Tue, Jul 31, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Mayor working to change Mexico City into fun place

CHANGE OF IMAGE The mayor has imposed stricter traffic rules, installed more security cameras and built urban beaches in an effort to build a healthier city


People enjoy themselves in a public pool in Mexico City on Saturday. Since taking office last December, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has imposed a number of measures, such as tougher traffic rules to increase respect for pedestrians and installing security cameras in high-crime neighborhoods, as part of efforts to transform the city into a healthier and more livable area.


The mayor of crime-ridden, earthquake-prone and smog-choked Mexico City is trying to do what some might consider impossible: transform his megalopolis into a place that's more healthy, livable and even -- he's daring to say it -- "fun."

With nearly 20 million souls crowding into the metropolitan area, and more than 4 million drivers speeding daily down potholed streets, Mexico City defines "chaotic."

It's notorious for "express kidnappings," whose victims are forced to drain their bank accounts from automated tellers at gunpoint. Millions live in cement hovels with little running water. At times, the city itself seems hostile to human life -- one sinkhole recently swallowed a young man, along with a car and a building's facade.

Since assuming office last December, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has imposed tougher traffic rules to increase respect for pedestrians, installed security cameras in high-crime neighborhoods and required city staffers to ride their bicycles to work once a month.

He even invited climate change activist Al Gore to lecture to city residents this week.

The city also trucked in sand to build "urban beaches" at seven public pools, put on outdoor movies and inaugurated "bicycle Sundays," when thousands of cyclists, skaters and pedestrians take over the main avenues.

Ebrard's goal is nothing short of transforming the city into Latin America's latest model of urban renewal. The big idea behind these relatively inexpensive measures is that by encouraging happiness, rather than solely economic growth, he just might change residents' image of their city -- and themselves.

"For us, it's important to continue promoting healthy living, and that means taking back public spaces to create a safe, better city," Ebrard explains.

Small things can make a big difference, said Jorge Melindez, 41, who brought his three children to pedal down normally congested Reforma Avenue.

"It's so stressful living here and this gives us a break after screaming at cars all week," Melindez said. "This doesn't take time away from confronting the problems. In fact, it helps so we can confront them."

Ebrard, 47, a former police chief, is following the example of Bogota, Colombia, where Enrique Penalosa built bike paths, closed thoroughfares to cars on Sundays and kept vehicles from parking on sidewalks. Penalosa's efforts softened life's edges in Bogota, another kidnapping-plagued Latin American capital.

"Fun City" may even restore the popularity of Ebrard's battered Democratic Revolutionary Party, whose losing presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, alienated supporters with protests that clogged the city for months.

Ebrard is considered more mainstream and a potential 2012 presidential contender, and he's getting recognition internationally as well: The World Bank lauded his efforts to reduce emissions and handed over a check for US$168,150 toward 300km of bike lanes.

But only time will tell if his plans can transform Mexico City; riding a bike remains an act of courage during the week, since few vehicles respect bike lanes.

Then there are the sinkholes -- the city is using cement in hopes of plugging at least 200 fissures that made some streets impassable. Civil Defense Secretary Elias Moreno blames the triple threat of earthquakes, groundwater extraction and torrential rains that weaken the shaky ground under the city, much of which was built on a lake bed.

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