Built by Spaniards on the site of the razed capital city of the Aztec Empire after its defeat in the 16th Century, Mexico City served as the political and financial center for a large part of the Spanish Empire.
Today’s enormous population is the result of many waves of economic migrants. The first such wave occurred in the late 19th Century as the city experienced the rapid industrialization and accompanying population growth common in many North American and European urban centers at the time.
- This spike in urban population was spurred not only by “pulling” forces of new industrial jobs, but also “pushing” forces of poorly conceived rural land policies enacted by the government.
- Although these policies were intended to create a class of small independent farmers by allowing for the private ownership of indigenous lands that were previously communal (see Inside Mexico: Rural Life), they instead created an exodus of rural, mostly indigenous poor as plots were bought up by wealthy landowners and speculators.
- Beginning in the 1930s, similar factors produced another wave of urban migration. For the remainder of the 20th Century, as the Mexican economy cycled through periods of boom and bust, the rural poor flowed into Mexico City looking either to benefit from favorable economic conditions in the city or to escape the rural poverty caused by falling agricultural prices.
As people poured into Mexico City, the government was unable to keep up with services and housing necessary for a rapidly expanding population. This led to the development of large, sprawling shantytowns on the outskirts of Mexico City, called barrios. These new developments lacked basic services – including water, sewer, and telephone – leading to health and environmental problems for people living in these communities.
In contrast, segments of Mexico City’s population have benefited from the economic growth of recent decades, and these people live in luxurious gated communities like Bosques de Santa Fe. Travel through the city is considered dangerous, and the wealthy commute by private driver or even by helicopter.
The income disparity evident in the starkly contrasting neighborhoods of Mexico City highlights the economic challenges facing the city today. While the incidence of poverty is slightly higher in rural areas, a World Bank study conducted in 2004 estimated that 11% of Mexico’s urban population was extremely poor, with another 42% classified as moderately poor.
- It is thought that 40% of the city’s economy falls within the informal sector – encompassing vendors, street traders, and service workers – who do not have a regular employer and who do not report and pay taxes on their income.
- These informal workers don’t have access to health care, and there is no welfare state and no benefit system for the unemployed. Services are often available in the cities, but many residents cannot afford to pay for them. The government’s main social safety net program, Oportunidades, focuses on the rural poor. While it has improved the condition of the rural poor in recent years, it has done little for their urban counterparts.
- Transportation is an issue, as are water, sanitation, and public safety. Incidents of crime and violence are higher in barrios.
Mexico City’s levels of pollution are considered among the worst in the world, though the government has initiated numerous projects over the last ten years which are beginning to have an impact.
- Among the main causes of air pollution are emissions from the millions of cars and trucks that pass through the city. Because there is no alternative infrastructure of road, rail, or water transportation in Mexico, the city has become a chokepoint for nearly all goods moving north by land from Central and South America. Industrial pollutants contribute to the problem as well.
- Mexico City’s geography is also a big factor: the city is surrounded by two mountain ranges which trap pollutants over the city.
- Water contamination, from industrial waste and poor sanitation, sickens many each day. Homes in the barrios often lack sanitation, leading to health problems within these communities, and contributing to the overall unreliability of Mexico City’s water supply.
Mexico City is not alone in the challenges it currently faces – many cities around the world are experiencing explosive population growth, creating overwhelming demands on basic infrastructure and government services. As these cities continue to grow, they pose daunting urban planning challenges, as well as opportunities to craft successful programs that could have global implications.
Next: Mexico on the World Stage: Mexico in the Context of North America