Posted by Pat Gordon
I just returned from two weeks in Mexico where, travelling with two colleagues from the PLUS Network, we visited three cities to participate in workshops, exchange ideas and learn from each other. (One of our partner cities, Colima, I have written about in a From the Front Lines piece on our website.) On the surface, the other two cities, Queretaro and Cuernavaca, had many similarities. Both had about the same population with metropolitan areas nearing 1 million persons. Both were facing high levels of growth as people sought primary residences or second homes away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Mexico City. However, the two cities have evolved into very different places and in our effort to understand the cities and to structure our workshops in a way that would best benefit the participants, I discovered some important lessons about which patterns were important and why.
Bob Miller, Pat Gordon, Gisela Mendes and Jane McRae (l-r) are interviewed by Colima media
In my last blog I proposed that I would follow up on two concepts that were linked to complexity theory. These are: recognizing patterns and communicating them through stories and; the possibility of the ‘co-evolution’ of sustainability planning and implementation (happening at the same time). Both of those concepts came to life on our Mexican odyssey.
Before visiting the two cities I had visited the oracles of Wikipedia and Google Earth and knew some of the history and statistics about the places. Useful, but nothing replaces personal experience. On our arrival in each place I noticed that our questions to our hosts took on a similar focus. Our natural instinct was first to look at maps and to understand the geography of the place (even in Mexico City we naively sought to find a simple map which we later discovered was a 200 + page book that covered the massive region containing 21 million inhabitants!) As planners and geographers is not surprising that we wanted to start with the physical characteristics (both natural and built) of the regions. Where were the mountains, plains and rivers and how did the built area function with its housing, roads, rail lines and employment areas? In conversation with local people, this is where you start to understand the infrastructure demands of an area and whether or not the needs for water, housing, energy and mobility were being met.
However, our questions quickly turned to the governance of the place. How many municipalities were there? Was there a metropolitan governance structure? What role did the state play in relation to the city? How was the political structure different than ours in Canada? If we were to communicate and exchange information that was of use to the workshop participants it was important at the minimum to identify the differences even if we did not have time to reflect on the impact of the differences. One key difference for Mexican municipalities is that their government is party political at the local level and another is that Mayor can serve for one, three year term only with the individual then rising in the party ranks or moving onto a position at the state level or out of government. Without getting into the strengths or weaknesses of different democratic process this was a pattern that became important in our discussions. The thrust of a 3 year term was that Mayors wanted to make their mark in what is a relatively short time frame when talking about sustainability and long range sustainability planning. As a result, the focus of most Mexican municipalities is projects and long range planning is not at the forefront of their work. So the question became: How do you ensure your short term projects (these were often substantial infrastructure projects such as bus rapid transit systems or water system upgrades) are sustainable – meeting the needs of citizens now and in the future?
Another pattern within governance that we observed during our time was that there was little or no structure to provide for decision making at the metropolitan level. This resulted in conflict and competing priorities between municipalities as mayors sought to fulfill their 3 year terms without a forum to decide on inter municipal needs. This is not uncommon in some regions of Canada. Our experience in Calgary was relevant. In Alberta, regional planning and governance was abolished in the mid 1990’s by the provincial government and during the decade of rapid growth that followed conflict between municipalities became commonplace. So our workshops focused on how best to start to build a collaborative culture between municipalities and the state in order to address some of the sustainable infrastructure requirements such as transit.
As we went through the workshops, it was surprising how much we had in common and that we could share our experiences. The important first step was to understand the patterns of the place so that we could make sense of how our knowledge and experience could fit with the knowledge and experience of the local people. We could not assume that we had any answers for these cities, only that, if we tried to see the patterns of the place and its people we could try to tell our stories in a way that built on common experience – common experience in places that are physically, culturally and socially so different.