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Mexico’s Pioneer Experiences in Participatory Planning

July 18, 2000 by Administrator in July/August 2000

By Gustavo Romero Fernšndez

In the early 1970s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to get involved in urban planning. They were invited to get involved because they weren’t “urban planning professionals” but technicians linked to the social processes of popular urban planning. From the beginning the fundamental aspect of NGO involvement was their participation, closeness, understanding and respect toward the social majorities — the poor and popular classes. Although social participation wasn’t required by law, and public officials and technicians didn’t think about it, diverse social groups that had relations with the NGOs were incorporated in this process.

In 1977 the Federal District of Mexico City established its first urban development law that allowed residents (as well as government) to propose local plans. A neighborhood association in one of the oldest downtown neighborhoods, with advice from the NGOs and from students and professors of the National Mexican University, presented their proposal. Government officials were so surprised they didn’t know what to do, and they never responded to it or allowed the approval process to proceed.

During the 1980s, especially in Mexico City and some cities in the northern part of the country, the organized urban popular movements developed. These groups fight for the rights to the city and housing and tend to have a left political orientation. After the earthquakes of 1985, these movements gained important strength and demanded participation in the formulation and management of housing and urban policies. They became serious critics of the government’s urban plans. In the late 1980s, environmental groups became active in the planning process.

There was also a conservative type of resistance to changes in middle and upper class neighborhoods, and where elderly people lived — a NIMBY (not in my back yard) reaction. A different kind of opposition came from the social movements and environmentalists who were opposed to the process and plans developed by professionals and supported by the authorities. These plans never took into account community participation and only asked for community input at the end because the law required them to do so.

In 1982, the same group of professors who worked on the 1977 plan in the Federal District prepared an urban development plan for an irregular settlement. The professors were members of NGOs and worked with their students. This project called for the setting aside of land for community facilities. In the early 1990s, other groups began to invade these areas. In order to defend their open spaces, and in an almost unique case in this type of settlement, they asked us, the technicians from the NGOs, to develop a proposal for an ecological urban project. This would begin with the original plan and designate an area as a “Controlled Development Zone” (ZEDEC), the term used in the urban development law at the time. Together with the community, and with no outside funding, we undertook the first urban proposal in Mexico with an ecological focus and with low-income groups through a broad participatory process. As an example of the extent of participation, the residents, with our technical support, completed a census of 100% of the 10,000 homes and 60,000 residents in the neighborhood. After an intense negotiation process it was approved by the government.

In 1997, the first democratic election of the Mexico City government took place in the Federal District. The winner was a left opposition party that opposed the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the state party that until this month was in power in Mexico for 70 years. The new city government proposed to implement selected urban development programs that were put together through participatory planning. The NGOs of the Habitat Mexico Coalition, together with the universities, were invited to take part – not the traditional planners who didn’t have experience with public participation or training for working with groups.

The Case of San Andres Totoltepec

Our institution, FOSOVI, was asked to take responsibility for planning a zone located on the southern edge of the city, where we had an eight-year old relationship with the community, which had asked us to be involved. San Andres Totoltepec is located along an exit from the highway to Acapulco, in a zone with a lot of competing demands for different uses. The area has rich vegetation and is part of an ecological preserve. At its center is a rural village with people who were originally peasant farmers and who want to maintain the traditions of the area. They are now confronted by new neighbors, both poor and upper-middle class, who see the area as only a place for housing.

We established as a matter of principle that we would help find a different way to analyze urban dynamics and to elaborate responses to the current challenges, looking for the relationships between urban space and the exercise of citizenship. The existing law establishes zoning restrictions and controls density and building occupancy. There are also plans for infrastructure and community facilities that should serve as the basis for the programming of public investments.

The most important part of the experience was the participation of the different social groups, which were actively incorporated from the beginning. Based on the consensus reached around the diagnosis, different options were discussed with the various actors, and the proposal was elaborated and presented for citizen consultation as required by law. The proposal is now up for discussion and approval by the Federal District Chamber of Representatives, the local legislative body.

There were 190 meetings with 35 different groups in the neighborhood during the elaboration of the program. We opened an office in the neighborhood which allowed us to be close to the population. The process was much more complex than we originally expected. Citizens, the various levels and bodies of government, and the NGO team were challenged to work together to find solutions and open paths in a new way with almost no precedence.

Challenges and Problems for Participation

The first problem is that the laws and programs are divided into different sectors – for example, housing, transportation, and education. Groups and citizens present their problems and demands in a more realistic and integrated way. We have proposed to government officials that there be comprehensive neighborhood development programs, but the officials themselves are divided sectorally.

Because of the extreme centralization in the government it is difficult to move forward clearly and smoothly. An enormous effort must be undertaken to improve governance. In the Anglo-Saxon world and among international institutions this is generally seen as a problem of efficiency and organization, while in Latin America we see it mainly as a political problem. Time is a point of conflict, given that political interests want planning to be kept short while these processes need to be built slowly with patience. This increases the expenses needed for the participation process.

Public participation is complicated by other issues. We have a highly differentiated society without a history of mutual respect. We have inherited a regime that had almost complete control over the groups which it traditionally manipulated. The space for discussion opened by participatory urban planning has become a safety valve for the voicing of other problems. This often obstructs and limits the possibility of undertaking or implementing plans and programs.

There are no comprehensive criteria for public participation. We prefer that participation be open and a mix between the formal-legal structure and free and improvised exchanges and debates. Our democracy and methods for social change need to grow and develop. But the most important challenge is to attract the interest of the people and public opinion in urban projects and to integrate them in the building and implementation of better proposals.


Gustavo Romero Fernšndez is a Senior Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Architect with the Fomento Solidario de la Vivienda, A.C., in Mexico.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

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