At the Vanguard?

According to a biblical story, a family lives in a room amidst overcrowded conditions, which generates interminable conflicts. The father decides to consult his rabbi, who tells the afflicted father thathe should put all of his hens in the room and come back after a week. Seven days later, the man can’t stand another minute of it, but the rabbi tells him to put the rest of his animals in the room and to come back in a month. When the month is up, desperate, the father arrives ready to fight the rabbi. The rabbi tells him to take the animals out of the room and to come back in a week. Seven days later, the whole family returns with enormous smiles on their faces: they are all happy because they are living to their hearts’ content in the same room that only a few weeks before had seemed such an uninhabitable place. That appears to be the strategy of the government of the Federal District: turn up the pressure in all ambits –traffic, infrastructure, water, social programs, development plans- to such a intense level that, when the works projects are over and everything’s returned to normal, we, the inhabitants of Mexico City, will feel rejuvenated and happy due to the grandiosity of the governmental actions. As political strategy, this is an unsurpassable project. As a platform for the development of the city, –or of the country- it is nothing more than a mirage. Like the biblical anecdote.

When one hears about the enormous governmental programs and the achievements that have been reached, there’s nothing left but to ask oneself if the citizens live in the same place as our authorities. According to the city’s head of government, the Federal District has resolved the main problems, the bases are being set in place for a stupendous future, and we are well on the road to development. I ask myself, where did the holes in the street, the water shortage, the traffic, and the growing criminality go?

It is evident that a city abandoned for so many decades would be suffering from all types of problems that cannot be solved from one day to the next. Similarly, the hardships generated by the improvement process are high and have no remedy: a street or a Metro line takes time to be constructed, the period from when the work begins and ends is not agreeable nor should it be undervalued and, as much as the citizenship might complain, these are inevitable, thus tolerable, costs. Truth to tell, the population has been more than stoic in its acceptance of the costs and the hardships.

What are disputable are not the problems themselves but the pretension that these are already resolved. Instead of advancing a long-term vision for city development (and, for obvious reasons, for the country), what we city inhabitants have been hearing are grandiloquent statements about achievements that do not exist. The lack of planning is scandalous: there are streets that have undergone important public works programs in recent years (for example, underpasses or bridges) and that are now being newly opened for some other project. It’s not that the project is bad, but rather that there is no continuity in the works, which reveals that instead of vision there is reaction.

Everyday life in a city as complex as the Mexican capital is difficult in itself. The typical inhabitant works far from where they live and this implies wasted hours in getting to work, hours that are multiplied by traffic problems that never seem to resolve themselves. In addition to this, criminality dominates the minds of the inhabitants: the fact that the number of deaths is less than in other parts of the country does not mean that congratulations are in order because they do not exist. The number of abductions, robberies, and assaults continues to be very high and is incongruent with the desire to convert Mexico City into a financial and tourist center and one of knowledge development and scientific research. No capital resident is unaware of the real and potential assets of the city: but it is insufficient to possess these, constructed as they have been over decades, in order to suppose that they are inexorable mainstays for a promising future.

Perhaps the city’s true problem lies in the incompatibility of the system of government with the needs and problems of the huge urban concentration. The city requires a long-term development plan and vision and a professional administration devoted to implementing it systematically. When the administration and the city government change every six years and devote all of their energies to constructing a presidential candidacy, city development is curtailed and never procured. The incentive for the governor lies in concentrating on what is popular or most visible (and to blow one’s horn about it for all it’s worth) rather than devote oneself to an integral long-term project. Despite the latter, it must be recognized that the current city government has sustained projects, such as that of the Supervia (San Jerónimo-Toluca), despite their being unpopular.

The problems of the city are evident: wastefulness of water is extraordinary, to the degree that  it is estimated that more water is wasted in Mexico City than the total water consumption of the city of San Antonio, Texas; public security is an illusion; the quality of the asphalt, even on recently “paved” avenues (such as Reforma) is pathetic. Even problems such as those of the traffic are often due to the bottlenecks produced by improperly parked cars, street vendors, street repairs, and poorly designed traffic loops, which denote a serious problem of the absence of authority. If one were to observe the traffic from above, traffic jams would be seen across the board. Some of these undoubtedly require large works (traffic grid arteries and second-level traffic lanes), but many require small and concrete actions, in addition to willingness to force compliance with the rules.

In addition to “ancestral” assets, a city at the vanguard requires a long-term vision, a population aware and convinced of the project, and the capacity to carry it out. We have at present a paradoxical combination: great assets, a population with no idea of where we’re going (or whether we’re going), and a great capacity for implementation. What a pity that vision and pursuit of conviction are lacking. A population that knows where it’s going and that can trust its authorities to achieve this becomes any government’s best asset, above all when, counter to what many suppose, everything indicates that the future will reside in great cities that are “intelligent”. Without vision, without security, and with the worst of services, none of this is possible. The great projects end up being a mirage.

Mexico City is perhaps at the vanguard of Tapachula, Lima, or Lagos, Nigeria. However, the relevant comparison is Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, or Beijing. In the light of this paragon, it hasn’t even begun.