Gerardo Asali de la Mora

Founder and C.E.O., DAS arquitectura

MEXICO CITY IS HOME TO TWENTY MILLION PEOPLE, spread over 600 square miles. Mix in 4 million cars, and you’ve got a recipe for a thoroughly congested mess.

It’s a scary place for walkers, according to Gerardo Asali de la Mora. They vie for street space with cars, buses, taxis and bicyclists. There are few sidewalks (fewer in good repair) and dangerous intersections. No wonder the city’s pedestrian fatality rate is much higher than comparable cities.  

“It’s a very chaotic environment,” he says. “Pedestrians are not that important, even though there’s a huge amount of users of public transport. Somehow it’s not very respected.”

Asali is founder of the Mexico City-based architecture and design firm DAS, which stands for development, architecture, and sustainability. Lately, he’s been investigating the pedestrian problem. “We’re trying to twist that situation a little bit,” Asali says.

Mexico City’s mobile parklets contain simple wooden seats, planter boxes, overhangs and bicycle parking (DAS Arquitectura)

They’ve been studying a particularly pavement-heavy intersection where 10 streets converge. The structure works well for cars, but creates long walks across busy roadways for pedestrians.

Their most successful effort so far? Parklets Móviles, or mobile parklets. Inspired by micro-park pioneers such as San Francisco, DAS worked with the Fundación Más Espacios to design a public space that can roll easily into a few parking spots. Each one contains simple wooden seats, planter boxes, overhangs and bicycle parking. It all fits on top of a trailer, which can be attached to a truck and moved around the city.

Which is a good thing. Because unlike the more permanent parklets popping up in American cities, DAS’s project can only stay parked in a particular spot for a limited time. Mexico City has strict laws about street parking, which ironically means Asali and his team had to actually register their parklet as a vehicle, obtaining license plates for the trailers that carry its two parts. 

When they brought their first parklet out, in 2013, police swarmed. Though they eventually convinced the police that they’d paid the parking meter and were within the limits of the law, the attention did raise some concerns about whether the idea would work.  

The mobile parklets are small enough to roll onto a couple of parking spots. (DAS Arquitectura)

Eventually, however, someone from the city government came to see the project. He liked what he saw. Asali says it was the city’s idea to take the parklet to different parts of the city, making it not just a mobile park, but also a touring park. The city has since commissioned the firm to design 20 more. “The government has been quite open,” Asali says. “It’s on the political agenda.”

The new parklets will have even more amenities. Asali wants to add Wi-Fi hotspots to draw even more visitors. One of the new parklets will house exercise equipment, like a little mobile gym. Another will have vegetable planters, creating a mobile urban farm.

Asali says that his firm isn’t the only one investigating these urban interventions. Other designers are starting to think about new ways to improve life for pedestrians in this congested city. “We are having such a crisis in terms of urban space and public space,” he says. “Even though we might be the first to do this mobile stuff, there’s a lot going on.”

— Nate Berg

This story is part of a series of Citiscope profiles on urban innovators from Montréal to New Delhi who are improving lives, designs and fortunes in their cities. All are speaking at the New Cities Foundation’s 2014 New Cities Summit in Dallas from June 17-19, attended by urban leaders from around the world. Read the profiles here. And see Gerardo’s presentation in the video below.

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