Bringing life to urban sprawl

The importance of green space initiatives

PHOTO: Enrique Amaya on Unsplash

Jorge Javier and Cecilia Tortajada

POLICY FORUM | September 2, 2020

Intelligent ways to use green areas, such as parks, pathways, and empty lots are the key to urban renewal, and one city in Mexico is sowing the seeds of progress in the space, Jorge Javier and Cecilia Tortajada write.

Urban green space interventions increase local residents’ exposure to nature and help protect nature. The benefits of roof gardens in New York, Chicago, Amsterdam, and Singapore are well-known internationally. In fact, Milan’s outer financial centre is being re-developed in this style, fostering investments that are attracted to new urban green spaces.

But it’s not just the global north that can benefit from this new approach to urban areas. The potential of urban green areas in Mexico is enormous, and shows the progress that can be made elsewhere in the developing world.

One of most important emergent urban centres outside the Mexico City Metropolitan Area is Querétaro. It is 200 kilometres north from one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, and part of one of the largest industrial corridors in Latin America.

The city is surrounded by clustered industrial parks and an emerging aerospace zone linked directly to the local airport, and the four neighbouring municipalities are merging into one due to continuous urban sprawl.

Though public parks and recreation areas have been created, urban sprawl has been encroaching on pre-existing green belts to the point of strangulation. New developments have been overrunning these crucial natural cushions, turning green areas grey.

But this is not just an aesthetic loss for Querétaro. Municipal plans shift land from rural to urban uses (housing and commercial), but they do not always consider rain absorption in the expanding urban area. When this happens, the possibility of developing small centres of productive land for the benefit of local residents and community-oriented activities is irreparably lost.

Against this trend, positive local initiatives are sprouting up between developments. They include urban orchards and local markets that create mini-environments and sell fresh produce, often organically grown. Local organic produce markets offer an important alternative way for local farmers, many of them members of indigenous groups, to engage in commerce and earn a steady income.

Such initiatives have much potential, but they need to become more efficient. Local farmers require training and support for better logistical systems and use of technology, as well as better distribution channels. It is important to avoid middlemen who would intercept part of their earnings, and to create a more circular economy in growing cities. Local restaurants and bars could use and sell their produce, creating a local brand and boosting the visibility of, and opportunities for, local producers.

One local initiative in Querétaro is the Centre for Innovation of Small-Scale Sustainable Agriculture. Just outside one of the largest industrial parks in Querétaro, it is close enough to the city to attract a steady flow of visitors and consumers, who buy local produce and learn about sustainable agriculture practices. The centre has helped create awareness about food self-sufficiency as well as different ways to integrate local knowledge.

Another example is a local brewery, Almacén Hércules, which was turned into a local cultural centre and a market for organic products. On the east side of the city, a new urban corridor is forming on the border between two municipalities, Querétaro and El Marqués. The combined cultural centre and market has created a circular economic system through which local farmers and small producers can sell their products to the people who live there.

Some of the oldest productive areas in the state are the vineyards around the municipality of Ezequiel Montes, where the Peña de Bernal (Bernal Boulder) silently watches over the valley. The Peña de Bernal is one of the tallest freestanding rocks in the world, and was recently placed on the Mexican National Institute of History and Anthropology’s Cultural Heritage List.

These vineyards have eight large wine cellars where events for local farmers are hosted, including festivals for the communities in the region, and taking advantage of traditional economic spaces can be a place for policymakers to look too.

Newer initiatives include the El Tepetate Market, a trading food for local residents and farmers that appeals more to younger generations. There is also The Factory, a mini-cultural centre with a theatre and restaurants, which provides a space to trade regional organic – and sometimes vegan – products.

These local initiatives have been working smoothly, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have given consumers alternative reliable sources of safe food and, very importantly, provided local food producers, farmers, and indigenous people a way to sell their products and earn an income, even in the crisis. Local produce is also reaching households in the city with the help of distributors and service apps.

While these steps are positive, more needs to be done. Local farmers and indigenous communities need support to develop business models and logistics through which they can sell their products at a decent price. Application of new technology, such as electronic payment systems, would also be beneficial, as it could attract more urbanites.

For countries like Mexico, where every city is growing, it is of paramount importance to use more green areas within broader frameworks of development. This will be especially important in Asia and the Pacific, with much of the region urbanising rapidly. Adapting them to local needs such as food production and trade is necessary, and feasible, as Querétaro’s success shows.

Natural areas continue to be lost to urban development in urbanising centres because they are not considered ‘productive’. But, if policymakers can develop new models for economic and social activities that promote circularity, both the sustainability of the city and the livelihoods of local residents will be safe into the future.

Jorge Javier is a Professor and Researcher at Anahuac University in Mexico, and coordinates the university’s courses on architecture. Cecilia Tortajada is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article was published by Policy Forum, September 2, 2020.