Landscape Morphology in Mexico City

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Mexico City is a giant laboratory of urban morphology. Its 20 million residents live in neighborhoods based on a wide spectrum of plans. Here are some examples.

The colonial center (above) was built on the foundations of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire. The old city was on an island in Lake Texcoco. The lake was drained to prevent flooding as the city expanded.

Geometric plans dominate throughout Mexico City. The Federal neighborhood (above) evokes the radiating streets of Palmanova, a town designed by Vicenzo Scamozzi in Renaissance Italy.

Nezahualcóyotl (above), or Ciudad Neza, is a municipality of one million people within Mexico City's metropolitan area. Its street plans follow a standardized layout — public amenities with green space confined within mega-blocks.

The rich and famous tend to prefer organic forms, and tend not to economize on water for their gardens. In the wealthy neighborhood of Jardines del Pedregal (above), some houses have heliports.

Planners chose a repetitive style for their unfortunate clients in Fuentes de Aragón (above). This neighborhood is part of Ecatepec de Morelos (below), which — like Ciudad Neza — is a municipality within Greater Mexico City. The entire city doesn't follow an extreme grid, but neighborhoods like Fuentes de Aragón are common.

In recent years, Mexico's federal government has invested substantially in housing for the poor. Its programs, such as those beautifully photographed by Livia Corona, have rehoused over two million families in massive developments like Los Héroes Tecámac (below) in Ecatepec de Morelos.

Modernist planning is still alive in Mexico, where planners appear to have substantial power in society. The challenge of resettling so many families in so few years has been solved through standardization. Many new settlements resemble enlarged microchips.

Other developments — like Geovillas Santa Bárbara (above) — have curved streets and more diverse layouts, but they are usually for higher-income populations.

The social dynamics behind urban growth in low-income areas are complex, and self-made construction is the rule. Very few public or private initiatives strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up housing development. Instead there are extreme disparities between the two.

Street markets under red canopies show up frequently in satellite images of Mexico City. The market above is in Xico, another municipality within the metropolitan area.

Xico is bordered by Chalco Lake (above) and the Santa Catarina Mountains (below). Here, urban development takes place without much formal planning. Green space and public amenities seem a luxury.

There is a real need for a new approach to urban development — one that empowers informal communities without imposing insensitive planning from above, addressing the roots of urban poverty instead of formalizing it.

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

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  1. Hey, regards from México, this is a good job.

  2. Nice article. Could you make the photos click through to Google, Bing or some other map?

  3. Delighted to receive the Mexico City article! How was it that I received it? I have shared it with professionals who may or may not know of Polis. It is superb! Prof.Gringo

  4. As a "chilango" I can say this is awesome work.

  5. Thank you all for the comments. This and other similar posts in Polis on Quito, Madrid, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Nairobi, Bangkok, small cities of Ecuador and Manila, is part of a visual research work I've been doing through Google Earth. It's a very enriching work, as it took me through the history of every depicted neighbourhood.
    I never had the chance to visit Mexico City (yet), but I was impressed with its rich diversity of urban plans. I knew that Mexico has a particularly rich history of architecture, old and modern. Now I have found out the richness of the city's urban planning tradition.

    1. This is fantastic. I have visited this city many times and it is one of my favourites. I think these photos would make excellent art. Are these the best quality you have?

  6. Really interesting, thank you. Are you familiar with the work of the LSE Cities lab on "endless cities"? They bring good data on some major cities, including Mexico City

  7. Thanks for the information about LSE endless cities initiative.
    Regarding the links to the photos, unfortunately I did not save them, but I'll do it for the future posts. In the following weeks I'll try to save the links to Mexico's photos and share them.

  8. Thank you for the photos and your work. It is fascinating. My family is from Mexico City and I know that the city is fascinating and so complex and I love seeing neighborhoods from aerial views that you never get a sense of down on the street level. You should absolutely visit and see it for yourself.

  9. Wonderful! Where is the 2nd one from?

  10. This is truly amazing. I lived a few years in Mexico City and saw how much it was not homogeneous in terms of city planning. Now I get to see the "big picture".

  11. Really interesting material, and so useful as a good teacher resource about urbanisation as a global trend. Thank you for sharing this article and these photos from teachers and global educators "Down Under"..

  12. Me parece que la morfología del paisaje de la Ciudad de México, es un reflejo de la mala planificación urbana, el crecimiento exagerado de la mancha urbana y la marcada diferencia entre las clases sociales.

  13. This article was very interesting and very helpful for my world geography honors class.


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