Big & small
These are some of the phrases that I would hear thrown towards me while walking the streets of Mexico. They wouldn’t be phrases of disdain or prejudice. Rather, these were street vendors selling their wares from fresh fruit to tacos to esquites (corn) to trinkets. (“Dos por uno!” would also be a common phrase.)
One of the defining aspects of Mexico City is the multitude of street vendors that cover the city. They are crowded, sweaty, and immersed in a variety smells (both good and bad). The young and old, the poor and rich mingle while buying groceries or grabbing a bite to eat on the way home. These vendors and markets are not the most pleasant of locales, but - as many who have visited such packed markets in East Asia can attest - they have a certain charm to them.
And there are a ton of them everywhere. In fact, I was surprised to learn that around 40% of the workers in Mexico City held such jobs as local vendors. “Grosera” I heard one person comment about such markets - expressing her disapproval of a workforce that avoids paying taxes and largely provides products of variable quality and cleanliness. Nevertheless, it is clear that these people are a vibrant and crucial part of the Mexican economy.
With this in mind, it was fascinating to read an Associated Press article on “Mexico City’s once crazy, crowded markets languish.” The article essentially details a neighborhood market system that is suffering as transnational and American corporations such as Walmart and other grocery chains grow in influence and popularity among the Mexican population.
The success of Walmart was blatantly obvious to me everyday when my commute from work took me past a Walmart before I reached the Villa de Cortes subway station. Especially during rush hour, the Walmart would be teeming with people, and, upon one visit, the dozen checkout lines extended far into the aisles.
Of course, this transition is not unique to Mexico. The theme of the big company taking out mom & pop shops is a global trend (and Walmart is usually leading the charge), and, realistically speaking, is inevitable. On a recent visit to South Korea, I noticed a similar disappearance of street vendors in various modernizing neighborhoods that had provided much character to the area. National corporations and mega-supermarkets are in.
It is this tension that I experienced - how does the government preserve the livelihoods of poor Mexicans who run these street markets, which also provide a strong dose of heritage and culture, in the midst of the economic growth that comes from these transnational corporations (for example, Walmart is one of the largest employers in the country)? Banning large supermarkets is certainly not the answer. Removing choice is always a detrimental decision in the long run.
However, it is the responsibility of the government to support a long-term transition for these street markets. Not to a road of disappearance, swallowed up by the growing beasts of MEGA, Walmart, and Costco. But to a fate of local markets that are regulated and legitimate (no longer a “grosera” to the Mexicans) while learning lessons from the successes of local businesses in America. What are these lessons? In my opinion, local businesses can take advantage of two things: the nimbleness of the Internet and social media, and the appeal of personalized (i.e. local) goods. Social media has a leveling effect in allowing local businesses to have the ability to reach a wide audience quickly and cheaply. By shepherding the vendors towards adaptation to the 21st century market with fair regulation instead of extinction, the government can promote a transformed local business structure that competes with (or sidesteps) the heavyweight companies. Letting the vendors get pushed into oblivion does a disservice to everyone.
Cities Part 2 - Addendum
Been traveling and without consistent Internet, but here are some related articles before my next post:
As city infrastructure cannot keep pace with massive urban growth, many people will be left without adequate access to drinking water and sanitation, says WWF.
In most developing countries, urban growth is “inextricably linked” with slum expansion and poverty. In 2000, nearly one third of the world’s urban dwellers lived in slums, the current figure is much higher.
The study focuses on six of the world’s “exploding mega cities”: Mexico City, Mexico, with a population of 21.1 million; Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a population of 12.8 million; Kolkata, India, with a population of 15.4 million; Karachi, Pakistan, with a population of 18 million; Nairobi, Kenya, with a population of 3.5 million; and Shanghai, China, with a population of 23 million.
The past 50 years of experience with development co-operation have shown that finance alone is not sufficient. Ensuring funds are used as cost effectively as possible is essential for both providers and recipients.
“Latin America has emerged in the last year or two as one of the sharpest growing markets for renewable power worldwide,” McCrone said.
Excluding Brazil, Mexico took the lead in Latin America, with an almost 350 per cent increase in 2010.
Cities Part 2
Summer in Mexico City is a relief. Temperatures are moderate (ranging from 70-80 degrees during the day) and, at least during my time here, the days are sunny and clear. Most importantly, it rains a little less than an hour every single day (apparently it’s usually more but I’ve somehow lucked into a less rainy summer). This has the effect of clearing up the smog of a city that is so chock full of cars and people that it has one of the worst pollution rates in the world. Once, I saw a truck drive by a crowd and directly release a black cloud of exhaust into it. Used to such occurrences, the people sauntered onwards.
As we all know, cities (and industrialization) are beasts that gobble up resources and spew climate-altering waste. However, one of the emerging issues is not only that existing nations are creating problems, but also that several Third World countries will begin scaling up their industrialization as their economies strengthen. There just aren’t enough resources to allow that to happen. Having been interested in this issue of development of cities throughout the world, I was delighted to hear (yet another) TED Talk. If you’ll indulge me:
- Massive urbanization from developing countries will require energy far beyond what we can produce in the future.
- The only answer isn’t to replace fossil fuels with “clean energy.” We’re focusing on the wrong problem.
- Energy use isn’t just a conscious choice but is influenced by our environments. Research shows that denser cities produce less greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. with more resources close-by, there is less need to drive).
- We need to redesign cities through innovation in making parts of the city denser.
- People do not always need to own something. They just need access to its function (when necessary).
- Thus, spaces in cities can be made flexible to adapt to needs of people. “It’s not about the leafs above, but the systems below.”
What’s clear to me is that we need a massive global investment in civil and industrial engineers who engage in “systems thinking” (a concept I first heard in medicine through Paul Farmer and Don Berwick). I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an expert about how city design is tackled by governments throughout the world (though I’d love to learn more). However, it is clear that there is a vast pool of interesting research and innovations happening in the urban design industry. And while some are beginning to be implemented (such as this amazing initiative from White Tops NYC), there is so much more that can be done (and not just in rich metros like San Francisco or London).
Furthermore, there is not enough “systems thinking” in which each area of the city is designed with the whole in mind. In Mexico City, there are a number of “popis” colonias that are gated or upscale communities like Santa Fe and Polanco. Meanwhile, there is an entire side of a hill blanketed by slums (on the north side of city). The independent existence of these disparate neighborhoods is to the detriment of the entire city through health and economic costs. As much as the residents of the wealthier areas may enjoy a posh lifestyle, such a divide is unsustainable and, in fact, unjust. A city cannot be planned in parts, but the entire system must be considered.
With that, some intriguing questions arise. How can multiple areas of the city become “densified” in order to improve the overall density of the city (and lower carbon emissions) without having to invest in every single nook and cranny, which may be inefficient and unnecessary (described as tentpole density by Steffen)? How can businesses be clustered (or franchised into multiple locations) such that the right resources are in the most accessible places for people? It’s hard work but we now realize it is necessary work.
Innovation isn’t just a buzz word. It’s the way that we will go beyond conventional dictums (drive less, turn off lights), which are reasonable and necessary, and design new solutions based on scientific evidence and in-depth analysis. For example, Steffen brings up the concept of “walkshed” (check it out here), which is a method to calculate the “walkability” of an area (basically, how many resources and amenities are within walking distance). If we can use a walkshed score as a measure of assessing a city’s sustainability, it could help direct the design of a city.
As NGOs and local governments of developing countries scale up (as mortality decreases, life expectancy improves, and economies concurrently expand), we should think about how various stakeholders can work together to implement the most impactful and innovative city designs. Furthermore, we need to train more people in civil and industrial design and engineering—these solutions will not just come from throwing money without expertise at the problem.
Cities can truly be a boon to its inhabitants and can spur along developing economies. Our goal should be to maximize those benefits while eliminating the harms.