Why you should care
Because if Mexico City can get its act together, it bodes well for a slew of other urban centers across the global south.
Against the backdrop of a bustling plaza in Mexico City, Gabriella Gómez-Mont tells me that her work is about feeling part of the urban body. This woman, sporting a nose ring and long, ponytailed hair, who calls herself an “intoxicating agent” and refers to citizenship as a “creative act,” sounds like a yoga teacher or a spiritual guru of sorts.
Oddly enough, her job is far less floofy. She’s an urban planner, a government bureaucrat — an award-winning one — whose beliefs belie her visual art and filmmaking background. But if her philosophy takes hold, she may well turn her city, which is perhaps best-known for its asthma-inducing skies and congested roads, into a paragon of urban renewal, problem-solving and, well, yes, “creative” citizenship.
She’s the creator and director of Mexico City’s Laboratorio Para La Ciudad, a state-run incubator meant to tackle, dismantle and solve the many troubles plaguing the world’s sixth-largest megalopolis. So far, it has tackled everything from piracy issues to gridlocked streets. The Mexican capital — nicknamed “D.F.” — has the worst traffic in the world, according to an IBM report; and then there’s its long history of nasty pollution.
Until 2075, 90 percent of new cities will emerge from the global south, so Mexico City’s success could ripple outward.
The Lab, operating on an annual budget of about $500,000, issues open calls for non-bureaucrats to create the balm for the city’s woes. Its philosophy exemplifies urbanists’ new technology fever. City planners once tried to fix metropoles by messing with zoning and housing laws, explains Alberto Odériz, professor of the history of architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. Today, Gómez-Mont and others in her field hope to turn away from top-down solutions and toward a merry band of average folks. Well, not entirely average: economists, artists, architects, sociologists and coders, all of whom fit under the umbrella of Gómez-Mont’s so-called “acupunctural” experiments.
One success is an app called Traxi that allows users to verify the legal status of taxis, combating the widespread, creepy problem of pirate taxis posing as legitimate cars and charging higher prices, even robbing people. The useful app came about from a partnership with Code for America. Many D.F. coders offered submissions; the winning app solved the problem by letting users take a picture of a license plate and linking it up to multiple registrations of government agencies. Like Uber, you can review your drivers; you can even see how many tickets they have and whether or not they’ve paid their registration fees. It’s also saved individuals plenty of money: The surfeit of fake taxis had made cab riders turn to private (more expensive) cab services.
The Lab also harvested new people to join city government: Out of 253 proposals sent in by programmers, the Lab had its pick of a few choice volunteers, who are now teaming up with various city agencies. And, of course, a priority is freeing up data so things like Traxi can blossom.
In November Gómez-Mont won the Audi Urban Futures Award with a program that collects and curates transportation data and uses it for an app that offers drivers real-time traffic information; she’s partnered with Uber, Microsoft and other high-profile businesses to get it going. Her suggestion is a weird, radical one: that people literally take turns driving, purposefully staggering their commute times. You might call it a total inversion of how we normally seek to solve problems — forget the government, she believes; it’s on us to solve our own problems.
Could her wacky ideas spread? Maybe. The Lab was the first city government department of its kind in Latin America; already, a lab in Buenos Aires has copped the model. D.F. is large and historical, but it’s also an emerging city in the poorer half of the world. Until 2075, 90 percent of new cities will emerge from the global south, so Mexico City’s success could ripple outward.
Gómez-Mont and I chatted against the backdrop of Mexico City’s first Maker Faire,where average city-dwellers could come see the spread of new ideas on the docket. At the fair, gleeful kids drove around bizarre-looking remote-controlled robots while others danced in front of a huge music-making switchboard. Smack-dab in the city’s busy center, the plaza had been transformed into a surreal gadget-filled arcade. Policemen stood to one side cheering on a procession of BMX riders as they took turns attempting tricks on a makeshift half-pipe. In short, the whole conference was not a scene most would expect in Mexico City.
But Gómez-Mont’s also receiving her share of criticism. Benjamin Stark, a New York City-based urban planner and land use attorney, calls the Lab’s efforts a top-down approach mimicking grassroots efforts. His thought? It’s all pretty ironic: Why should we trust government to inspire individuals to come up with their own solutions? “People, and markets, are catalysts,” he says, suggesting we study “whatever’s getting in the way.”
Still, they both agree on one thing: If we want people to “do whatever they want,” as Gómez-Mont says, maybe we should just let them.
Portraits by Alexandra Tremaine for OZY.
Homepage Photo by L.W. Yang.