Plaza City

Talking public space with Jan Gehl in Mexico City

City Terrain International Urbanism
Plaza del Zócalo, Mexico City. (Courtesy Hector Garcia/Flickr)
Plaza del Zócalo, Mexico City. (Courtesy Hector Garcia/Flickr)

Mexico City is the largest city in North America and has been around since the 14th century, when the Aztecs settled the area. Many layers of history, culture, and development both private and public can be seen in its rich architecture and urbanism. Crumbles of pyramids abut Spanish cathedrals and huge modernist housing blocks, foregrounded by spectacular parks, statues, and fountains from the various periods in the history of the region.

However, along with the complex history comes a complex city. The organizers of CoRe Foro Urbano CDMX 2016, a two-day summit of experts from the development, policy, design, and transportation sectors, cited this complexity and a perceived lack of leadership among the Mexico City’s many stakeholders as the impetus for getting together and addressing its multi-faceted challenges.

The main initiator of the conference was Kaluz, “a diversified conglomerate of companies active in the following sectors: industry, construction materials, and financial services.” They worked with the Planning Commission of Mexico City and the Delegacion Cuauhtmoc (the local borough government) to realize the forum, which is organized into four panels: Mobility, Public Space, Citizenship and Responsibility, and Zoning and Diverse City.

It was not structured as lectures or talks, but more of a series of roundtable discussions that were aimed directly at the problems of Mexico City, and how each can be addressed with real solutions. This is part two of our series, “Urbanism in Mexico City,” reported live from the discussion. 

Speakers, including Jan Gehl (second from right). (courtesy CoRe Foro Urbano)

Speakers, including Jan Gehl (second from right). (courtesy CoRe Foro Urbano)

Mexico City has an abundance of public space and is a leader in this way. For residents and the government, it is an important part of the city and includes parks, plazas, fountain squares, or large sidewalks along the boulevards. The city even has a Public Space Authority and a Program for Neighborhoods and Community Involvement.

Architect and author of Cities for People Jan Gehl, in his keynote, railed against the excesses of modernist planning, including its out-of-scale urban developments such as Brasilia, and its lack of human-scale interaction at street level. He showed images of cold, haunting modernist schemes and juxtaposed them with their supposed goals, such as the creation of erotic space. He also pointed out that the car had an adverse impact on cities, “totally overwhelming” them. He cited Jane Jacobs as a prominent voice in criticizing this era. In 1961, she published her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, only one year after Gehl graduated from architecture school.

Gehl said that over the last 50 years we have finally learned how to design cities. However, he cites the Piazza del Campo Siena in Tuscany as the best public space in the world, which was made over 700 years ago. But it has the 12 human-scale, people-oriented qualities that Gehl seeks, which bring protection, comfort, and enjoyment.

Today, Gehl says that we need a lively, livable, sustainable, and healthy city.

Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces said that public spaces were included on the Habitat III New Urban Agenda, the document that sets forth a path for thinking about the 21st-century city and how it will be formed. He noted that a place is best when it has ten or more uses. “There is more support for public spaces here than anywhere else I have been,” Kent said. He explained his theory of place-led development that comes from engagement with the users to define the program at the outset. Architect Tatiana Bilbao is interested in designing not only for those coming to shop or pass through an area, but those who live nearby. These intended publics, says Muller Garcia, secretary of environment for Mexico City, must be properly programmed, but also cared for by those who feel ownership in them, in order to make sure the targeted publics are the ones who end up enjoying them.

Francisco (Pakiko) Paillie Perez of derive LAB noted that while we need rules and regulations to assure access for all people, those laws come with many territorial designations that are dangerous, especially because it is not always clear who makes these rules and what ends they may serve. As for the private sector, developer Guillermo Buitano pointed out that while it is possible to make private places public, developers should look past their own projects to determine their sphere of influence. Amy Kaufman of AK Cultural Planning suggested that the strength of public space is that it can gather a range of people into one vibrant place that reflects the culture of the community through the engagement of artists who can enliven spaces through a process-oriented approach, much like Kent’s place-led development that starts with program. For Mexico City, the public space needs to be safe, says Perez, and that means cutting down on attacks on women, and also on moving the informal vendors into the street and off of the sidewalk.

All in all, Mexico City is in good shape for public space, and with people focused on keeping them that way as the waves of change inevitably alter the city.

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