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Urban Growth: Mexico City over Time

An animated gif, showing the growth of the urban area of Mexico City from 1950 to 1990
An animated gif, showing the growth of the urban area of Mexico City from 1950 to 1990. Adapted from a graphic by Jose Castillo’s wonderful 2000 doctoral dissertation “Urbanisms of the Informal”

In the above gif, we can watch forty years of Mexico City’s built area expand, washing up against and around hills, lakebeds, and other obstacles. I’m very much drawn to this type of image in urban planning: evocative and based in fact, without telling the whole story up front. It requires intuition and imagination to piece the story together, just as direct observation of the city demands.

The pace of the gif is quick, and while I could have set it to play at whatever arbitrary speed, to me it makes sense. I’ve been thinking a lot about this city as it has existed across time, and ways in which to represent that. Something fast, something barely understandable at first glance seems to make sense, as the terms could equally be used to describe the city’s growth in recent history. Speaking only of the Distrito Federal, or central-most delineation of the city, the population has grown from around 3 million residents to nearly 9 in the last fifty years of the 20th century.

A View North from the Center of Mexico City — Photo by Michael Waldrep
A View North from the Center of Mexico City
Photo by Michael Waldrep—Click to Enlarge

Usually it’s pretty difficult to think of city as simultaneously existing in our own time, and as a fluid construct that changes with every home built, every street repaved, every structure lost. Luckily for my own study, Mexico City proudly displays its history—in its multifarious architecture, in its traditions, in its traces of natural history. In the above view from the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, one of oldest skyscrapers in the city and certainly the most centrally located, one can see nearby colonial structures and, further into the frame, the modernist tower blocks of Tlaltelolco—a broad stripe of green marking both a moment in architectural thought and the extent of a massive rail yard that stood on the land before the housing was constructed. Further afield, further in space from the center of the city and—as is generally the rule—further in time from the city’s founding, informally constructed homes crawl up the Sierra de Guadalupe. Beyond those hills lies Cuautitlan and other fast growing cities in the Estado de Mexico—a phenomenon so new and so dispersed that it largely lies out of sight, even from this privileged view.

Los edificios de la unidad habitacional Nonoalco Tlatelolco en una fotografía de 1965, pocos meses después de la inauguración del conjunto. La toma es desde lo alto de la Torre Insignia.
Imagen: Rodrigo Moya, Colecciones Fotográficas de Fundación Televisa, via La Ciudad de México en el tiempo

One of my favorite things about the city is how present this history feels, and how much people seem to revel in it. A lovely example is the Facebook group “La ciudad de México en el tiempo” (Mexico City in time), where the above photo of the towers at Tlaltelolco from 1965, the year of its inauguration, can be found. Some 300,000 people follow the page, and hundreds, if not thousands daily enjoy (and “like”) photos shared from various archives.

I’d like to add, on a personal note, that this week marks the half-way point of my grant, when photos that I took 4.5 months ago are starting to take on the air of the archival. I’m still constantly learning, every day, how to live and work here. It can be tough, especially when blending in is more or less out of the question, but at the same time, it’s a city full of people that are excited to talk about and share their knowledge of place with me, from folks on the street to people in government, academia, and the arts. It’s a city too vast, too complex, filled with too many truly individual lives to sum up in any simple way, except to say that I like it. Here’s hoping you’re enjoying my impressions of it as well, and that you’ll continue to follow along as I continue to explore and share what I’m seeing.