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This past weekend, world leaders publicly wrote off hope for a climate accord at the upcoming global summit in Copenhagen. The goalposts may shift to a possible second climate conference to be held next year in Mexico City.
Home to 19 million inhabitants, Mexico City is the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere (and second largest in the world). Every year, more than 300,000 people (think Toledo, Ohio, or Riverside, California) are added to this sprawling and fragmented city.
Some 60% of the population — over 11 million people — lives in “popular” or informal or squatter settlements surrounding the Distrito Federal, contributing to the vast environmental and governance challenges across the region. “Mexico City is now taking place outside the city,” according to José Castillo, architect and professor at Universidad Iberoamericana.
Yet even here, there are successes to build upon….
Sustainable transit and ecological parks
Last week, Harvard University’s JFK School of Government awarded the 2009 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership to EMBARQ for Metrobus, the bus rapid transit (BRT) project it developed with the Mexico City government. Metrobus brings sustainable transit to one of the world’s most congested cities; it will help to stitch together some of the farflung reaches of the sprawling metropolis, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and take polluting minibuses off the road. Already, more than 450,000 residents ride Metrobus each day. Building upon the success of Metrobus, the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico is supporting BRT projects in cities across Mexico. Guadalajara launched its own Macrobus system last spring.
And amidst Mexico City’s sprawl, there are efforts towards preserving and restoring the natural landscape and establishing a “cultura ambiental” (environmental culture) among the residents of the city.
On her blog, “Roads Less Traveled,” Tracy Barnett recounts her visit to the Parque Ecologico de la Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City Ecological Park), which was developed over the past two decades with the help of the Mexican environmental organization, Pronatura. According to the Pronatura website for the Central-West region (in Spanish–and translated into English with Google Translate), the park in Ajusco is a critical area for groundwater recharge as well as local biodiversity. Located up the road from the city’s beltway and Six Flags Mexico City, the park’s oak, pine, and scrub oak ecosystems are home to 611 species of plants, 134 species of birds, and 127 species of butterflies. Some of the environmental educators led Tracy on a tour of the park, which overlooks the city:
The leafy canopy opens here onto a startling view: a yellow-grey cloud smothers the landscape, a clutter of urban sprawl stretching for miles below, barely visible through the smog that envelopes it.
“We use this station to explain to people why the lungs of the forest are so important to protect,” Guadalupe said. “If the government had not stepped in to reclaim this land, all of Ajusco would have looked like that.”
After the devastating earthquake of 1985, thousands fled to the outskirts of the city to rebuild and start new lives, many of them building on land they claimed for themselves. This unauthorized activity occurred everywhere and for the most part was unchallenged.
In Ajusco, however, the government took a stand. The area is not only an important recharge zone, but also is situated along the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, a conservation initiative stretching from the northern Sierra Madre to Morelos in the south.
Here in the forests of Ajusco, “the place where water is born” in ancient Nahuatl, it’s easy to forget the proximity of what is, by some estimates, the world’s second-largest metropolis.
The restoration projects include plant nurseries, reforestation with native species, and bird monitoring. Educational programs begin with opportunities for preschool children to discover the natural world and also introduce birdwatching, butterflies, and acorns to older visitors. At the mariposario, staff collect eggs of butterflies, allow them to hatch and grow, and later release some into the wild and save the rest for a butterfly house, where children can experience the butterflies up close.
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The park’s history highlights the difficult choices that arise when population and environment collide. In order to reclaim the land for the park in 1989, the government evicted thousands of people and bulldozed hundreds of homes that were built after the 1985 earthquake. Poor residents had little recourse but to move on, probably to another informal settlement. With urbanization swallowing up the surrounding landscape at a rapid pace, ecological parks like this one may seem but tiny islands. While “nature” may sometimes seem a luxury, these areas are vital to protect or restore wildlife habitat and support the ecosystem services that sustain the city and its residents. The parks also preserve opportunities for urban dwellers to interact with nature that may lead, one day, to a “cultura ambiental.”
From here to there…and back again
The United States National Park Service had a hand in the development of the Parque Ecologico. The Service’s Park Flight Program provided support for educational programs. Why the National Park Service? As the Park Flight brochure notes:
The U.S. National Park System provides habitat critical to many species of migratory birds, from raptors and shorebirds to songbirds. Continental and local declines in these bird populations have led to a concern for their future. Because these species use parks on a seasonal basis, their protection cannot be assured without conservation efforts occurring in the habitats the birds use throughout the year. This requires cooperative and coordinated efforts between the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, such as the Park Flight Migratory Bird Program, to protect breeding, migration, and wintering habitats, as well as a proactive approach to migratory bird conservation within the National Park Service (NPS).
The brochure offers a quote by Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:
“Hemispheric solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.”