On the tenth floor patio of his apartment building on Avenida Chapultepec in downtown Mexico City, 35-year-old architect Fernando Madrid leans out over the railing and looks out at the newly built skyscrapers jutting up from the street a few blocks away. The mid-day traffic clogs Chapultepec Ave, one of the main roads that cuts through Mexico City’s center, and a light haze hangs over the urban periphery. Voters in the district have rejected a plan to turn the space between the lanes into a multi-use park and shopping mall, a Mexican version of New York City’s skyline. But despite the no-vote on the project opponents dubbed “Shopultepec” Madrid does think that Mexico City is becoming increasingly like New York. Looking down at the sidewalk below as pedestrians walk past a rack of public bicycles and two police officers on a motorcycle pull up at the intersection next to a late model pink and white taxicab Madrid explains, “The city has grown a lot in the last fifteen years. The Torre America Latina used to be one of the only skyscrapers here but with the economic development the city has had now there are a lot of buildings that are bigger.” Madrid says that he thinks that the new office district along Reforma Avenue in Mexico City’s center is the Mexican version of Wall Street. There has also been a lot of development a few miles up the road in the Santa Fe district. “That [area] is maybe the equivalent of mid-town [Manhattan],” he says.
As Mexico sheds its reputation as a dirty, dangerous city it is becoming recognized as a world-class metropolis in terms of economic activity, architecture, cuisine and culture. Mexico City was ranked as the number one city to visit in 2016 by The New York Times. “The streets are safer and more livable. You have big corporations and luxury hotels. Neighborhoods like Roma and Condesa are like Soho, the West Village. In terms of diversity and culture it’s like New York, you can find people from all over the world here,” Madrid explains.
Mexico City and New York City are North America’s two biggest urban hubs. Each city holds just under nine million residents within its limits and an additional ten million residents in the periphery. But, while New York has long been known for it’s majestic views of bridges, skyscrapers and open water, El Distrito Federal, as Mexico’s capital is known, has been shrouded by a thick cloud of smog, stuck between the mountains in a valley in central Mexico. In the 1990s the metropolis earned the name MexSicko City. Over the last decade, however, as Mexico City has shifted away from dirty industry and embraced the construction of new office buildings and for companies employing engineers, accountants, and financial professionals, Mexico’s capital has seen both its air quality and reputation improve.
In comparison to the last few years, in 2016 the capital has seen a spike in both street crime and air pollution, but overall the positive trends that have emerged over the last decade still stand. Mexico City’s pursuit of New York City’s success isn’t an accident, but rather the result of careful policy making and planning.
While many developments and urban planning projects have been successful, other policy imports have fallen flat. In 2014 an effort to mimic former New York Mayor Bloomberg’s “Latch On NYC” program to encourage mothers to breast-feed their babies culminated in the placement of controversial and awkward billboards showing topless celebrities around the city. Bloomberg Philanthropies made donations worth $16 million to organizations such as the consultancy Polithink to help raise awareness about the negative health effects of soda consumption and legislators in Mexico pushed through new laws to increase taxes on soda and discourage the consumption of sugary beverages such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. While some observers see the tax a beneficial health policy, others see it as an unwelcome price increase on their beverage of choice.
Other programs have proved more popular. Mexico City has also built new parks and introduced programs to encourage residents to exercise more. While New Yorkers pedal around on blue Citi bikes, chilangos in Mexico City navigate traffic on bright red Ecobici cycles, taking advantage of Mexico’s capital’s highly successful bike sharing program. It remains to be seen if Mexico City’s mayor will try to push through with his plan to build an elevated walkway along Chapultepec Avenue, a Mexican version of New York’s Highline Park.
But one area where Mexico City still lags behind is pollution, a problem caused in part by insufficient investment in public transportation. In New York City half of all residents do not own a car. In Manhattan three out of four households do not have a car. Overall New York City has the highest rate of public transit use of any city in the U.S. Mexico City, by contrast, is still heavily reliant on personal vehicles. Every day there are an estimated ten million cars on the road in El Distrito Federal and these vehicles contribute an estimated 90% of the pollution that is currently clogging the air above the city. Mexico City has introduced emergency measures such as rotating bans on car usage but in the long term Mexico City needs to invest more in public transit to become a more sustainable and less polluted city.
Although pollution is still a problem, Mexico City has won plaudits for its efforts to emulate former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” program and clean up streets in the historic center and improve security in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods such as Roma, Condesa, and Juarez. As the children of parents who fled to the suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s return to rent apartments in the Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn a new generation of young professionals is also establishing roots in Mexico City’s center. Over the last few month there have been a series of high-profile cases such as the murder of a night club owner in Colonia Condesa or the brutal slaying of five people in Colonia Navarte, overall there is still a sense that Mexico City’s business districts and middle and upper-class neighborhoods are safer now than a decade ago.
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
Images: Nathaniel Parish Flannery