In Conversation with Loreta Castro Reguera & Manuel Perlo
by Dr Ann Deslandes
Solving a 700-year-old problem: In Iztapalapa, an eastern borough of Mexico City, which bears the brunt of the city’s water problems ranging between inundation and scarcity, a multidisciplinary team of urban experts have established
La Quebradora hydraulic park, an innovative water infrastructure project that is tipped to bring great benefits to a peripheral community in one of the most populated cities in the world. La Quebradora is a soon-to-be-completed hydraulic park that is arising from a derelict, forgotten site in the Sierra Santa Catarina, a mountain range on the edge of town. Underpinned by the intriguing concept of ‘hydro-urban acupuncture’, the project recently won a Global LafargeHolcim Gold Award. In Mexico City, Dr Ann Deslandes (AD) spoke to Loreta Castro (LC) and Manuel Perlo (MP) for FuturArc.
AD: What’s the history of Mexico City’s water problem?
MP: The problem goes back 700 years, when the Aztecs decided to build a city in the middle of a swamp. It established the city’s relationship with water. This relationship is not the most harmonious, but it is a statement that we’re here to stay, and we know that water is going to be an issue. So that’s the starting point of our story. Seven hundred years later, we are a huge metropolis of 22 million people and at least 60 per cent of the city was built on a former lakebed.
LC: Exactly, it’s the 700-year-old problem, beginning with the establishment of Tenochtitlan, as the great Aztec city was known. We live on a lake—even though there’s no more lake, the foundation is still the soil of a lakebed. And from the beginning, the city’s inhabitants had struggled to get fresh water. The Aztecs, even though they had always struggled, were able to survive, using for example the chinampa canal system. Their infrastructure was very sophisticated. The Spanish conquest was a total conquest: political, religious, social— and also an urban design conquest. The entire way of designing the city was completely transformed into the European Renaissance style and the canals were overrun. We started having a lot of trouble with floods. This new system disregarded, in fact, desiccated, the lakes. We originally had 1,100 square kilometres of lakes. Now, we have a bit less than 50 square kilometres. The transformation of Mexico City’s landscape and waterscape had been one of the most drastic worldwide.
MP: Under the Aztecs, there were rivers, springs, swamps… the rivers had disappeared and now there are highways. We had beautiful springs in Iztapalapa; it looks like a desert nowadays.
LC: So we find today this enormous urban fabric of 22 million inhabitants and a lot of water-related issues. In a nutshell, the problems are flooding and scarcity.
AD: Over this long period, how have the city’s inhabitants responded to the water problem?
MP: Through the centuries, there have been so many efforts to solve the water problem in this city. We disagree completely with people who say the city has been a mistake and we should try something completely different and disregard all this paradigm of huge infrastructure and just focus on harvesting rainwater and recycling water. We believe in those strategies, of course, but we cannot disregard everything that has been done to make a metropolis of 22 million people flourish. We are firm believers that the city itself, its built environment and its landscape can do a lot of things, so we should put the city in the middle of the change.
LC: The city is not the problem. It needs to be the solution.
AD: And your focus has been on Iztapalapa, the place where solutions are most urgently needed.
LC: Yes. In 2013, we had the opportunity to work in Iztapalapa, the part of Mexico City that has the most drastic water problems—they have floods and scarcity every day. The mayor agreed to support the development of a water supply system that didn’t mean robbing the drainage system or digging more deep wells to extract water—instead, [it meant] working with the population on ideas for cleaning waste water and capturing rainwater.
We looked into how water is already being managed in Iztapalapa, and also how it is happening in different cities worldwide—in Australia, China, India, Bangladesh, Europe, Italy, Netherlands, Brazil and Mexico. From this research, we established 12 strategies—they were nothing new, but together, gave an idea of what could be done in Iztapalapa. And with these strategies, we started asking people in the borough to use them and enter a competition to bring ideas to the table that we could implement. And parallel to that, we started doing our own research on which sites could be good for applying the hydro-urban acupunctural strategy, which eventually became La Quebradora.
It is not only important to think about how water could be better managed and work out how rain could be caught but also about how this kind of landscape infrastructure works because it becomes a public space.
We’re inspired by Jaime Lerner and his concept of ‘urban acupuncture’ as smallscale, grassroots ‘pinpricks’—acupunctural interventions to ameliorate urban conditions.
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