Mexico City Tackles Herculean Pollution, Population Pressures MEGA-CITIES. POINTS OF THE COMPASS

Article excerpt

SHROUDED in a chronic brownish smog. Crisscrossed by traffic-clogged streets. Ringed by slums and rarely seen snow-capped mountains. This proud, ancient metropolis - once a city of lakes and flower gardens built by the Aztecs 650 years ago - now suffers the indignity of extreme overpopulation and environmental decay.

The former lakes are covered by a sprawl of concrete, smoke-belching factories, and teeming humanity spread over roughly 800 square miles of mountain valley. With an official population of 15 million people (unofficially 18 million), Mexico City will see another 300,000 take up residence this year by birth or immigration. By the end of this decade, unofficial estimates have the population of this second largest city in the world (after Tokyo) swelling to as much as 25 million.

For years now, the assessment of Mexico City's future has been one of inevitable urban dysfunction. About 30 percent of the residents have no sewage system. Some historic buildings are literally sinking as water is pumped out of underground aquifers faster than it can be replaced. Many urbanists see Mexico City as a classic example of third-world growth gone haywire.

Others are slightly more sanguine. They note, for example, that unlike Los Angeles, Mexico has a well-developed, graffiti-free public transportation system used by 85 percent of the population.

Nonetheless, the overall impression is one of a city facing Herculean problems. This city administration, like every administration since the 1970s, claims it can tame the urban monster.

"At the end of the decade, Mexico City, instead of being a paradigm of urban disaster, will be seen as a city brought back from the brink of disaster, which reorganized to solve its worst problems," says Manuel Camacho Solis, the presidentially appointed mayor of the federal district that includes more than half the metropolitan population.

What lends credence to this boast is that - for the first time in a decade - there seems to be the political will and money to back it up. The Mexico City budget has doubled in the last five years and at 12.4 billion pesos ($4.1 billion) will be 10 percent higher in 1992 than the previous year. The city surplus, and federal sales of government-owned industries, are funding programs aimed at cleaning up pollution and poor areas. Private commercial investment is at its highest in 20 years.

"Mexico is in a period of transition similar to what's been seen in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia," says Jorge Gamboa de Buen, director of urban planning and environmental protection. "The traditional productive base has been the government, manufacturing industry, and services. We're in the process of becoming a city of services."

This process is aimed at breaking the development pattern set in motion by President Miguel Aleman in 1945. Aleman and succeeding Mexican presidents made the nation's capital the engine of economic growth - concentrating labor, industry, markets, and basic infrastructure in one place. Mexico chalked up impressive growth until the mid-'70s, and the city's industrialization concept was picked up throughout the developing world.

But the "big smoke" of heavy industry also attracted millions of peasants looking for work from all over this poor nation. …