Continuing my Research – Looking at Mexico City

Thanks to the help of some CMU SoA professors, I’ve been feeling confident enough to continue my research, to the point where I want to apply for a travel fellowship. 

To reiterate, my research, which culminated in a thesis 2 months ago, focused on the public’s dissociation with water, and the potential for designers to also act as organizers for underserved communities, advocates for the environment, and mediators between spheres to bring about change in cities with challenges related to their natural resources. I looked at Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers’ distrust in the local water authority, the PWSA, and proposed mico-urban hydrophilic spaces in Pittsburgh’s streetscape out of bump-outs and implementing the ubiquitous fire hydrant as an access point for potable water to uncover urban water infrastructure.

A professor (who I consider a mentor and role model) suggested I look at Mexico and Central America’s rising public involvement in finding solutions to a similar myriad of problems related to the water crisis in Pittsburgh.  

David Barkin, an economics professor at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, states the various problems regarding water in his article “Mexico City’s Water Crisis”, namely:

  • Lack of regular service and supply of drinking water in underserved communities,
  • Unsustainable water policies that are slowly resulting in drastic environmental effects to the metropolitan area,
  • Ecosystem threats that are liable to topple the equilibrium of this sinking city, not to mention
  • Historical neglect, abundant political malevolence, and overall ignorance.

While most of the issues in Mexico City seem similar to Pittsburgh, the risk in the former is much greater. This city lies in an elevated valley surrounded by mountains, where, prior to colonization, water systems in the valley’s shallow lake basin serviced local urban settlements and agriculture. The residents at the time lived on clusters of islands connected by canals.

Now, even something as minimal as Mexico City’s precipitation could satisfy the city’s water needs if storage and management provisions were made behind dams and to inject the remainder into the lakebed for use during the long dry season. Unfortunately, the city’s irregular urban development and sprawl has foreclosed this option, not to mention the reclamation of swamp lands and desire to pave the city to no end has reduced the opportunity for green infrastructure or natural replenishment of underground aquifers. The city’s main cathedral and other historic buildings are leaning on each other, cracking, and sinking because the city is draining its groundwater too fast and preventing nature from refilling it.

But there is hope.

On the political side of things, as of 2018, the new mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, an energy engineering professor at UNAM, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that won a Nobel Prize in 2007, and the city’s first-ever elected female leader (just an iota of achievements by this incredible individual) claims to boost the water authority’s budget by 50% and provide it with more political autonomy. With her extensive background in energy and climate change, she could be the missing key to help decrease the flooding and rapid subsidence this entire city is suffering from (almost a foot a year!).

Now, this does seem a lot more drastic than Pittsburgh – at least Pittsburgh isn’t sinking. This city could be one of those several locations where there are several wicked problems – you can’t solve them all, but you can’t / shouldn’t prioritize one over the other. 

Right off the bat, a case study comes to mind – “Coopelluvia”, a thesis by Stephanie Newcomb, formerly of the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University in Los Angeles (and a B.Arch graduate from CMU), that I believe could work in a similar fashion in Mexico City, implementing low-impact, low-cost strategies for harvesting and management.

In short, Coopelluvia was a thesis aimed at producing a methodology for a hyper-local water supply model that was situated between private properties, in order to produce a multiple benefit hydro-social space. By blurring the notion of private and public properties, and instilling a sense of localized ecological and social resilience, this thesis posits the ability to maintain, adapt, and develop an ecological and cultural identity and a critical knowledge of practices. Newcomb aimed to empower citizens, specifically those in low-income Latino communities of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California by creating a new model of urban water governance, one where the neighborhood can engage directly with building and maintaining local water supplies.

Looking at this, the questions that I need to / should ask are:

  • Where do we need to retrofit the built environment to maximize local water collection?
  • Where do we design human-scaled storage systems for maximum social benefit?
  • Can practices of commoning facilitate rainwater harvesting and on-site stormwater capture for re-use on private properties in zones where infiltration is not feasible?

Newcomb refers to Elinor Ostrom’s principles of commoning and redefines it to the situation she identified, stating that  “a water commons is the shared collection, distribution and management of water as a resource”.

By localizing a decentralized system of rainwater harvesting to increase accountability within households, save money in utility costs, and increase resiliency in cases of emergency, it reminds of the quote by Stavros Stavrides, a Professor at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens – By focusing on the single family dwelling in relationship to its neighbors, the seeds of collective action and commoning are at the very heart of the private realm, the household

I think a strategy like Newcomb’s Coopelluvia could greatly benefit in increasing resiliency in Mexico City on a hyperlocal scale, as well as help cater to a community’s need for water while saving money on high utility costs while developing an ecological and cultural identity in the region. 

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