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A breath of fresh air for Mexico City

Initiatives such as highway greening scheme Vía Verde are breathing new life into Mexico City’s pollution management tactics. Air pollution levels remain a key challenge for this megacity, but could its commitment to smart city living be a turning point in its quest for clean skies?




Home to a fifth of the national population, Mexico City is considered one of the largest cities in the world. It also ranks as one of the most traffic congested cities on the planet and has been described as sitting in a bowl-like valley surrounded by pollution-trapping mountains. Located at a height of 2,240 metres above sea-level, the mountains act as a retaining wall that stops pollution from being able to disperse in the thin, high-altitude air.

Air pollution is considered the number one environmental risk factor by the World Health Organisation. In the mid-1980s Mexico City’s skies hit global headlines with reports of birds dropping dead mid-flight due to extreme air pollution. The 1990s saw the United Nations label these same skies as the most polluted on the planet and Mexico City the most dangerous city in the world for children. These incidents were amongst the catalysts for various clean-up efforts over the last few decades. The most high profile of these measures is the Hoy no Circula (no drive days) program introduced in 1989, in which each weekday 20 per cent of the vehicles are prohibited from circulating, depending on the last digit of their license plate. Though still in place today, it is unclear whether the programme had a meaningful impact on improving the city’s air quality.

Today, despite these efforts, the challenge of air pollution still exists. In 2018, for example, a report was published in the Journal of Environmental Research linking air pollution levels in Mexico City to the development Alzheimer disease markers in children. The study was led by Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas from the University of Montana in Missoula, a neuroscientist whose previous work includes linking neurodegeneration in Mexico City’s dogs to heavy pollution levels.

On the trail to smart city status in Mexico City
Born out of both necessity and creative innovation, the smart city movement provides a potentially potent balm for the aches and pains of rapid urbanisation. While 70 per cent of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities by 2050, Mexico is ahead of the curve with approximately 72 per cent already doing so. With a population that’s jumped from 2.9 million in the 1950s to almost 22 million currently, Mexico City epitomises this global trend towards urbanisation.

High levels of internet usage and mobile phone ownership equip Mexico City with the connectivity required for the foundation of a smart city. But there is much more to smart-city-life than technology. While differing definitions abound – including ones that are data-focused and others that are citizen-focused – cities considered `smart` also tend to focus on sustainability, be ecologically-friendly and encourage active citizenship and inclusion. Looking at air pollution through the smart-city-lens, effective solutions need to take into account real-life usage and demand patterns, provide sustainable and long-term benefits and require genuine buy-in from residents.

Mexico City has made it clear it wants to be a smart city. In 2016 the Secretary for Economic Development, together with the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the World Bank, introduced the “Connectivity Master Plan for Mexico City”. In order to bring about change, the initiative is underpinned by a human focus on technology, a focus on legislation and priority inclusion in the government program, and the encouragement of citizen participation.

Vía Verde: a case study
The internet itself was the life source of Vía Verde, with architect Fernando Ortiz Monasterio kick-starting the project as a citizen request to government through online social platform in 2016. Over 75,000 signatures were collected in just one week and Vía Verde exists today as vertical gardens on more than 1,000 concrete columns supporting Mexico City’s outer beltway.  

It is an attempt to `green out` a city which, according to World Health Organisation standards, is 40 million square metres short of the minimal greenery requirements for its population. The vertical gardens are intended to produce oxygen, reduce carbon dioxide and filter heavy metals. They should also provide acoustic isolation and improve thermic regulation by reducing urban heating. Plants have been selected to boost diversity and are watered using recycled water and rainfall.

In addition to being ecologically-friendly, Vía Verde relies on data from each column to oversee management of the gardens, recycled materials have been used where possible and the project has provided multiple jobs, including work for people in prisons in Mexico City. Critics, however, have questioned the extent of the environmental benefit the gardens bring. It has also been suggested that these columns of greenery are simply a way of beautifying Mexico City’s traffic problems as opposed to solving them.

While the jury is still out on its long-term pollution-management impact, Vía Verde demonstrates the power of active citizenship and the possibilities of the smart-city umbrella-style approach to problem solving. The first ever LATAM Smart City Awards were held in 2018 – a clear sign the smart city movement has a strong foothold in the region. In addition to recognising specific cities and digital transformation, the awards also focused on promoting sustainable development and mobility, as well as equitable and collaborative societies. With such an innovative and holistic problem-solving spirit in the air, it will be interesting to see how the skies of Mexico City fare in the years to come.