Mexico City Residents Fight to Protect Their Neighborhoods From Redevelopment

New construction in Mexico City’s established neighborhoods has residents angry about changes to zoning laws. Now, people who have never taken part in protests are actively fighting redevelopment, and accusing city officials of turning a blind eye to the construction projects. City officials, meanwhile, say development is a natural part of urban life.

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Mexico City Residents Fight to Protect Their Neighborhoods From Redevelopment

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Lorena Zamora González, 45, poses in front of the mural of an asphalt plant. The site of the asphalt plant will be used for a new building project in the area, known as Ciudad del Futuro, or City of the Future, which residents including Zamora González reject because it might attract more people to the neighborhood.

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – For the first time in his life, 65-year-old businessman Enrique Pérez Cirera, participated in a protest. He says he never had a problem with the government until this June, when he discovered that his peaceful neighborhood could be tarnished by the construction of tall apartment buildings.

Pérez Cirera lives in Lomas de Bezares, an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City, Mexico’s capital. Signs posted at the site announce plans to build two 20-story apartment complexes about a half a block from his home.

As far as Pérez Cirera knew, only single-family homes up to three stories tall were allowed there, but he recently discovered a zoning change that now allows construction of larger apartment buildings.

Pérez Cirera didn’t want this to happen, and he wasn’t alone, he says. He and like-minded neighbors met to investigate the issue. They filed complaints and collected signatures to send to the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, the body responsible for the design and administration of the city’s urban policies.

What’s happening in Mexico City is not unique, says Alberto Martínez Flores, director of Attention for Groups at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing. Urban development and the frustrations that arise from it occur worldwide, he says. The discontent of neighborhood groups is part of this phenomenon. Some residents blame the government for failing to stop development, but change is what happens in cities everywhere, he says.

“I wouldn’t say that it is because of government inaction,” he says in a phone interview.

But perhaps in your life you had never stumbled upon something that would legitimize you to do that, and suddenly you have a cause that is legitimate, a cause you are living, something you have to fight for.

But Pérez Cirera doesn’t see major redevelopment as a global phenomenon. In his mind, it’s a scourge that threatens to destroy a beloved neighborhood.

Pérez Cirera and his neighbors protested in June in front of the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District.

On another occasion, he and other neighbors protested by blocking a street, he says.

“I think this grows out of being fed up,” he says. “And the more people we bring together the more people join us.”

Members of the Legislative Assembly voted in early July on requested changes to zoning permissions of 47 properties, which includes some projects close to Pérez Cirera’s home. Changes to just six properties were approved.

Pérez Cirera believes that although some changes were made, the pressure from the protesters kept the legislature from approving more, he says.

“The only way you can make the authorities see that the citizenry is organized is by demonstrating,” Pérez Cirera says. “That is the only way, there is no other.”

Pérez Cirera is one of many people in Mexico City who are organizing and protesting proposed zoning changes to their neighborhoods.

Activists say these changes were made possible by 2010 modifications to the Federal District’s Urban Development Law, which allows for anyone to request a change in the zoning requirements of any property through out the city. Previously, proposed changes were much more restricted.

The change facilitated the possibility of modifying zoning requirements, and incorporated legal procedures to allow for construction on top of what had been established in the local urban development programs. These procedures have been used, for example, to build office buildings in residential areas, or businesses in areas where they aren’t allowed by the local urban development programs.

Citizen groups have protested zoning permissions and construction in their neighborhoods for decades, says Margarita María Martínez Fisher, a local congresswoman.

However, the 2010 law marked a new time period in neighborhood mobilization in this issue, says Martínez Fisher, who is also president of the Committee on Development and Urban Infrastructure for the Legislative Assembly.

“With the new law, people began to realize how things were, and began to see the (real estate development) effects, and this is what has now created mobilization to specifically change the law,” she says in a phone interview.

The Federal District’s land planning office, which is in charge of enforcing compliance, has seen a steady increase in the number of citizen complaints per year because of zoning rights issues.

From 2010 to 2011, complaints increased nearly 50 percent from 546 to 816. Through October of this year, there have been 1,172 reports.

These complaints have exemplified the types of action people have taken throughout the city.

This now includes the mobilization of members of the middle and upper class who previously may not have taken to the streets to criticize problems related to urban development, says Susana Kanahuati Reyes, a resident of San Ángel neighborhood located in the south of the city.

Photos by Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

A group of residents from different neighborhoods throughout Mexico City dressed up as ophthalmologists and protested outside of the Administrative Verification Institute, the government body in charge of verifying construction and sanctioning irregularities. The protest was a sarcastic way to tell authorities they were blind to the construction irregularities in the city.

Susana Kanahuati Reyes, 48, is a member of Vecinos Unidos, which translates to United Neighbors, one of many neighborhood groups throughout the city organizing to protect urban spaces from irregular construction works.

A banner in Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood in Mexico City, which reads “We Demand Respect of Residential Use,” calls for the rejection of changes in land use and zoning permissions throughout the city. Since modifications were made to the Urban Development Law in 2010, many residents have protested the law and the ability of anyone to propose changes to zoning restrictions.

Zamora González lives in the Ajusco neighborhood in the south of the city. She has been working with her neighbors since 2014 to protest a real estate project in their area which would, among other things, affect a pathway, located on the Aztecas Avenue where many residents often go to exercise and walk.

Kanahuati Reyes, 48, says she began protesting zoning changes in the neighborhood three years ago, when she learned of plans to build a 20-story building in a once-restricted zone, she says. She was upset the government would allow that kind of construction in her neighborhood. The neighborhood, San Ángel, is recognized as a historic site for its conservation of 400-year old customs and traditions, old buildings and plazas, and noting it as one of the most significant, traditional and picturesque neighborhoods of Mexico City.

Through her growing contacts, she started to link the existing neighborhood groups in order to strengthen the movement, she says. She now belongs to a group called Vecinos Unidos, which translates to United Neighbors, which acts as a link between other groups.

This neighborhood movement first focused on filing citizen reports to the local government, and now it works to get issues into local media, including social networks, and organize public protests, Kanahuati Reyes says.

For the past 13 years, Josefina Mac Gregor Anciola, 59, says she has been working to prevent changes to zoning permissions in her neighborhood of San Ángel. Five generations of her family have lived here, she says.

Mac Gregor Anciola says this neighborhood movement has also changed her perception of people who participate in public protests.

“You would say, ‘Ah, look at those people who protest, what foolishness!’” she says. “But perhaps in your life you had never stumbled upon something that would legitimize you to do that, and suddenly you have a cause that is legitimate, a cause you are living, something you have to fight for.”

In 2002, she began to meet with other residents when they noticed what they considered to be illegal construction, she says. After reviewing the law, she says they filed complaints with the government against the construction and real estate companies, and that some projects were terminated due to their complaints.

In reaction to these issues, she and her neighbors created an advisory group for other groups to inform them about the law and how they can use it to prevent illegal construction, she says.

By 2010, she saw the existence of many similar neighborhood groups, Mac Gregor Anciola says.

Three years ago, the neighborhood group formalized as Suma Urbana, whose name refers to the entire urban population. Through Suma Urbana, Mac Gregor Anciola says she has contact, including via social media, with about 200 neighborhood groups.

If people from middle and upper classes weren’t previously active, it was because they didn’t have a need to protest, says Angela Giglia Ciotta, a professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City who specializes in urban anthropology and housing issues. Urban movements tend to be fought over housing for the least protected sectors, but now, the middle and upper class now see their quality of life threatened in the face of excessive construction, she says.

“We can think that around concrete problems, alliances of upper classes and popular classes are formed on specific issues,” she says. “When there is a clear threat, that is when alliances are created that would be impossible in other circumstances.”

Lorena Zamora González, 45, also organizes with her neighbors to protest changes to urban spaces.

But unlike Pérez Cirera, Mac Gregor Anciola or Kanahuati Reyes, she lives in Ajusco, a neighborhood in the south of the city marked by a lack of services and infrastructure.

Zamora González thinks the participation of the middle and upper classes isn’t only because they see their own interests affected, but also because they are conscious that real estate development is a problem that affects the entire city.

“The government has been very ambitious,” she says. “And because of wanting to do projects everywhere, it has caused the few residents that are in each area, that have been worried about all of this, we have united.”

She and her neighbors in Ajusco are opposed to the development of “City of the Future,” a city government project where the government has identified the potential for urban development in certain neighborhoods and areas.

Zamora González says she and residents are worried that if their neighborhood becomes even more densely populated, it could strain services including water, garbage collection and street cleaning she says. Additionally, they fear property taxes could increase, she says.

The existence of neighborhood groups is due, in part, to the mistrust residents have for authorities and laws, Giglia Ciotta says.

At times, she says, laws are manipulated and ad hoc regulations are created to allow speculative real estate operations.

Citizens organize themselves when they can’t find other ways to defend their urban spaces, she says.

Martínez Flores, the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing official, says the government is open to dialogue with neighborhood groups, and says they have already had many meetings with different groups.

In September, a new city legislature took office and it is the third time in 18 years the governing party doesn’t have a majority. Martínez Fisher says the increased diversity of congress will allow for the creation of a more inclusive policy in urban development.

“There will be much more participation of urban collectives, not only from residential areas,” she says in a phone interview. “There will come a new period of movements and urban collectives that will pressure the assembly with greater effect, because now the assembly doesn’t have someone that dominates it.”

In the past months, neighborhood groups have increased their actions.

On August 25, neighborhood groups, including Suma Urbana, held a forum in which they presented 45 cases of illegal construction or where construction was affecting residents. They invited delegates and local deputies to hear their stories.

On October 27, they organized a “Day of Visual Health” outside the Administrative Verification Institute of Mexico City, which is in charge of reviewing irregularities in zoning permissions, to help the employees see irregular works that haven’t been sanctioned. It was a sarcastic way to denounce inaction by the institute, members of Vecinos Unidos say.

“What we are trying is that citizen participation is legally well-founded, with a different training and with a proposal, and that is what we have focused on,” Mac Gregor Anciola says.

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.