Over the past half century, Mexico’s cities have undergone a stark transformation. Today, Mexico’s urban population is as at an all-time high, and growth is projected to continue.
Housing settlements to accommodate these bloating populations have oozed out from already crowded city centers, creating sprawling, largely residential areas around city peripheries. Since 1910, the metropolitan area of Mexico City has risen dramatically, expanding into the hillier terrain at the city’s edges. While population remains most concentrated around the city’s core, expansion continues at its edges.
Mexico City, 1910
In peripheral housing developments, staggering economic equality persists. About half of Mexico’s population is estimated to live in “colonias populaires,” informal settlements that typically spring up along urban peripheries. Many new residents are crammed into these areas, where living conditions and access to amenities often lag.
Slums outside of Mexico City
The economic promise of these cities has proven hollow for many. Despite rapid growth in size and population, many of Mexico’s cities have not experienced significant growth or development in the types of jobs they offer.
“High value” jobs, like finance and technology, have not been added to city economies at the same pace as lower level jobs in the service industry, which now employs about 50% of Mexico City’s working population. Even within the service sector, the “value” of new jobs has declined. Over half of all jobs within the service sector have been deemed “low value.” In Mexico’s largest cities, growth in population has outpaced growth in opportunity. Despite lags in high-value employment, movement to cities continues, aided largely by lack of opportunity elsewhere.
Mexico’s richest regions lie in its North, where NAFTA has allowed the manufacturing sector to flourish. In the South, rural regions must rely more heavily on agricultural enterprises, which, thanks to technological advances, now require far fewer workers. For many residents of the south, cities flaunt the tantalizing possibility of economic opportunity.
If development is a steady march forward, Mexico’s cities have been forced into an all-out sprint. And, like many amateur-athletes, their legs have begun to give out.
City growth has occurred with very little long-term planning, and has relied largely upon the spread of informal housing developments. Within Mexico’s expanding cities, government services, like infrastructure and housing complexes, are operating out of sync with each other. Crucial services like water access and sewage treatment are unreliable and inefficient. A lack of coordination and pre existing infrastructure has trapped city governments in a process of accommodating population influxes with superficial but immediately effective solutions, rather than long-term reworking. Mexico City imports about forty percent of its water from outside sources, and loses another forty percent to faults in its distribution system. Despite these efforts, nearly twenty percent of the city’s population cannot rely upon consistent access to tap water.
On the outskirts of Mexico city, donkeys are used to transport water to residents disconnected from pipelines.
Hope for Mexico’s struggling cities may seems sparse, but a relatively recent decline in birth rates may alleviate some of the nation’s growing pains.
This abrupt decline in fertility rates, corresponds, in part, with a shift in government policy. In the late 1970s, the Mexican government began an extensive promotional campaign for birth control. In a nation where abortions and other forms of contraceptives can be expensive and extremely difficult to obtain, sterilization has become an increasingly practical, albeit dramatic, option. Today, forty percent of women in Mexico are sterilized. While this decline may help cities struggling with the weight of their ballooning populations, it is far from a panacea.