Good small urban spaces

Brandon at mastersplanning posted this old New York City study by the Municipal Art Society of New York.  It has a whole bundle of clips illustrating what makes a good city public space.  I found it fascinating. 

Here’s the video: 

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Some of the key lessons I learned from it:

  • Big empty spaces, by themselves, are very unpopular.
  • People want to be seen by people.  Social interaction happens at the centre of other people’s attention: the street corner, the subway entrance, the square’s main feature.
  • Basic durable geometric shapes are great for sitting, playing, and talking.
  • Places to sit are most important: at least a 1:30 ratio of space needs to be given to objects you can sit on.
  • Make everything people-friendly:  different sitting combinations, water you can touch and grass to play on, sculptures and windows to inside activities, and so on.  
  • Give people lots of choices.  Even something as simple as being able to move a chair makes people feel better.
  • Keep a close relationship to the street.  Don’t separate public spaces from movement and action. 
  • Water features are great, especially moving water.  Greenery is nice too, even token amounts.
  • Build spaces in proportion to buildings.  Don’t over-scale either of them.

The interesting thing for me, watching this video, was seeing how well Mexico towns and cities do all this instinctively.  Many public works in Mexico are dismal, but public spaces are not.  Whenever you go to a downtown, there will be fountains, plenty of places to sit, lots of activities for the kids, food stalls, exhibitions and shows, shops all facing the street, good public transport, pedestrian malls, underground or behind-wall parking, friendly security, historic buildings - and many more things that make Mexico plazas a joy to hang out in.  Rather than field trips to Old Europe, urban design students would do better to go to Mexico.

Five Ways for Mexico to Improve its Natural Environment

After living here for 6 months, it’s apparent that Mexico’s natural environment is not in the best of shapes.  Other Mexicans I talk to freely admit it as well.  The country is running out of water, smog and forest fires clog the cities and drift through the countryside, and I haven’t yet seen one natural body of water that isn’t polluted.

So here are five practical ways for Mexico to make substantial environmental improvements that would (in the long term): increase agricultural productivity, increase lifespans, and improve the quality of life for most Mexicans.

1.  Sustainable tree plantations

Mexico, like many less developed nations, has already cut down most of its forests over the past centuries.  However the remaining vegetation cover is still decreasing as trees are cut for firewood.  Vegetation is regularly burnt for short-term soil productivity with little thought for the long-term consequences that are evident today.

The removal of vegetation is now mostly done by subsistence farmers and villagers.  I don’t see an easy way to hinder this practice without offering some economic incentive.

Mexico should start wide-scale plantations of fast-growing, drought-resistant trees on land without existing forests.  Pines seem to do particularly well in the higher altitudes, and perhaps some broadleaf species in the tropical areas.

This would have many benefits.  It would create many higher-paid labouring jobs.  Mexico would have a local timber source, making wood cheaper than its prohibitive price at the moment.  People living nearby could use the waste material for firewood.  Soil would erode less, protecting waterways that are now silt-laden.  And over time, the micro-climates of these areas would become wetter and cooler, or at least help protect against the drying and heating effects of the changing climate. 

2.  Algae biomass energy

Northern Mexican states in particular have a lot of sun and open plains with not much wind.  These are ideal conditions to grow algae.  Specifically, algal strains that have a high oil content and can be harvested for ethanol and petroleum substitutes. 

If this know-how was distributed among locals, towns could set up their own small production areas and refining plants.  They would start small for local resale, and build up to large-scale production if there is investment potential.

This would generate new jobs, new skill sets, and would create a clean, renewable, and efficient fuel source.

3.  A limit on particulates from vehicles and factories

With not much wind, particulate pollution is a major problem in Mexico.  Mexico City has been famous for it for decades, and the blight has spread to other major cities and many inland farm areas. 

A regulatory solution needs to be put in place here.  A smog check every year for example as in California, and allowing police to pull cars and trucks off the road permanently if their exhaust particulate levels are above a certain level.  Of course this would need to be phased in over time so people get used to the idea and to limit economic impacts on the poor, but eventually the air would start to clear.

The industrial pollution is tougher to deal with, given the entrenchment of volatile unions and endemic corruption. I think a small, national agency of well-paid and educated officers could be commissioned to enforce pollution standards.  They would need wide-ranging powers, such as forcing factory closures and imposing (collectable) fines.  These fines should make the agency self-sufficient for income. 

This agency could be sent out to target the worst offenders that can’t be arsed to voluntarily clean up their emissions, while educating other industries about effective ways to meet the standards.  This technique is not “fair”, as some polluters will be ignored while others are targeted.  But this is the only way I see to make sure the agency doesn’t become bloated, inefficient and ultimately corrupt.

Hopefully the threat of prosecution would be enough to turn the tide of significant industrial air pollution.

4.  Secondary and tertiary treatment of point-source water pollution

This is a given in developed countries, and Mexico must follow their lead.  At the moment most sewage and industrial toxins are drained into the nearest waterway or harbour.  This renders almost all water sources polluted for drinking or swimming without extensive, expensive treatment. 

Yes it costs money to remove these pollutants, but I suspect the cost of the status quo is worse, both in economic and social (not to mention environmental) terms.

Point-source pollution is the easiest and most efficient to remove.  The major cities should lead the way, followed by the smaller cities and towns.  Heavy industry should also be comprehensively targeted to clean up their act. 

5.  Follow through on good ideas

Mexico is littered with great ideas by Mexican governments and organisations that start well, but aren’t given the necessary resources and monitoring to make them successful even in the medium-term.  And ok, maybe this isn’t a “practical” thing to improve the environment, but if the previous four things, and all the other well-intentioned large-scale programmes in Mexico, are to have any hope of making a real improvement in Mexican life, managers need to realise that starting the project is usually only 10% of the effort needed. 

I think Mexicans know what needs to be done.  Most likely these ideas and better ones have been thought through and trialled.  But the more insidious problems of poor project management, limited funding and corruption hamstring them.

Sometimes I bemoan the lack of common sense about many things in Mexico.  Simple things sometimes, like not planning for cyclists and pedestrians when building a road, or piling industrial trash in a residential area.  But perhaps the actual problem is a lack of big-picture thinking.  Long-term thinking.  Integration.  Sustainability.  And placing the public good above private gain (which for environmental issues leaves everyone better off). 

How to introduce this?  Well, that’s a much longer blog post for another time.


Dave and I have just finished the most unnecessarily bureaucratic process we have ever experienced.  This honour belongs to the migration department in Guadalajara.  I was trying to get a temporary immigration visa, called an FM3, so I can legally work as an English teacher in Mexico.  Dave was applying for a visa so he can have Mexican computer clients.

Guadalajara Migracion building

Guadalajara's downtown Migracion department building

Let me go through the process we had to endure.  Keep in mind that to attend each booth in Migracion involved a wait of between 10 minutes and three hours – usually about an hour.  Also, every visit meant a drive downtown in peak time, taking up to an hour driving time each way, and paying for parking.

Step 1:  Visited Booth 1 to get an information sheet about what we needed to give them, and forms to fill out.

Step 2:  Photocopied documents and hired a secretary to type out the forms (as required).

Step 3:  Went to the bank with an approved form to pay the deposits for the FM3 processing, then photocopied the deposit receipts.

Step 4:  We both presented our documents and deposit receipts at Booth 3.  Dave’s was accepted, but I was told to get a new number and wait in line as we couldn’t hand in our paperwork at the same time. 

Step 5:  I handed in my paperwork.  We were told to come back in a week.

Step 6:  So we came back a week later to be told by Booth 7 that our documents hadn’t been processed.  We could wait or come back the next day.

Step 7:  We came back the next day, to be told that the proof of residency receipt wasn’t sufficient (because it was a rent receipt).  I wondered why Booth 3 accepted the receipt if it wasn’t sufficient.

Booths inside Migracion building Guadalajara

Some of the booths inside Migracion building Guadalajara

Step 8:  Returned with a detailed receipt showing our residency for 3+ months at the motor home park and presented it to Booth 3.  The Booth 3 lady told me that was not sufficient either; they needed an electricity receipt from the park, a letter from the owner (not the manager!) saying we lived there, and a photocopy of the owner’s ID and his signature.

Step 9:  We came back with the aforementioned papers and gave them to Booth 3.  Told to come back in a week.

Step 10:  The next visit a week later, we were told our papers weren’t yet ready.  We could wait or come back another day.  We decided to wait this time, to avoid the ragged commute.  Three and a half hours later, we gave up.

Step 11:  The next day, we visited Booth 7, were given our documents back and were told to go back to Booth 1 to pick up new information sheets and forms.

Step 12:  Waited in line at Booth 1 and collected the new information requirements, including photos and payment at a bank for the FM3 processing.

Step 13:  Hired a secretary to type out the new forms (which contained a lot of the same information!) and to take the visa photos. 

Mercedes filling out some of our FM3 paperwork

Mercedes the friendly secretary filling out some of our FM3 paperwork

Step 14:  Paid the remaining processing fee at the bank and made photocopies of the receipt. 

Step 15:  Handed in all the documents and receipts to Booth 2 and were told to wait a week.  We tried to hand over our photos but they were refused.

Step 16:  Paid the tow truck $500 pesos so he would offload our car and not take it to the impound lot on the other side of the city.  Okay, maybe that wasn’t Migracion’s fault.

Step 17:  Came back a week PLUS ONE DAY! later (to make sure the docs were ready this time), and waited over an hour to collect our ongoing documentation from Booth 7. 

Step 18:  We handed over Dave’s photos to Booth 2 with the documents.  Why they couldn’t take those photos the last time with the rest of the information flummoxed us.  I tried to hand over my photos, but was told I needed a tax number first.

Step 19:  Went back to Booth 7 a week later and was told a tax number wasn’t required yet after all, but instead I had to fill out another form.

Booth 7 at Migracion Building, Guadalajara

Booth 7 with our favourite cheerful attendants (the rest of the booths were staffed by total grumps)

Step 20:  Gave the form to Booth 2, but was told they needed photocopies of every page of my passport before accepting the information.  I had already given them the photocopies of every page, and I didn’t have another passport copy with me, so we had to leave.

Step 21:  Came back with the new form completed PLUS the second set of passport photocopies.  Delivered them to Booth 2 after an hour wait.  Was told to return in one week.

Step 22:  Returned one week and a day later to collect the FM3, and give my signature and fingerprints.  But I still had to collect a tax number within thirty days and deliver it back to Migracion.

Step 23:  Returned three weeks later with the tax number to Booth 2, and was told to wait in line for an hour to collect another form from Booth 1.  The lady at Booth 2 showed us the form, we needed, but refused to give it to us. 

Step 24:  Collected the form from Booth 1.

Booth 1 at Migracion Building, Guadalajara, Jalisco

Booth 1 - the information booth

Step 25:  Dave and I filled out our forms stating details we’d already given.  We also had to write them a letter explaining that we were fulfilling the tax number condition, give them a copy of our tax numbers, and the sheets they gave us requiring the tax number.  Triplicate reporting when the information was self-explanatory.  After another long wait we handed them into Booth 2, and were told to come back the next day to re-collect the FM3s.

Step 26:  Two days later, after a mercifully short wait for our final visit, we were handed our FM3s.

By the time we got to the last few steps, I was starting to swear under my breath.  I longed for the efficiency of the Canadian and New Zealand visa processes.  Just two, maybe three visits, one processing agent to deal with, one set of requirements and a simple, easy-to-follow process.  But here in Mexico, my theory is that there is no incentive for the Migracion to become more efficient or customer-friendly.  They are doing you a favour in their minds, and so they can use as many different processes and booths as they like.  Time and effort is not money for them. 

The scary thing is, on Step 21 while waiting an hour to be seen at the booth, I read in Migracion’s magazine that they recently modernised the visa process and made it more efficient.  I shudder to think of the torture new migrants must’ve suffered before then.

Corruption and the Drug War

My partner and I haven’t had to deal with much local corruption here in Mexico.  The times when we thought we’d have to pay a bribe here or there: when our car was towed, when receiving a cellphone plan discount, getting our immigration papers etc., nothing was implied.  Even trying to give a generous tip was sometimes refused.

It’s a nice reality from what we read before we came.  We were told that the local police would stop you for a cash payment, border officials might need an incentive to leave you alone, and “morditas” (little bites) would be required to make life smooth.

Instead, in recent years everyday Mexicans seem to be less and less corrupt as a culture.  Maybe they instinctively recognise the damage it does to their economy and way of life, or maybe enforcement against such corruption has increased.

Unfortunately, corruption in Mexico still permeates anything to do with the drug war, senior business leaders and politicians.

As part of the federal government’s protracted war on drug cartels, swathes of mayors, local police chiefs, elected officials and community leaders are arrested for corruption relating to the drug trade.  Even the head of Mexico’s narco offensive in 2008 was bought. A lot of the times the problem is greed for money and power.  But sometimes the corrupted don’t have much choice.  Either they accept money and help the drug traffickers, or they and their families may be kidnapped or shot.

And the latter is also common here.  An English language client of mine was shot at in his car while giving a friend a ride back home.  She is the daughter of a member of the judicial police and had received death threats.  Federal police and soldiers are ambushed on the roadside, tortured, decapitated.  Senior politicians are assassinated.  There are thousands of kidnappings per year.

I still feel safer here than in many parts of the USA and New Zealand – partly because most of the crime is centered near the US border, in Mexico City, and/or is drug related.

The problem is that many state and local police are corrupt or inefficient.  I read an estimate that 98% of crimes in Mexico are unpunished.  Municipal police can be paid as low as 30 pesos an hour ($US 2.27).  That sort of wage doesn’t encourage anyone to put themselves in harms way.  It also promotes widespread corruption.

There is a lack of transparency and checks and balances in local, state and federal budgets.  Politicians earmark essential funds for pet projects, and siphon money as it is spent.  This is a problem in the USA as well, but in Mexico it’s harder to trace.

In my opinion, Mexico’s Drug War started by President Calderon (a good man, but hamstrung by widespread self-interest and corruption in his government and administration) is unwinnable unless the rich and powerful of Mexico renounce corruption and their own ties with the drug cartels.

Vacation Destinations

I’m writing this on a rustic cabin patio overlooking a forest south of Mazamitla, Mexico.  Mazamitla is a mountain town about 2,200 metres high and 120 km south of Guadalajara.  Mazamitla is a favourite vacation place for middle-upper class Tapatios (residents of Guadalajara) during the summer and on weekends.  Second to white sandy beaches (which are popular world-over), Mexicans love to relax in cabins with wood trim and wood decks, surrounded by forests.
Mazamitla trees and cabins

Our view from the Mazamitla, Jalisco cabin

I wonder if the desire for a particular vacation destination reflects elements that are uncommon where people usually live.  Much of Mexico is hot and dry, the remaining forests are shrinking in size, and the cities are polluted and full of people.  So people seek out temperate pine forests in mountain areas.  Wood is expensive here and an uncommon building material, so wood cabins are a touch of the exotic.

Canadians flock to Mexico during the winter, leaving behind the bone-chilling cold for a warm, dry, sunny climate, with a touch of the exotic – Mexican culture and food.

Teotihuacan pyramids near Mexico City

Teotihuacan pyramids near Mexico City

Many Mexicans, if they can afford it, like to holiday in Canada and Europe.  The snow, cold, rocky mountains and clean cities are so different and exciting. 

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

A mountain beside frozen Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

New Zealanders like to head to Australia or Southeast Asia for big-city excitement and shopping, or the Pacific Islands to escape the damp chill of winter.  For many kiwis, lying on a beach and snorkelling on a coral reef for a few days sounds very appealing. 

Sydney Australia

A cityside Australian beach

The grass is usually greener on the other side when vacationing, but probably only because it is different than the usual and slightly exotic.  The number of people who decide to move permanently to the “other side of the fence” is much lower.  “A change is as good as a holiday” is the saying – “a holiday is as good as the change it gives” also appears to be true.

Swine Flu

It was new, it was scary, it was somewhere, it was everywhere.  No-one had it, lots of people had it, it was deadly, it was harmless.  The media wet their pants over it, the media lost interest over it.  What on earth happened to the swine flu?

It certainly hasn’t disappeared.  Ironically enough for a so-called “Mexican Flu”, I’ve been passed over while my young brother in Wellington was hit.

The short answer is that it’s still spreading out of control across the world.  But it doesn’t seem to be any more deadly than other flu strains that crop up every winter.

Here in Mexico, the southern states are reporting a surge of H1N1 flu cases.  Jalisco (my state) has 802 cases, with five reported deaths.  For a state with almost 7 million people, that’s not many – even when you include estimated unreported cases.

Countries like Great Britain and Australia seem to have it much tougher.  100,000 people were infected just last week (as of 23 July) in England, double the week before.  When winter hits, the numbers are expected to jump again. 

As the WHO (World Health Organisation) predicted, travel bans to/from Mexico were a waste of time.  Yet the Mexican tourist locales like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Acapulco were still hammered by the fear of the flu – even though there were no flu cases in those areas.

The WHO has given up trying to count cases.  They reckon that the virus has now hit 160 countries and could infect 2 billion people in the next two years.  All they can do now is give advice and encourage vaccination. 

So was the swine flu overhyped?  Probably.  It certainly generated a lot of advertising income from media coverage. 

What SHOULD we be worried about?  Stephen Hawking believes that the two biggest threats to humankind are climate change, and a virus genetically modified by terrorists that has no human immune response.  On climate change, the bumbling, inept moves of the current New Zealand government is an example of how most of the world is failing to take heed of this clear and present danger.  And the GM virus threat seems to be relegated to the realm of B-grade movies. 

For readers who will be infected by this flu over the next two years, keep warm, rested and hydrated.  But don’t worry too much – chances are, you’ll be ok.

Time Zone Refresh Part I

Okay, an admission first up – I dislike time zone allocations in many countries around the world.  Not because I disagree with the cultural, economic and historic reasons for the variances, but because I like human allocation of hours to be as close as practicable to actual sunlight hours.  Keeps us closer to the natural rhythms of the world: summer winter, sunrise sunset.  During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun should rise at 6 am, reach its zenith at midday, and set at 6 pm.

Here at Guadalajara in Jalisco State, Mexico, the sun rises at about 7:30 am and sets about 8:30 pm – 13 hours at this time of year.  Waking up at 6 am in pitch-darkness in the middle of summer throws me a bit.  Why are the daylight hours so late?  One – because Guadalajara is in the wrong time zone.  Two – because Guadalajara has “daylight savings time” (moving sunlight one hour forward during the winter). 

If it were up to me, states could only implement daylight savings (assuming they wanted to) if they are not in the Tropics.  I.e. if they are north of the Tropic of Cancer or south of the Tropic of Capricorn.  In the Tropics, sunshine hours don’t vary significantly from summer to winter, so why bother with daylight savings? 

Here’s my Time Zone Refresh for Mexico, aligning states to more appropriate longitudinal-based time zones from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

  1. The western states have their time zones correct: Baja California Norte = Pacific Time (-8 GMT).  Baja California Sur, Sonora, Sinaloa, Narayit = Mountain Time (-7 GMT).
  2. The states from Veracruz and Oaxaca eastwards have their time zones correct = Central Time (-6 GMT).
  3. All remaining states should switch their time zones from Central Time to Mountain Time. 
  4. Daylight savings should only be used, if the citizens want it, in the following states: Baja California Norte, Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila. 
Mexico States

The United Mexico States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos)

In some future posts, I may turn my purifying stare at other parts of the world that I reckon need a Time Zone Refresh.