Mexico City, located in the valley of Mexico is the nation’s capital city. it is one of the largest cities in the world and is often referred to as a megalopolis, as it encompasses one large city that grew spread across and engulfed the smaller towns around it. It is a large valley on a high plateau located in the center of the nation, surrounded by volcanoes on most sides. 

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City of Mexico_©The Daily Beast

During the 20th century, Mexico was undergoing development and industrialization. The population of the metropolitan area of the valley of Mexico (also called Greater Mexico City) grew rapidly from 3.1 million in the 1950s to 14 million in the 1980s. People migrated to this city for more work opportunities and with the hope of better quality of life. The city sprawled outwards and slowly the town and cities around amalgamated into the megalopolis that it is today. 

The rapid growth of the city, the population growth, and the geographical location of the City in a valley contributed to severe air pollution problems. Air pollution reached its peak in the 80s and 90s as ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and airborne particles, all five major air pollutants reached their highest recorded levels during this time. Human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, fuel consumption in power plants, and vehicular emissions greatly affected the quality of air in the city. During the 1990s, Mexico city continued to grow as an economic and cultural center of importance. 

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Pollution emissions from cars_© UCAR center for science education

The construction of new skyscrapers such as Latin America’s tallest building, the Torre Mayor, and World Trade Centre México (remodeling of the Hotel de México, built in the 1970s) and the never-ending influx of immigrants made such development possible. This development, however, harmed the environmental condition of the city. The migrating population, vehicular traffic, industries, and power plants, all started to cause the air quality to deteriorate rapidly. In the 80s, there were about 124 cars per 1000 residents. This number may not seem high, but these cars were made of poor quality and ran on toxic fuel.

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Types of industries in Mexico excluding nuclear generation_© CPI Coproduction International

In 1992, Mexico City was labeled by United Nations as the most polluted city. There is no concrete evidence of the harsh effects of air pollution on the health of the population, but the quality was so severe that birds flying in the sky dropped dead because of the toxicity. The children here when asked to draw a view of the city colored the sky grey as they had never seen a sky clear of pollutants. Today, the population of the city is 22 million, but the air quality has improved significantly, dropping from the most polluted city to the 917th position. Now, the question we should ask is what were the efforts put in by the community and the government to rectify this issue of air pollution?

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Urban Growth and Development Sprawling beyond the Boundaries of the Federal District_©The Evolution of Local Governance in Mexico City: Pursuing Autonomy in a Growing Region

A range of policies was put forth by the government of Mexico to combat the increasing stress on the air quality, to improve the conditions for the people living here, and also for further economic progress of the city. They were:

  1. Hoy No Circula:

This policy was introduced in 1989 meaning “today, (these vehicles) don’t circulate”. In this scheme, the vehicles in the city were supposed to undergo an emission test every six months after which the vehicles were given a verification according to their performance. They were either graded as “0” “1” or “2”. The vehicles graded “0” meant they were in good working condition, while those labeled “1” or “2” were underperforming. These underperforming vehicles were prohibited from moving on the roads for one day every week and two Saturdays every month. However, this scheme didn’t prove to be very effective as the pollution levels did not reduce during the period. 

  1. ProAire: 

This was a long-term strategy put forth by the government in 1995. It contains several measures to achieve sustainable development in eight areas: reduction of energy consumption, cleaner and more efficient energy across all sectors, promotion of public transport and regulation of fuel consumption, technology shift and emissions control, environmental education and sustainability, culture and citizen participation, green areas and reforestation, institutional capacity building and scientific research, as well as strengthening of health protection. Today, ProAire is in its fourth iteration, featuring several measures to reduce the public dependence on private vehicles and encourage them to use public transport. 

  1. Efficient mass transit:

The city is putting efforts to improve the condition of public mass transport in the city. Better connectivity of city buses (MetroBus), low emission vehicles, proper maintenance and checking of vehicles in use, and introduction of a bike sharing program are being introduced. 

  1. Solid waste management:

the city is aiming to improve the way it treats its solid waste and is trying to come up with ideas to use landfill gas recovery to provide clean energy. The residents and community is doing their part in recycling and treating its waste in a better manner. 

  1. Renewable power supply:

The city is investing in renewable sources of energy like photovoltaic panels on public and private buildings and also the installation of solar-powered panels in buildings. 

  1. Reducing the burning of agricultural waste:

The city is also trying to reduce and control the open burning of agricultural wastes, while also trying to create a buffer zone between the agricultural and forest lands. 

  1. Reduction in cooking with firewood and coal:

About 16 million Mexicans use firewood or coal for cooking purposes every day or have these as secondary options at home. Indoor air pollution in such households is 6-15% higher than in houses in urban areas. This can be very damaging to health. Simply reducing open fires and providing LPG for cooking and proper chimney to remove pollutants can prove to be of great help.

Architects have been discussing and contemplating about how design can help to improve smoggy air. An example of such a project is The façade of the Torre de Especialidades that sucks up pollution in Mexico City. The structure is shielded by an eye-catching 100-yard-long façade made with special tiles that have air-scrubbing abilities.

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Smog eating facade_© ReWork
Smog eating facade_© Blogs.Rochester.edu

The mass-produced tiles, created by Berlin-based architecture firm Elegant Embellishments, are coated with titanium dioxide, a pigment that can act as a catalyst for chemical reactions when it’s activated by sunlight. When UV rays hit the tiles, a reaction occurs, converting mono-nitrogen oxides (the substances that make smog smoggy) into less harmful substances such as calcium nitrate and water, along with some not-so-wonderful carbon dioxide. The titanium dioxide in the tiles doesn’t change; it can keep on doing its thing indefinitely. 

Similarly, city designers and architects can greatly effect the physical conditions of a city and can help to make the city more sustainable. 

Apart from this, the City Government has taken small steps like the provision of electric taxis; strengthening vehicular emission control with advanced technologies; remote sensors to identify high emitting as well as non-compliance vehicles; improving fuel quality for both diesel and gasoline; improving public transportation (Metrobus); equip buses with newer diesel technologies and provision of bike sharing program called EcoBici and enhancing pedestrian areas to improve the city’s environment. 

With health and environmental policies and community participation aimed at improving the health of the people, the city is seeing greener and cleaner days even as it expands. The dense city is an ideal area to put forth policies for air pollution to enhance the environment and save various lives. It is the responsibility of the community, the people as well as the government to contribute and make the city a better place to live in.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Basu, T. (2018) Babies in Mexico City show signs of alzheimer’s. blame air pollution., The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company. Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/babies-in-mexico-city-show-signs-of-alzheimers-blame-air-pollution (Accessed: October 26, 2022).

Beaumont, P. (2014) Mexico’s Smog Eating Building, The Green Dandelion. Available at: https://blogs.rochester.edu/thegreendandelion/2013/11/mexicos-smog-eating-building/ (Accessed: October 26, 2022).

Center for Science Education (no date) Pollution from Vehicles | Center for Science Education. Available at: https://scied.ucar.edu/image/pollution-vehicles (Accessed: October 26, 2022).

Ivanova, Y. (2019) Creating pollution-eating facades for cleaner cities, RE. RE•WORK Blog – AI & Deep Learning News. Available at: https://blog.re-work.co/connected-city-allison-dring-elegant-embellishments/ (Accessed: October 26, 2022).

Reyes, A. (no date) Urban growth and development sprawling beyond the boundaries of the …, Research Gate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Urban-Growth-and-Development-Sprawling-beyond-the-Boundaries-of-the-Federal-District_fig2_342318091 (Accessed: October 26, 2022).

Top locations for automotive manufacturing in Mexico (2017) Co. Available at: https://www.co-production.net/mexico-manufacturing-news/production-plant-location-strategy.html (Accessed: October 26, 2022). 

Author

Renuka is an Architect and an Urban Designer, based in Bangalore. Her interests lie in understanding public places' role in an Indian context. She has taken an active part in interactive workshops, where the emphasis was placed on the conservation of history in an ever-changing city. Urban design and architecture always tend to pique her interests.

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