism and neocolonialism, international migration, etc. UAS will publish articles in any of the social and behavioral sciences provided that they pertain to the subject matter of the journal.   Contributions must be original articles; that is, they must not have appeared as a publication in any form prior to their publication in UAS.  Selection of articles for publication favor those that relate to a body of substantive data.

Coverage: 1985-2014 (Vol. 14, No. 1/3 - Vol. 43, No. 4)

Moving Wall: 3 years (What is the moving wall?)

The "moving wall" represents the time period between the last issue available in JSTOR and the most recently published issue of a journal. Moving walls are generally represented in years. In rare instances, a publisher has elected to have a "zero" moving wall, so their current issues are available in JSTOR shortly after publication.
Note: In calculating the moving wall, the current year is not counted.
For example, if the current year is 2008 and a journal has a 5 year moving wall, articles from the year 2002 are available.

Terms Related to the Moving Wall
Fixed walls: Journals with no new volumes being added to the archive.
Absorbed: Journals that are combined with another title.
Complete: Journals that are no longer published or that have been combined with another title.

ISSN: 08946019

Subjects: Anthropology, Social Sciences

Collections: Arts & Sciences IX Collection

''Mexico City's growth and gigantic size are alarming and out of all known proportion,'' President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado said during his election campaign last year. ''Its demography distorts the profile not only of the city but also of the entire country.''

Like his predecessors, Mr. de la Madrid has therefore pledged to improve the quality of life here. But with the country in its worst economic crisis in more than 40 years and the city government almost bankrupt, an acute shortage of resources prevents any dramatic new spending programs.

Still more alarming, the Government is unable to prevent the Mexican capital from continuing to grow. By the turn of the century, Greater Mexico City, sprawling far beyond the limits of the Federal District, will unavoidably have 30 million to 35 million inhabitants, more than the population of many nations.

Already Mexico City is a warning to other developing countries where centralized government, a high birth rate, neglect of agriculture and the rush to industrialize have combined to encourage migration to the cities. Twenty percent of the country's population lives here, and the term urban macrocephaly has been coined to describe the phenomenon. Macrocephaly is a condition in which the head is abnormally large, Mexico Citys Appear Elsewhere

In many cases, the warning comes too late. Such is the momentum of the peasant exodus from rural sectors depressed by low prices on the world's commodity markets that new Mexico Citys are appearing throughout the third world. In Mexico, Guadalajara and Monterrey are quickly following the grim model of the capital.

But few urban centers have grown as fast - and none as big - as Mexico City. Its population took more than four centuries to reach one million but increased 16-fold in barely five decades. Old Mexicans still remember spending afternoons in nearby fields and rivers within view of Popocatepetl, the snow-capped volcano. Many of today's schoolchildren must play in dusty streets or open sewers, and they learn about Popocatepetl from books.

Mexico City's location compounds its problems. Standing 7,400 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains and volcanos, its thin air contributes to photochemical smog that remains trapped in the Valley of Mexico. It is also in an earthquake zone and is slowly sinking into its soft subsoil. Finally, it is far from ports and supplies of water, food and energy.

The fact that Mexico City grew up where it did can be explained only historically. Since 1500 B.C. the Mexican highlands have had military and political dominance over the rest of the country. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived here in the 1520's, it was natural for them to build Mexico City on the site of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. An Effect of World War II

During three centuries of Spanish rule, Mexico City was the seat of the Viceroy of New Mexico, whose colony stretched as far north as California and as far south as Costa Rica. This was not only the political, cultural and religious capital of Mexico, but eventually it would also be its industrial, financial and commercial capital. For the center of power to be anywhere else was unthinkable.

The destructive transformation of Mexico City began only during World War II, when the shortage of goods previously imported from the United States and Europe forced the country to industrialize. The factories, logically built in the largest urban markets, drew the first wave of migrants from the countryside.

This development model has been maintained since then. A disproportionate share of government resources is poured into encouraging industrialization while deteriorating conditions in the agricultural sector expel more and more peasants to seek work in urban areas or, as undocumented aliens, in the United States.

Through the 1950's and 60's, peasant migration to the capital from the arid states around Mexico City accelerated dramatically. New slums, or lost cities, as they are known here, appeared almost weekly as squatters seized every available plot of undeveloped land. Without even minimal services, the migrants claimed to be better off than they were in the countryside and encouraged their relatives to follow them. No Environmental Restraints

During this boom, environmental concerns were suspended in the name of development. Factories were allowed to pour their smoke into the air and their industrial waste into drains fed into the country's rivers. New housing developments for the middle classes, stretching north into a so-called Satellite City, consumed wooded areas at an alarming rate. The sprawling urban surface of Mexico City doubled in two decades.

By the 1970's, alarmed by the collapsing quality of life in the capital, even for the middle and upper classes, the Government began to preach the virtues of decentralization, first of industry and, theoretically, later of government. But the city's population continued to grow by 4.6 percent a year, with bureaucrats drawn by power, businessmen by markets, and migrants by jobs. Everyone complained but no one left.

Like the rest of Mexico, the capital is marked by extraordinary contrasts between wealth and poverty. Most of the population lives in decaying inner-city slums or endless miles of improvised lost cities, but there are also quiet shaded residential districts with myriad homes costing more than $1 million. No one is unaffected by the urban crisis.

Eager to own their homes, middle-and upper-class Mexicans have moved far from the city center, but the price of this privilege is often to spend three hours a day commuting through the toxic fumes of traffic jams. For industrial workers, who also live far from their jobs, the odyssey of traveling to and from work is even more painful, involving perhaps five hours of standing in line or being crushed in buses and subways. Many Riding Alone

Because of the extraordinary discomfort of using public services, most Mexicans buy a car at the first opportunity; the resulting taffic jams then force the Government to spend scarce resources on new highways. At present, 97 percent of the vehicles on the roads carry only 21 percent of the passengers, a reflection of the high percentage of cars carrying only the driver.

The problem of air pollution is closely associated with the traffic, not only because cars spend hours moving slowly but also because the city's poorly serviced buses spew out thick black diesel fumes. Further, since 30 percent of the city's 10,000 tons a day of garbage is not collected, it is often burned by slum dwellers in a vain effort to control the vast population of rats.

But the main preoccupation of the poor seems to be housing. Officials estimate a deficit of some 800,000 homes. Since squatters have no legal title to their land, they are reluctant to improve their shacks for fear of eviction. Further, before lost cities are recognized as permanent, they cannot be provided with water, drainage or electricity. One recent study showed that 51 percent of families - each averaging 6.5 people - sleep in a single room.

During his campaign, Mr. de la Madrid soon concluded that the struggle for survival in the capital had converted Mexico City into one of his most serious political problems, and he organized a series of ''popular consultations'' to analyze the urban disaster. Rich and Poor Suffer

In one discussion, Mr. de la Madrid noted: ''The inhabitant of Mexico City is increasingly irritated, frustrated and desperate about transportation. Those who most suffer are the poor, but even those fortunate enough to own a car get caught up in traffic jams that at times are chaotic and on some days are truly catastrophic.''

The new Government has few choices. While the prices of most public services have risen, transportation fares have been held down for fear of an angry reaction. A ride on the subway still costs the equivalent of less than a United States penny. Further, the city government has promised to reduce the pollution caused by its buses, although it cannot afford to buy more or to continue to expand the subway network.

New housing projects and investment in water and electricity have been postponed because of the economic crisis, while increased unemployment and high inflation have brought new hardship to slums.

One positive effect of the recession is a still unmeasured slowdown in migration to the capital. Yet because any economic recovery will be apparent in urban centers long before it is in the countryside, the flow to the cities presumably will resume before long.

Perhaps most depressing is that Mexico City, while serving as a case study in urban disaster, appears to have developed no strategies useful to other cities headed down the same road. Instead it stands only as a warning that third world development models based on rapid industrialization produce huge, unmanageable cities.

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