Dirt and beauty in Mexico City – and why EU should care about the the dirty parts

Christmas in Mexico is quite something. Instead of listening to Norwegian choir boys and watching the white landscape, which I normally do, we listened to an incredible loud parrot and watched neon lit palms in the mild evening breeze.

The occasion was a family wedding in Mexico city, and what better excuse to visit one of the world’s largest cities?

Officially, greater Mexico City has a population of about 19 million people (about 107 million in Mexico), while the estimated Metropolitan area has about 23,8 million people. Anyway – the numbers are neck breaking, no matter how you meassure the city. And when standing in one of the streets in Mexico City, it seems and smells like every one of those 23,8 million people are driving a car. What a horrible traffic! A friend of mine lives in Moscow and he says the traffic there is bad, but I can’t imagine it beats Mexico City. According to a local radio program, Mexicans spend 15 years of their lives in the car. Crossing the city on a bad day can easily take you three hours. Beat that one!

“I love the chaos of the city”, said one Mexican guy I talked to. “Driving in Mexico City feels like car racing, the best place to drive”,  said another Mexican guy who lived in Detroit, but who was back home for the holiday. Apparently, they are not alone in appreciating the chaos.

The authorities in the city has introduced “Hoy no circular” or One Day Without a Car to reduce the numbers of cars in the city on a ordinary day (like the Chinese authorities did in Beijing before and during the Olympics). The idea is that on ex. Mondays, cars with license plates that ends on 5 or 6 or has a yellow sticker, are not allow to drive. But Mexicans knows how to surpass such rules. Our friends had four cars and could drive whenever they wanted to.

A quote from this AP article gives you some more perspectives:

Mexico City and its sprawling suburbs swelled from 3 million people in 1950 to more than 20 million today, making it the world’s second-biggest urban area after Tokyo. Economic growth kept pace, boosting energy consumption and flooding the roads with more than 4 million vehicles.

Traffic is so clogged that average speeds have dipped to 13 mph (21 kph), the Environment Department says. Even with today’s cleaner cars, experts agree that 70 to 80 percent of emissions are vehicle-related.

The few bikers I saw used masks, and even though there are plenty of jump-on-jump-off buses and a metro system, most people prefer to use their cars. The government (which is also in a horrific war with the Mexican narco cartels, but that’s another story). I didn’t use the metro myself, but our friends told us that the metro had separate cars for women and children in order to save them from sexual harassment and squishing. Depressing!

But why am I talking about Mexico City, pollution and EU in the same sentence? Because environmental problems probably are the most global and interconnected issues we are dealing with these days (ok, financial crisis also). Sitting in a hotel taxi (we didn’t take ordinary taxis, because stolen and illegal taxis are very common in the city), driving down a super highway that reminded me about places I’ve seen in Los Angeles, it struck me that the problems in Mexico City are so enormous that this is not only a concern for the Mexicans, but also for Europeans, Americans and others.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman writes about “America’s carbon copies” in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded – about how cities like Doha (Quatar), Dalian (China), Calcutta (India), Casablanca (Marroco) and Cairo (Egypt) are copying American sprawl, the (often uncontrolled) spreading of the city. Sprawl is acute in Mexico City!

Friedland has a good quote: “(I) turned to my Chinese hosts and said, ‘Oh my God, you’ve copied us – why have you copied us?”

Mexico City has also copied American consumer culture, buildings, transportation pattern. But Friedland argues that China and others can adopt a different approach, but that Americans have to show them the way to the “green revolution”.

Or the EU. Or someone else. In order to acchive anything in Copenhagen Dec 2009, EU can not only focus on what the member countries will do, but also has to look at environmental developments going on in India, China, Brazil – and Mexico. Exchange of techonology, ideas for new ways of organzing public transportation, city planning, water – and sewage, alternative energy resources. Those are just some of the issues that are not only of concern for people in Mexico, but also for us on the other side of the Atlantic.

Well, besides from that, Mexico was fantastic. Really!

Photos: Bente Kalsnes

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