An Unlikely Environmentalism: Mexico City’s Urban Ecological Thought in the Age of Development

By Matthew Vitz, University of California San Diego

Considering Mexico City epitomized environmental catastrophe for much of the 1980s and 1990s, one would not expect it to have been a bastion of innovative urban ecological thinking during the middle of the century. The typical depiction of the postcolonial Third World City is of environmental deterioration due to a deep-seated developmentalist ethos promoting industrialization at all costs. Mexico City certainly fit the bill, arising from the Revolution of 1910–1940 as the engine of capitalist development, with a rising population of migrants from an impoverished countryside. Photos of smog-choked, poisonous air and endless sprawl that circulated during the 1980s reinforced the notion that neither the state nor the city’s inhabitants possessed an environmental ethic. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs raced to Mexico to deal with an urban-ecological crisis that Mexicans themselves were ostensibly only beginning to perceive. The late-century environmentalist impulse in an overgrown and polluted Mexico City seemed to confirm the notion that Third World environmentalism was derivative of North Atlantic organizations and international institutions such as the United Nations.

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Rodrigo Moya, Dust Storm, Mexico City 1958. Courtesy of Archivo Fotográfico Rodrigo Moya

Yet as early as the 1940s and 1950s scientists, urban planners, and engineers exposed a city on the verge of an ecological catastrophe due to the mismanagement of natural resources, unrestrained population growth, and a legacy of poor sanitary planning decisions. Mexico City’s steamroller and the persistent Eurocentric narrative of environmentalist trusteeship may have wiped away their trailblazing ideas on the urban environment. But they are worth revisiting as Mexico City continues to face an intricate web of environmental problems from pollution to water shortages, land subsidence, and perennial flooding.

Mexico City’s mid-century environmentalism, espoused by prominent urban experts, was rather unique in postcolonial Latin America because of its approach of ecological interconnectedness and human artifice-urban nature interactions as well as its adamant defense of urban water and forest conservation. The experience of Rio de Janeiro may be the closest comparison. Both capital cities underwent rapid development beginning in the nineteenth century, which jeopardized the surrounding environment. Conservationists in Rio de Janeiro strove to protect the watersheds surrounding their city while scientists began monitoring and classifying wastewater pollution of the Guanabara Bay. However, neither of these endeavors led to a broader understanding of the intricate relations between urbanization and the biophysical processes and natural elements that sustained it. What, then, made Mexico City’s environmentalist critique so singular in Latin America?


Map of the Basin of Mexico. Courtesy Bill Nelson

Urban industrialization during the first half of the century is an important part of the explanation, but by no means determinant. Numerous major metropolises in Latin America—Santiago, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, for example—underwent similar processes of staggering population and industrial growth during the same period but did not witness the proliferation of similar urban-ecological thought. Mexico City differed from these metropolises in the way development combined with an accident of physical geography, which rendered hydraulic engineering and city planning perilous. Nestled in an enclosed basin, the city has expanded over a vast lake system, dried by centuries of drainage works but which reclaim urban lands during torrential summer rains. The water supply once came from the many springs that dotted the basin, but authorities since the 1940s have increasingly overexploited the underground aquifer. This draft-and-drain hydraulics has caused the ground under the city to sink. As water is sucked from the soil, it contracts, threatening the stability of buildings and the functioning of underground networks.

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The Great Drainage Canal completed in 1900 to evacuate the floodwaters of nearby Lake Texcoco

Architects, engineers, urban planners, and scientists documented the environmental changes within the urbanizing Basin of Mexico during the first half of the century and the menace they posed to the city.  Their concerns had roots in the late colonial period—Alexander von Humboldt and Mexican savant José Antonio Alzate were the most famous critics of deforestation and the drainage paradigm—and early-twentieth-century urban thinkers drew on their earlier proclamations. The desiccation of the alkali-heavy Lake Texcoco by 1920 favored the formation of dangerous dust storms that caused gastro-intestinal illnesses and respiratory infections. Some, like forest conservationist Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, suggested foresting the lakebed with halophytes while many other leading urban experts proposed water conservation and the renewal of the basin’s lake system. The birth of Mexico’s conservationism owed itself to the unique problems facing its most economically and politically vital city.

By the early 1950s conservation was infused with the language of ecology and fears of overgrowth. Problems that were once conceived in isolation from one another and as fundamentally about public health, as they also were in the Guanabara Bay of Rio, became, in Mexico City, interwoven, and mutually reinforcing, threats to ecological equilibrium and requiring integral environmental governance. Well-known planners like Enrique Beltrán, Guillermo Zárraga, Miguel Rebolledo, and Mauricio Gómez Mayorga detected an urban ecology in crisis.

What accounted for the shift from conservation to a more ecological approach in which overpopulation figured prominently? First, the city’s environmental woes intensified. Urban experts stood at the front lines of a catastrophic cocktail of severe land subsidence; extreme flooding of the city center and surrounding neighborhoods, which turned major avenues into canals; tormenting dust storms during the dry season; chronic water shortages; and forest depletion. Understanding these problems necessitated a method of ascertaining the multiple co-dependencies and interrelations between accumulated human artifice and biophysical processes. Second, a robust dialogue between Mexico’s thinkers and North American scientists such as William Vogt and Paul Sears, both of whom had visited Mexico City during the 1940s, aided the new approach. The ecological mindset, elsewhere reserved for rural lands, found fertile ground in Mexico City.

City builders and planners wrote books, editorials, and, in some cases, novels to alert the public of a pending crisis. They warned of the “capital error” of lake drainage; the perils of “going against nature;” of “urban elephantiasis” and “chaotic and cancerous growth that consumes” the whole basin and destroys rural production; of the menace of being drowned by “pestilent waters” if a water recycling program was not pursued; and, invoking a romanticized nostalgia for lost times, called for “ecological restoration” and “ecological equilibrium” centered on reforestation, water conservation, and lake renewal. They proposed a more balanced and symbiotic relation between city and surrounding hinterlands that could sustain their populations. Zárraga captured the ecological method best: “The different issues that constitute the problem of the [Basin] of Mexico are interconnected in such a way that one cannot refer to one of them without alluding to the rest. Water and subsidence, for example, are intimately united….Deforestation, erosion, and dust storms are other threads of the same warp.”

As much as this urban ecological vision challenged the status quo of unchecked industrialization and draft-and-drain hydraulics, it remained entrenched in the political, cultural, and economic structures reigning in Mexico: a pervasive technocratic mentality, authoritarianism, and capitalism. In contrast with the citizen-based environmental movement sprouting up in suburbs around the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s that, to a certain degree, challenged expert rule, the educated middle classes of Mexico City put their faith in the professional class of technocrats to plan ecological balance. Experts concurred. Gómez Mayorga preached “a technical reason” while Zárraga proposed a “technical junta” that would perceive the interconnections of problems and guide the city towards equilibrium. These thinkers hoped the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) government would support this fusion of technology and ecology to make the city more sustainable.

Contempt for the migrant poor was an essential ingredient of environmentalist technocracy. Poor migrant settlements were the “tumors” or “parasites” on the urban body. At best the poor needed to be instilled with a “modern urban lifestyle;” at worst their communities need to be razed to save the capital. Given this outlook, it is no surprise that these thinkers offered little critique of the structural forces of capitalist development or the causes of environmental inequality. Descaling the city would come at the cost of the informal migrant poor. Gómez Mayorga, the most conservative of these thinkers, remarked that affluent subdivisions were “ecologically beneficial” while the poor were “destroyers” of the land. This kind of thinking persists in some of Mexico’s environmentalist circles today, despite the rise of Marxist-inflected political ecology during the late 1970s and 1980s.

Their intellectual work did have some impact on policy. The PRI approved the partial renewal of Lake Texcoco to conserve water and curtail the dust storms in 1968, and a 1950s Hydrological Commission attempted to parry subsidence by injecting treated rainwater into the aquifer. Nonetheless, the state did not pursue their general prescriptions. And, although predictions of total urban collapse proved wrong, subsidence, conventional drainage infrastructure, and aquifer overdrafting have continued apace while water shortages, desiccation, and flooding are worsening.

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The partially revitalized Lake Texcoco. Photo by the author

These mid-century urban thinkers quite precociously underscored the interconnectedness of cities with the natural environment and imagined a descaled and decentralized Mexico City replete with revitalized waterscapes, green areas, productive rural hinterlands, and a city living in ecological equilibrium. The many environmentally minded architects and planners who are working to make a more sustainable Mexico City in this century may not be familiar with the ideas and proposals of forbearers such as Zárraga and Rebolledo. Nonetheless, they are indebted to them for popularizing ideas about ecological restoration and balance.


Matthew Vitz is associate professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, published by Duke University Press in 2018.

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