A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City

A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City

by Matthew Vitz

NOOK Book(eBook)

$16.99 $28.95 Save 41% Current price is $16.99, Original price is $28.95. You Save 41%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


In A City on a Lake Matthew Vitz tracks the environmental and political history of Mexico City and explains its transformation from a forested, water-rich environment into a smog-infested megacity plagued by environmental problems and social inequality. Vitz shows how Mexico City's unequal urbanization and environmental decline stemmed from numerous scientific and social disputes over water policy, housing, forestry, and sanitary engineering. From the prerevolutionary efforts to create a hygienic city supportive of capitalist growth, through revolutionary demands for a more democratic distribution of resources, to the mid-twentieth-century emergence of a technocratic bureaucracy that served the interests of urban elites, Mexico City's environmental history helps us better understand how urban power has been exercised, reproduced, and challenged throughout Latin America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372097
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/26/2018
Series: Radical Perspectives
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 23 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Matthew Vitz is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.

Read an Excerpt


The Porfirian Metropolitan Environment

In 1862 scientists under the liberal government of Benito Juárez drafted the Hydrographic Map of the Valley of Mexico. It is no coincidence that the project was authorized the same year French forces marched toward Mexico City in Napoleon III's bid to reestablish an American empire. Mexican cartography arose out of elites' desire to imagine a coherent nation and assert national sovereignty in the wake of multiple wars and foreign interventions, most notably the U.S. invasion in 1846 and the subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which handed half of Mexico's territory to the United States. Yet the map and its 1864 report (Memoria), both supervised by Manuel Orozco y Berra, was an urban as well as a national project. Orozco y Berra and other leading scientists meticulously described the lands, waters, and biota surrounding the city, observations that future environmental planners drew on in their quest for a prosperous and sanitary capital.

Following the execution of Emperor Maximilian of Austria, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867, succeeding liberal governments, culminating with that of Porfirio Díaz, ushered in a revival of Mexican science and engineering. Knowledge of biophysical systems was fundamental to the Porfirian scientific endeavor. Nearby forests, agricultural practices, water and its conduction to the city, defunct drainage systems, lakes, soils, and urban space were all placed under the microscope of a punctilious group of urban experts. This professional elite articulated an urban environmental imaginary of the basin, a set of suppositions about the city's environment and its relationship with the hinterland that had germinated during Spanish rule when experts grappled with the recurrent flooding of the colonial capital. This imaginary posited the city and hinterland nature as interdependent, but this codependency did not mean that the city ceded to the whims of the natural world. Water needed to be controlled, channeled, and harnessed; trees needed to be regulated and nurtured. Good Spencerians all, the planning elite envisioned the city sometimes as a sick organism that sanitary planning would cure, sometimes as a woman in need of caring and cultivation. This imaginary laid the groundwork for the transformation and regulation of the basin. Urban experts aimed to turn Mexico City into "the most beautiful and healthy city of the republic" by reworking and regulating water, lands, and forests. Their aims were not so easily attained. Social and environmental forces in and around Mexico City challenged their sanitary project.

Environmental planners carried out three interconnected hydraulic projects and wrote sanitary policies that forged a new metropolitan environment. Supported by a rich tradition of hydraulic engineering, combined with the negotiating prowess that finance minister José Yves Limantour wielded with British banking interests, Díaz pushed forward the Desagüe General del Valle de México (General Drainage of the Valley of Mexico). Luis Espinosa directed the drainage, a major excavation and construction project executed by the British contractors Read and Campbell and Sir Weetman Pearson. The mammoth drainage works featured the Gran Canal de Desagüe (Great Drainage Canal), which stretched from the eastern edge of the Texcoco lakebed at San Lázaro to the northern reaches of the basin, and an impressive tunnel that sliced through the basin's walls to drain Texcoco floodwaters and the city's wastewater. Roberto Gayol designed the city's first comprehensive sewer system, a vast underground network of collectors, lateral pipes, street sewers made of vitrified clay, and household piping laid to evacuate wastewater and storm water into Espinosa's Gran Canal by means of gravity, augmented by the occasional burst of water from the Canal Nacional, which connected the southern lakes to the city, during dry spells (see map 1.1). It was the first sewer system to offer the possibility of daily cleaning with quick bursts of water. Manuel Marroquín y Rivera was the author of the city's updated water system, which tapped the fresh spring waters of Lake Xochimilco. And Miguel Ángel de Quevedo sought to ensure sanitary services in new subdivisions and protect the forests surrounding the city (see figure 1.1).

Taken together, the efforts of these men (and they were all men) exemplified the turn-of-the-century impulse to build the networked city, from transport to sewerage. Mexico City's sanitary planning integrated the water, forests, and land of the basin into the urban fabric through entwined hydraulic infrastructures and environmental policies. The result was a new metropolitan environment. Conducted and catalyzed by the centralizing state, sanitary planning reinforced existing environmental inequalities across the basin. It also partially shifted the terrain of power from the private realm of haciendas and developers to the public realm of state bureaucracy, infrastructures, and regulatory codes.


The commitment to reengineer the Basin of Mexico predated Porfirian Mexico. The Huehuetoca drainage works were begun in the early seventeenth century, though more as a way of protecting rentier capital from ruinous floodwaters than as a public health measure. It was not until Bourbon rule that reformers branded the city insalubrious owing to the prevalence of unhealthy waters, toxic miasmas belching out of Lake Texcoco, and a filthy, barbarous population. The postcolonial elite retained this vision. The prominent liberal José María Luis Mora, for example, urged the drainage of Lake Texcoco to prevent constant flooding, and the conservative politician Lucas Alamán proposed a commission to direct the desagüe and freed up funds to execute it. Little was accomplished. Persistent instability — driven in part by perpetual clashes between Alamán-style conservatism and Mora's liberalism — precluded the organizational capacity and financing necessary to address sanitary shortcomings. Public health languished as a result, and some officials complained that Mexico City resembled impoverished African cities more than the "modern" European metropolises to which the ruling class aspired. Not until the late 1860s did political centralization and economic growth coincide with transnational currents in health science and urban planning to enable Mexico City's rapid transformation.

Porfirio Díaz, the heroic liberal general from Oaxaca who had been instrumental in the triumph over French forces, centralized authority under the positivist banner of "Order and Progress," which became the shibboleth of a new generation of liberal elites. Much ink has been spilled over the application of Auguste Comte's positivism, or scientific politics, in Mexico, particularly with regard to economic growth. However, its influence extended far beyond the economic. Scientific politics also encouraged the empirical study of nonhuman nature to promote its transformation and management and thus propel Mexico forward. Highly trained experts were tasked with administering the Basin of Mexico using the latest technologies and scientific principles. The boards (juntas) founded by Díaz to carry out the three major hydraulic projects exemplified this positivist and technocratic philosophy. Staffed by a small but blossoming group of engineers, architects, and scientists chagrined by the outdated and insalubrious colonial infrastructure, the juntas conformed to the governing imperative well. Sanitary planning also reinforced Mexican nationalism, fitting into a European-inspired, if Mexican-inflected, view of national progress and singularity. The Mexican government paraded its major sanitary public works at several world's fairs, which further encouraged the sanitization of Mexico City as a means of enhancing its national prestige on the global stage.

In this context numerous professional associations arose, joining the Humboldtian Mexican Society for Geography and Statistics, founded in 1833. The Antonio Alzate Scientific Society, the National Medical Institute, the Society of Natural History, and the Society of Architects and Engineers (all created following the expulsion of the French in the 1860s) supported the close scrutiny of the basin: its people, its climate, and its waterscapes, soil, and forests — the type of knowledge crucial to environmental engineering. In 1867 positivist educational philosopher Gabino Barreda opened the National Preparatory School as well as the National Engineering School, the successor to the Bourbon reformist Mining School that trained a new crop of urban engineers, including Espinosa, Gayol, and Marroquín y Rivera. This holy trinity of hydraulic engineering — the architects of desagüe, sewerage, and the water supply — had their hands in an array of other key projects around the basin. Espinosa sat on several environmental planning committees; Gayol constructed the General Hospital on the city's outskirts and the famed Italian-drafted Monument to Independence, and designed the partial drainage of Lake Chalco for the Spanish landowner Iñigo Noriega; and Marroquín y Rivera (the cofounder of the Antonio Alzate Scientific Society) served on the valley's Hydrographic Commission, which advised the government on water management. Technical education in Porfirian Mexico rarely extended to productive activities such as industrial or chemical engineering, as one economic historian has recently pointed out, and even the training of hydraulic or sanitary engineers was rather modest. Yet while the capital and technology necessary for the basin's reengineering were imported from Europe and the United States, for all the dramatic ridicule of Porfirian malinchismo (preference for foreign over national culture) after the revolution, the study of the basin's physical environment and the supervision of its transformation were largely done by Mexicans.

The urban capitalist locomotive of real estate, industry, and the services they required also accounted for the spike in the building professions during the Porfiriato. Mexico City, as one engineer put it, entered "a construction phase," and new developments demanded new infrastructure. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Mexico City had evolved from Alexander von Humboldt's "the city of palaces" into "the city of suburbs" (la ciudad de las colonias), a title bestowed on the city in 1908 by Guillermo Beltrán y Puga, head of the Federal District's Public Works Department. The city's demographic and spatial expansion had been explosive. In 1858 the city covered a mere 8.5 square kilometers and had 200,000 residents. Fifty years later the city's surface area had increased nearly fivefold, to 40.5 square kilometers, beginning to conjoin with neighboring municipalities within the larger Federal District, and its population had more than doubled to almost 500,000. This was a sign of "modern progress" for Beltrán y Puga, who imagined a colonial resident brought back to life in this completely "unfamiliar city."

Construction, of course, required designers and builders. Engineers coordinated with U.S. oil magnate Edward Doheny's Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company to pave city streets utilizing oil-derived asphalt from the Huasteca of Veracruz. Gayol and Beltrán y Puga signed contracts with developers to install the sewer and water systems in the new Roma and Condesa subdivisions, and Quevedo constructed the home of the London Bank of Mexico and South America and the impressive housing complex for the Buen Tono cigarette company workers.

Urban real estate powered Porfirian capitalism, and the new subdivisions aggravated inequalities. Developers reaped huge profits through speculative pricing and put in public services only where steep lot prices covered the investment. Nouveaux-riche subdivisions like Juárez, Cuauhtémoc, Condesa, and Roma played on the affluent classes' fear of disease and "the 'dirty and nauseating people' of this 'mongrel city,'" with its scant and dirty drinking water, open sewage canals and flooded streets, and densely populated housing teeming with poor people. These subdivisions, whose developers promised plentiful open space as well as exclusive water and drainage systems, sprouted up west of downtown around the elegant Haussmann-inspired Paseo de la Reforma, within easy reach of Chapultepec Park, and on higher ground, safe from the sewage-laden waters of Lake Texcoco. Developers located working-class subdivisions to the east, on the swampy, dust-prone lands nearest Lake Texcoco or south and north of the city center. These included La Bolsa, Morelos, Nuevo Rastro, Valle Gómez, Indianilla, and El Cuartelito, among others. Landowners in these areas erected vecindades, tenement buildings of one-room apartments around a small patio, or sold plots on the cheap to poor workers, who constructed shacks without public services. La Bolsa was infamous as a particularly horrendous place "with dirty and microbic streets, repulsive sights and evil smells," and the Rastro, home of the new slaughterhouse from which the well-to-do's packaged meat originated, became a foul cesspit of animal and human waste — a foretaste of the environmental injustice that prevailed in postwar industrial Mexico. Lampoons of unhygienic neighborhoods abounded in the satirical newspapers El Hijo del Ahuizote and El Imparcial; the latter impugned the form urbanization had taken and described a typical suburb of up to a thousand residents as a "hospital ward" that "does not have a single sewer, a single drainage pipe, or a single toilet." (See map 1.2.)

In the area surrounding the city, the capitalist engine was fueled by manufacturing and medium-sized hacienda production. The advent of the railroad in the 1870s quickened transport time, lowered costs, and opened up new markets. A line that stretched to the prosperous southern town of San Ángel connected the city to the textile- and paper-manufacturing zone along the Magdalena River, one of the basin's few perennial rivers. By 1890 another line connected Mexico City to Iñigo Noriega's wheat-producing haciendas in Chalco, the forested volcanoes of Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, and the manufacturing center of Puebla. The developing rail network put considerable pressure on wood resources. The railroad itself required wood for fuel, ties, and station construction. As freight transport became more efficient, haciendas such as Eslava, Coapa, and Xico, as well as textile and paper mills, moved to control the resources south of the city, intensifying forest extraction. Peasant communities, meanwhile, carved a limited but important niche in the growing urban charcoal and firewood markets. In 1870 Manuel Payno, author of the famous novel Los Bandidos del Río Frío (The Bandits from Río Frío), whose plot unfolded in the diverse landscapes of the basin, estimated that the city housed some 600 charcoal dispensaries, 125 woodworks, 30 coachmakers, and a host of other wood-dependent manufacturers. Such intensified use of woodlands alarmed urban experts, who discerned links between deforestation and urban sanitation.

Trends in international science and the culture of urban expertise also encouraged sanitary planning in Mexico City. Through trips abroad, international conferences, and the circulation of texts, the Mexican elite were attuned to both scientific and urban planning innovations in North Atlantic nations. Engineers and doctors such as Gayol, Quevedo, Antonio Peñafiel, and Eduardo Liceaga (the president of the government's Superior Health Council) borrowed ideas on city beautification, park creation, sanitary infrastructure, public health codes, and hygiene from abroad. These same Mexican experts shared with like-minded Progressive Era planners a zeal for moral reform and the notion that the city was an interdependent, collective entity that demanded public solutions to solve urban problems and uplift the poor from degeneracy and depravity.

As they wrestled with questions of public health, urban experts closely followed Louis Pasteur's science of bacteriology, which dueled with the theory of miasmatic etiology throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was common for urbanists to blend, with no sense of contradiction, miasmatic and bacteriological understandings of disease, and Peñafiel illustrated this tendency in his treatise on the waters of the Valley of Mexico, published in 1884. He believed miasmas from Texcoco's putrefying matter contaminated the city's open-air aqueducts while also alluding to sickness caused by microorganisms. Miasmas coexisted with germs in Mexican science — and popular culture — into the twentieth century. The gradual acceptance of germ theory, however, strengthened sanitarians' resolve by pinpointing the cause of illness. It was still believed that filth summoned disease, but the mechanism was no longer that of a diffuse miasma. Instead, germs were the true culprit, and only proper sewage, water-supply, and garbage-disposal systems would contain them.


Excerpted from "A City on a Lake"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Duke University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations  vii
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
I. The Making of a Metropolitan Environment
1. The Porfirian Metropolitan Environment  19
2. Revolution and the Metropolitan Environment  51
II. Spaces of a Metropolitan Environment
3. Water and Hygiene in the City  81
4. The City and Its Forests  109
5. Desiccation, Dust, and Engineered Waterscapes  136
6. The Political Ecology of Working-Class Settlements  164
7. Industrialization and Environmental Technocracy  193
Conclusion  218
Notes  235
Bibliography  291
Index  321

What People are Saying About This

Political Landscapes: Forests, Conservation, and Community in Mexico - Christopher R. Boyer

“Tracing the relationship of social and ecological change during Mexico City's crucial stage of development in the early twentieth century, A City on a Lake is the most compelling environmental history of modern Mexico City available.”

Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City - Vera S. Candiani

“Matthew Vitz’s focus on how the relationships among Mexico City’s inhabitants and its ecology, the state, and developers played out in the process of urbanization is absolutely novel. To my knowledge, this is the first book to bring the generally rural-centered analysis of agrarian reform into the urban fabric, and its fusion of political ecology with a rich empirical history will be welcomed by Mexicanists as well as students of urban ecology and popular movements in Latin America. Conceptually and analytically complex, yet crisp and clear, Vitz's book offers us a new way to understand a familiar period in Mexican history.”

Gilbert M. Joseph

“Based on exhaustive archival research and engaging theoretically with new scholarship in political ecology and urban environmentalism, A City on a Lake adds critical new dimensions to the history of modern Mexico. Matthew Vitz transcends arid dichotomies between urban and agrarian history, and deftly interrogates the once-sacrosanct watershed of the Mexican Revolution. Like few other studies, A City on the Lake demonstrates how ecological transformation and the struggle for environmental rights factored importantly into outcomes of the Mexican Revolution’s modernizing project of capitalist development. This exciting monograph should establish Vitz in the vanguard of Mexico’s and Latin America’s new environmental and urban historians.”

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews