How will Latin America deal with its Tolucas?

This week’s Habitat III regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean took place outside of the usual iconic urban environs. But the workaday capital of Mexico State is exactly the type of city the New Urban Agenda will need to address.

Much of the Tollocan Highway is not beautiful, but it offers a typical view of Latin American urbanization. (Greg Scruggs)

TOLUCA, Mexico — Sitting in stop-and-go traffic on a six-lane highway, one doesn’t expect to stumble upon a lovely plaza framed by colonial-era churches, graceful arcades of stern-faced government buildings and a botanical garden enclosed in stained glass.

But that’s what happens here in the capital of Mexico State, where the old has been swallowed by the new — and it’s a typical story for Latin American cities. While the region may be dotted with dynamic mega-cities and picturesque historic towns, the bulk of Latin American urbanization looks a lot like Toluca. In other words, for every sprawling São Paulo or tourist-approved Cartagena, there are dozens of Tolucas.

“Iconic cities are few and far between,” said Salvador Herrera, a Mexico City-based urban planner. “The ones that aren’t very unique are where most of the population lives.”

Urban experts from across Latin America and the Caribbean are gathered here this week to debate the future of their cities under the auspices of the New Urban Agenda, the United Nations’ 20-year urbanization strategy. Their region is hosting Habitat III, the October conference where the agenda is to be adopted, and they hope it will be informed by the Latin American experience with urbanization.

[See: Habitat III host region takes stock of its urbanization process — warts and all]

Like every city the Spanish built in their former empire, in Toluca the colonial power followed the Law of the Indies. Considered one of the first examples of town planning in the Americas, the 1573 law established the basics of colonial cities and towns.

That’s how Toluca ended up with its central plaza, surrounded by a grid of tightly packed streets, bustling storefronts and sheltered plazas with kiosks selling hearty tortas and towers of sugary treats. A gleaming bike-share station beckons next to a towering cathedral, suggesting that even Toluca has caught the 21st-century urbanism wave.

But it’s another story outside the city centre. Heavy industry took hold here in the 1960s, part of a postwar economic boom that propelled many countries in Latin America. The main road into Toluca reads like a stock ticker of Fortune 500 companies: Bayer, Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Pfizer are among the many multinationals that found a welcome place to set up shop in an industrial zone near a major commercial hub with abundant cheap labour.

That roster may bring prosperity to the city, but it has also brought sprawl. Tollocan Highway, the major east-west artery between the city centre and nearby Mexico City, is visually unappealing. On one side, a car assembly plant gives way to a commercial brewer gives way to a chemical factory. On the other side is strip development at its worst: shopping centres cradle acres of parking and non-descript facades that blend together U. S.-style big-box stores such as Walmart. They offer absolutely no sense of place.

“Toluca is a typically Mexican city in many ways,” Herrera said. “It followed the connection routes — in this case to Mexico City, the most important of them all — which resulted in this format of linear growth.”

No planning department

The boom also brought a lot more people. Today, the city of 800,000 anchors a metropolitan area of 1.75 million people, making it the fifth largest in the country. What’s more, it’s a needlessly complex metro to manage — over 20 municipalities ring Toluca, while much larger cities such as Guadalajara and Monterrey have little over a half-dozen neighbours to coordinate.

“Iconic cities are few and far between. The ones that aren’t very unique are where most of the population lives.”

Salvador Herrera
Mexico City-based urban planner

Across these smaller communities, housing sprang up like weeds starting in the 1980s. Much of this process was financed by the Mexican mortgage-subsidy programme Infonavit, which cared more about cost than location. In other words, there was no spatial dimension to Mexican housing policy.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

Worse yet, the local government didn’t have a strong hand in how land was developed. It owned none of the ejido, common land for agriculture established under agrarian reform following the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century.

Instead, private developers snapped up this land from farmers in a process Herrera called “not very regulated”. As a result, he said, “The private sector develops whatever land it can put together without having to follow a public policy on land function.”

“What ends up happening is the loss public space, because it becomes a collection of private spaces,” Herrera said.

Toluca’s dilemma is compounded by weak institutions. The city used to have a municipal planning department, but it was the victim of recent budget cuts. “Who is directing Toluca’s growth? We don’t know,” Herrera affirmed. Both a metropolitan development and transportation plan remain in limbo — unapproved as a result of the slashed department.

It’s a particularly problematic time for no one to be at the wheel. Groundbreaking began in 2012 on a 58-kilometre train between Toluca and Mexico City, the only surviving line of a revived passenger rail system envisioned by President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose political base remains in Toluca. (The other train lines were nixed when the drop in global oil prices necessitated austerity measures.)

The project is proceeding over objections from neighbours along the route and concerns about environmental impact in the two national parks through which it passes. Still, in terms of pollution, electric trains would probably be a vast improvement over the line of cars that snake their ways around forested hillsides on their way to the big city.

“It’s a corridor that needs mass transit, and depending on the cost it could be heavily utilized,” Herrera said. Nevertheless, the lack of functional local planning means a missed chance. “We’re losing a great opportunity for regional coordination.”

Early indicator

The woes of a workaday city such as Toluca are a suitable early indicator of how the region’s cities will fare in the next two decades.

With any luck, the Toluca Declaration that will result from this week’s Habitat III meeting will reflect not just the region’s aspirations but also measures to deal with the gritty reality on display here. (The draft declaration is available here.) After all, Herrera noted, “The expansion of Mexican cities has been the most intense in Latin America.”

The Habitat III process has acknowledged the Tolucas of the world, particularly through its focus in November on intermediate cities — those under a million in population. At the helm, the conference’s secretary-general, Joan Clos, has repeatedly insisted on what he calls the “three-legged approach” of designing legal, planning and financial tools to yield dense, compact and mixed-use urban form.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must recognize the importance of intermediary cities]

If the New Urban Agenda makes a strong enough case for that approach — and countries around the world adopt its recommendations — then the next 20 years may look more like Toluca’s centre than the Tollocan.

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