Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lessons from Mexico: Cities and Social Trust

Not too long ago I made a short trip to the most populated city I have ever visited. Judging from its relatively small airport and its lack of a concentrated cluster of tall towers, it was not evident that I was among the twenty million or so inhabitants living in Mexico City. It was unquestionnably much more dense than my home base of Dallas, with almost every block being no lower than 3 stories in height. The highways, themselves relatively small considering the amount of traffic that rides on them, rarely elevated over the city. They felt more like high-speed urban boulevards, with short ramps, narrow lanes, ground level views of the surrounding buildings.

At first impression, Mexico City feels more like a low-rise European city than anything else, except for a smattering of corporate towers dotting the broad valley landscape. Monumental avenues criss-cross the city, intersecting at roundabouts featuring statues and ornamental fountains. The city's 19th century planners evidently applied Baron Haussman's techniques to lend the city international respectability and cultural prestige (similar to other great Latin American capitals such as Buenos Aires). Such a planning tendency is logical considering the city's Spanish colonial influence, in which city's were founded by a main plaza with a church on one side, a government palace on another, and a grid of streets for residential and small commerce. The city has grown exponentially since its founding days, and despite planning moves to visually unify such a sprawling and fast-changing city, Mexico City is at best a chaotic patchwork different neighborhoods, social classes, and varying qualities of construction.

I say this from the narrow point of view of staying and doing business in the city's wealthier western districts. With its leafy paseos in between busy automobile right of ways, its four to five story buildings framing each avenue as well as its breezy semi-private courtyards tucked away from the street, memories of European cities were triggered in my mind. Upon closer observation , I was reminded why this part of Mexico City was quite unlike the European cities it aspires to, as it gives off the impression that much of it is a disorganized jumble. Since I myself am a fan of the unexpected beauty of such urban jumbles, I was trying to figure out why such a highly regarded area of the city left me unsettled in my appreciation.

My Frenchness affects me at a subliminal level, in particular in the way I perceive order and beauty. I often have to temper my oh-so-French tendencies to create austere monumental volumes and spaces with a more English kind of spontaneity and randomness. Such competing mental influences indeed color my impression of places I visit, which is why I actually think that Mexico City is an intriguing city in spite of its obvious socio-economic flaws. Rome holds a special place in my heart for similar reasons, with a similar randomness tempered by a refined Italian sense of materiality and detail that is not nearly as evident in even the fanciest parts of the Mexican capital. Why is this so? The answer comes from the idea that architecture is a pretty accurate manifestation of the culture that builds it. Inhabitants in this largest of cities aspire clearly in their buildings to express their modernity and their cultural sophistication but are limited by the fractiousness of social class, the lack of enforcement of regulations and an insecure public realm.

The last point was probably the most striking during my visit. I wasn't allowed to trust any taxi company, nor was I able to evade the surveillance of ubiquitous security guards (no more than 50 feet apart). Almost every storefront, particularly of upscale brands, had armed guards standing by to look for shoplifters. In suburban districts where pretty much all the inhabitants are wealthy, subdivisions are gated, with armed guards standing outside to prevent any unwanted infiltrators. To go to a business meeting, I had to submit my I.D. and be checked off a list of expected visitors by a lady behind a bullet-proof window booth outside the office building before being allowed in. On scenic residential streets, rampart walls and opaque gates line the sidewalk. It is impossible to look out to the street at ground level, something we suburban Americans take for granted across our green front lawns. I am aware that historically dense cities contain residential blocks where there are few opening along the outside wall, while views are all oriented to private courtyards. But even in the most admired European cities, the visibility of the street at ground level from inside a residence is taken for granted. One certainly doesn't have the feeling that they're being watched or tracked-down.

Although I love unpredictability and individuality, there has to be some level of regulation. Public sidewalks should not be encroached, commercial graphics and other signage should not appear just anywhere on the outside of a building, and a structure should never be left unfinished even when it is fully occupied. Public safety does indeed have its place, and I was disturbed how the design of exiting systems (dead-end corridors) were routinely ignored, guardrails and handrails non-existent, and ramps on new buildings were treated as an afterthought. I am not trying to be picky, but I find that certain minimal safety precautions are necessary in an area prone to massive earthquakes. Crossing a typical street has been made difficult by the 1 foot-high curbs, which were designed to prevent cars from climbing over to the pedestrian right of way. One has to pretty much hop on and off on curbs because they're so high, which makes it difficult to stroll casually.

Where there is so no public safety there follows little public life. I was amazed how in a city as dense as Mexico City, there were relatively few pedestrians. It seemed that most people would take cabs directly to their destination and back with little interest in strolling beyond. Here, everything is point-to-point. At night the restaurants and clubs were full of people, but outside these pockets activity, there was no one walking on the street. I wouldn't blame them, either, since I would never would want to take my family for a walk along the sidewalks. They're narrow, poorly maintained and uneven by all the private car ramps every few feet. I won't claim that this isn't problem in the U.S., since in many places, it is (my own neighborhood has no sidewalks). But for a city that models itself after the extremely pedestrian-friendly cities of Europe, one should expect more street life from one of the world's most populous metropolitan centers.

These kind shortcomings testify to a broader pattern of a lack of social trust in developing nations. One of the essential ingredients to national prosperity is a high level of social trust, allowing an environment where strangers can interact freely with one another, collaborate on joint ventures, provide capital to entrepreneur's ideas and so on. It is not enough for an elaborate set of laws to be drafted to force strangers to trust each other, it is imperative that respect for another's property and dignity as a human being be deeply ingrained in a society's cultural psychology. Such unwritten but consciously internalized safeguards make it possible for drivers not even to contemplate driving over medians or sidewalks, for street-level windows to be unprotected, for people to wander around the city or a store without uniformed personnel minding your business. What's most important is that social trust makes possible for cities to be more live-able, for life to be a bit easier as we don't have to worry about our own security. Until that level of social stability is achieved, the rich will wall themselves off from the poor, the poor will remain in their ghettos, and the influence of "bourgeois" values of respect, decency, scholarship and ambition to those who need it most will be stifled. This class isolation retards progress on all fronts, not least in the development of mobile and economically dynamic cities .

In the western suburban areas of Mexico City have so many wonderful things going for them but at their core are impediments that prevent them from truly being enjoyable places to live. The new Mexican upper middle class is growing fast, and have been filling up the western slopes of the metropolitan area with brand new apartment towers, exclusive subdivisions, and flashy shopping centers. The views from the hillsides are spectacular, the slopes as steep as those in San Francisco and the colorful warm colors of the cubic facades of houses embellishing the area's natural beauty. The area's suburban-ness precludes any real pedestrian street life, but even there, the street curbs are high, guards are every where, and shopping malls must accommodate chauffeurs (in Mexico City, chauffeurs are much less status symbols than a means to avoid using taxis which cannot be trusted, especially for individuals with high social standing). All the ingredients are there to make the western outskirts of Mexico City a destination to outsiders to visit, but the architectural manifestations of a low public trust make just another area where the new wealthy keep to themselves. Communities here are not defined by an abstract sense of civic consciousness as they are by the consistency of social class.

The lesson for me is that there's so much potential to create enjoyable public spaces in our own country. The social trust in America is very high, and the ease at which we can wander anywhere should not be taken for granted. I very much prefer the architectural taste of the Mexican elite over their American counterparts, as they agressively embrace contemporary design trends and feel no pressure to revive past styles superficially. But all the freedom to design as freely as one would like has little affect over changing the insecurity of daily life of less developed countries. You can design another Paris, but without more fundamental improvements in social trust, the inhabitants would prefer to live in a more mundane city like Dallas.

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