« Back to Home Page

Sustainable City: Tijuana, Mexico

| Thursday June 26th, 2008 | 9 Comments

For many, the very mention of Tijuana conjures up images of debauchery, drunken 18-year olds, and Montezuma’s Revenge. What it might not conjure is a vision of sustainability. Especially when it’s in terms of tract housing developments. Yet Urbi, one of Mexico’s premiere housing developers, is attempting to create just that.
Working in concert with Conavi, Mexico’s equivalent of the National Department of Housing, Urbi’s Valle Las Palmas that was announced last year is planned as a satellite city with aspirations of being a completely self-sufficient community. “It’s practically a doctoral thesis,” said Evangelina Hirata, General Sub-director of Conavi, referring to the scale of the project, one that will create an independent, “ordered and sustainable” municipality for 1,000,000 inhabitants, complete with energy-independence, industry, and services. Though the developers intended to fill 10,000 homes as early as last October, the satellite city project isn’t envisioned to reach full completion until 2030.


During a recent “net-zero” energy week sponsored by Urbi and Conavi, in alliance with Natural Resources Canada, some of the sustainable attributes of the community’s design were highlighted. Located in a region with many energy problems, the development took energy as the highest concern. Taking advantage of government incentives for using renewable technologies, Urbi will be able to fund the massive project using both private and public funds. Houses will be outfitted with photovoltaic cells to generate their own electricity, and several wind energy systems will also be incorporated into the community.
“The impact of the social, economic, and environmental benefits are really incalculable,” said Robin Sinha, the sub-director of science and technology for the international projects and communities division of Natural Resources Canada. “The results of this test could mean a 50% energy savings for Mexican consumers.”
Though many within the Mexican government and groups like Natural Resources Canada are applauding this venture, there are others in the community who are not so elated. Embedding images of Edward Munch’s The Scream and the famous shower screen shot from Psycho, the culture blog D. Laber√≠ntico thinks this planned immense planned “utopia” will be an “architectonic failure of the same magnitude.” In addition to the design complaints of an entire city of tract homes, critics of the community on a forum on skyscrapercity.com indicted the community for being filled with upper-middle class level homes, which will largely be unaffordable for the majority of the people who live in that part of Tijuana.
In an area known for notoriously poor water quality, Urbi also plans to implement a water recycle system for Valle Las Palmas. Though planners mentioned looking into to the feasibility of an economic desalinization system, not much more was said about what the water recycling system would entail.
(Note: With the exception of Natural Resources Cananda, all links direct to websites in Spanish)


▼▼▼      9 Comments     ▼▼▼

Newsletter Signup
  • Susan

    Sustainable? Argh! Sustainability is not only about environmental considerations, but also the social and economic justice that is required to create truly sustainable urban ecosystems. Today, Tijuana is reknown for its violence, poverty and poor living and working conditions, and any pretty little green building will not change that. This post’s beginning evocation of stumblingly drunk North American students visiting the city distract from the point of sustainable living – Tijuana should not be developed as a more fun playground for rich white kids, but rather as a safe, vital and thriving community for its currently impoverished and disenfranchised residents.

  • Ashwin

    Susan, Thanks for your comment. You are totally right. Sustainability is a lot more than just saving on an energy bill, and your comment touches on a lot of the arguments people have against the development. To clarify, I don’t think Tijuana is necessarily being developed for partiers from across the border. In fact, those 10,000 homes that were slotted last October were targeted for local residents who were working in the nearby Toyota plant. I think what is interesting, though if they truly wanted to be “sustainable” they could have done a lot more, the planners took into account resource concerns during the planning process and sought to incorporate at least a few sustainable aspects to the design of the community.

  • Nick Aster

    Susan – I agree with Ashwin. The “party” part of TJ is about 6 blocks long. The rest is a gigantic city that has nothing to do with “white kids” and everything to do with one of the most important economic centers of Mexico (and indeed North America).
    I see nothing on the Urbi website that suggests it is marketed toward anything other than middle class Mexicans, otherwise it would be in English and be on the beach.
    I haven’t looked at it in great detail, but it seems like the sort of development that is very good for Mexico and combative of poverty and economic inequality as much as it may be environmentally ‘green’

  • Susan

    When I read the title of this post, I couldn’t help but think of other recent feature articles on the city (LA Times and USA Today both ran feature stories in the last month). Repeatedly residents of the city spoke of living in a state of fear due to the constant and unpredictable violence; Tijuana reports more kidnappings than any city in the world other than Baghdad. In the last 18 months, the Mexican government has dispatched 3,000 troops to the city to quell violence, occasionally leading to public gunfights with organized gangs.
    The wealthiest residents under constant guard and seclusion, the middle class departing for the U.S. for safety, and the poor … well, as poor as ever – how could this ever be a sustainable city? Certainly, there can be exciting and noteworthy green building projects in Tijuana and elsewhere, but they can’t mask underlying social and economic weaknesses that contribute to unsustainable lives for its residents – perhaps that’s the really story here.
    Coverage of Urbi is still welcomed, though, and it looks like an interesting project. The idea of an planned, contained eco-community of this scale seems challenging considering the current widespread furor over plans for 10 ecotowns in the UK…

    • kaptn

      You people don't know jack shit about Tijuana, 3000 US. soldiers deployed to the city of Tijuana really?? I live in Tijuana and I have never seen an American soldier here other than in Rosarito getting pissed drunk. We are not living in fear and all the streets are filled with drug dealers and crime lords. Stop reading L.A. Times or USA Today does media outlets are filled with lies. I bet you have never been to Tijuana or Baghdad Idiot. You are just another dumb white American that sees the world thru the eyes of a television camera. This article is not trying to mask anything, its just saying what Urbi is trying to do.

  • Nick Aster

    Thanks Susan, I think your point is well taken. I went to TJ a few months ago and was pleasantly surprised in my wanderings that it wasn’t a lot unlike many other Mexican cities I’ve visited, clearly having problems, but generally seemed quite prosperous. granted, I was there during the day and didn’t wander into the rough parts.
    The consensus I’ve read is that there is a thriving middle class in Tj, outside the drug cartels, due to the maquiladoras and other cross-border trade that has all the potential to turn the city around. But obviously, the US demand for Cocaine remains the principal problem…

  • Erik Aranda

    Nick & Susan, typical American bullying: if we do, bad, if we don’t, bad as well. The project is an EXCELLENT effort from Mexico to improve employment, housing, the environment and social equality. We do not need your smart pesimistic comments. If you do not like Mexico and especially Tijuana, DO NOT COME.

  • Erik Aranda

    Nick & Susan, typical American bullying: if we do, bad, if we don’t, bad as well. The project is an EXCELLENT effort from Mexico to improve employment, housing, the environment and social equality. We do not need your smart pesimistic comments. If you do not like Mexico and especially Tijuana, DO NOT COME.

  • kaptn

    You people don't know jack shit about Tijuana, 3000 US. soldiers deployed to the city of Tijuana really?? I live in Tijuana and I have never seen an American soldier here other than in Rosarito getting pissed drunk. We are not living in fear and all the streets are filled with drug dealers and crime lords. Stop reading L.A. Times or USA Today does media outlets are filled with lies. I bet you have never been to Tijuana or Baghdad Idiot. You are just another dumb white American that sees the world thru the eyes of a television camera. This article is not trying to mask anything, its just saying what Urbi is trying to do.