Community, Right to the City, Water Management

The push for better water management in Mexico City – One rainwater capture system at a time

An interview with Enrique Lomnitz, General Director of Isla Urbana


Last year, I had the privilege of gaining insights from industry experts about what the new planning institute in Mexico City should look like (which is in the process of legislation). I met and interviewed architects, civil society organizations, developers, planning entities, academics, and many others. Their invaluable feedback informed two manuals my team and I created for World Resources Institute, Mexico City, which you can read more about in this blog post: A new planning paradigm for Mexico City: Opportunities for meaningful public participation.

So much content was developed in the making of the manuals, including several interview transcriptions, that I decided to post them and share them with you all. Now that I have graduated and took some time for myself (traveling home to California, reading for pleasure, enjoying NYC over the holidays), I finally have the time to clean up and share some of the ones I found to be most fascinating. I wound it down to three interviews, and this post is the pilot of a 3-part mini-series about issues of urban planning and equitable development in Mexico City.


lomnitzI decided to kick-start this mini-series with perhaps my most invigorating interview. Enrique Lomnitz is the General Director and Founder of Isla Urbana, a not-for-profit based out of Coyacan, a colorful town in Mexico City, that builds rainwater capture systems for households that are disconnected from the city’s main water network. I have done my best to fact-check claims in the transcription where I could; however, due to the richness of Enrique’s expertise of integrated water management and the water crisis in Mexico City, he didn’t leave me with much to do. I mainly focused on the flow of the content.

By pure stream of consciousness Enrique imparted profound knowledge and information about the water crisis in Mexico City in our interview. His passion was infectious, as is expected from someone who dedicates their entire life’s work to a higher cause.

After a couple hours of talking with Enrique, it became abundantly clear to me that water is a multi-faceted and complicated issue for Mexico City, and the country of Mexico at large. It was a lot to absorb, but I hope the transcription resonates with you as much as it did for me.

I hope you enjoy reading this post almost as much as I enjoyed learning from Enrique and assembling all the pieces. Wherever you are in world, as always, happy reading!noun_766494-1

Why is Mexico City in a water crisis?

The water crisis in Mexico City is characterized by multiple factors. There is a huge water deficit between recharge and use, even if there is no deficit of precipitation and use. Furthermore, solutions proposed by the Water Commission, such as digging deep wells and building more sewage canals, are inefficient, and ultimately unsustainable.

Over 250 thousand people lack access to running water in Mexico City. Why are so many people disconnected from the main water network?

Mexico City experienced exponential urbanization and population growth over the course of the 20th Century. Within the century, the population rose from 1.5 million to over 20 million. One of the main ways Mexico City absorbed this growth was through informal processes of buying and developing land purchased from the Ejiditarios or “townies.” Title transfers were hand-written on sheets of paper, and often-times townies wouldn’t extend resources and infrastructure to “newcomers.” In the case of Xochimilco and Ajusco – towns, or delegations as they are called in Mexico City – the Ejiditarios still have a pretty significant amount of control over things like water management. No government authority can legally mandate that they extend this infrastructure to newcomers.

Many people have settled on conservation land, too. It’s problematic granting them access to running water because that land is protected and cannot be developed, including the necessary piping for fresh water.

Rapid population growth and the lack of formal planning has resulted in development occurring organically, and has cultivated a self-building culture that has resulted in poorly designed infrastructure, such as transportation systems and housing developments in areas that should never have been developed.

“In the end, you end up with these complicated contexts where the infrastructure and the neighborhoods were not planned together, and people are left without necessary resources, like water.”

What entity is in charge of water management and coordination in Mexico City?

No commission has overall jurisdiction of water in the city. So, water management is very fragmented.

Here are the players:

Federal level water management – The trans-watershed system supplies the bulk of water resources from other basins in the State of Mexico and Michoacan through the National Water Commission Conagua. This system accounts for about 30-35% of the water demand in Mexico City.

Mexico City water management –  The municipal water utility of Mexico City is Sistema de Aguas de la Ciudad de México (SACM, or SacMEX), and is responsible for water supply and sanitation in the Federal District. Its head is appointed by the government of the District.

Delegation-level water management – Occurs on a project-by-project basis, and are not connected to the larger system of water management in the City. They coordinate Pipa subsidies and fleets.

Los Pipas (water trucks) – Deliver water to some of the delegations. Many are private companies or people who own trucks. Local governments pay the delegations, the delegations pay the Pipas who deliver the water to people. People pay the Pipas for the service, as well. There is no fixed tariff for this. In short, this system is very corrupt.

Considering so many different entities are involved in water management provision in Mexico City, I presume the situation is politically charged and there are several complications and inequities. Is that right? 

Yes, that is right. There are major divisions between the local delegations, the Mexico City government, and the central government, especially given the competition between political parties. Polarizing politics have impacted the water situation because the city has, in some cases, resorted to sabotage, granting budgets to delegations within their political party, while withholding budgets from delegations of opposing parties. 

It used to be (for the last 18 years or so) that the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) controlled all the layers of government. Now there is a blood bath between PRD and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). MORENA took over a big swath of delegations, and PRD still has a stronghold on the central government and several delegations. This has led to a lot of sabotage over the past 2-3 years. For instance, delegations like Xochimilco and Tlalpan are not receiving their budgets from the central authority in order to stop the growth of this competing political party.

instalation school_puebla_ mexico_2017_credit nabani vera

Isla Urbana has supplied nearly 10,000 families in Mexico City with running water by building and installing rain water capture systems in individual homes. Where in the City does Isla Urbana work? In which delegations? And how difficult is it to perform the work given the political and financial challenges you’ve mentioned?

Isla Urbana’s main client is local government because our organization provides a solution that makes a lot of sense for them. Local governments are able to get around water infrastructure limitations and it saves them – and households – money. Due to institutional red-tape, most of the funding Isla Urbana receives from local governments has nothing to do with water. Resources come from some other obscure line items in the delegation’s budget, like social development funds. By paying for rain water capture systems through these obscure funds, delegations avoid directly competing with any other authority – Conagua at the national level and SacMEX at the Federal District level – for water development funds. In turn, investments in rainwater capture systems don’t appear directly on their books.

We predominantly work in the two delegations I mentioned: Tlalpan and Xochimilco. It is difficult to work in these areas because we have to contend with a lot of challenges: the lack of urban planning, no direct water management funding, geographical obstacles (i.e. high elevation), informal settlements and poverty, as well as competing authorities. Tlalpan in particular is a challenge because service provision is obfuscated by the Ejidos.

isla urbana

You mentioned the Ejiditarios and the Ejidos earlier. Could you explain what those are and how they are involved?

Most of Mexico is either arranged in Ejidos or Comunas, which are big territories mainly consisting of farmland that belong to the town or community itself. The Ejiditarios is the name for the owner of that land.

The Ejidos became the main land reform system as a direct result of the Mexican Revolution (in the early 20th century). After the Revolution, land was expropriated from the plantations, from the church, and from the federal government and given directly to the communities. These territories can be allotted and inherited, but not bought or sold (the law changed in 1991, but there are a lot of limitations and restrictions). However, rights can be ceded by the Ejidos.

Over time, they have produced very low-income and/or indigenous communities because they disrupt the social function of land. Ultimately, they reduce the capacity of the city to provide public services since the city has little jurisdiction over these areas. The government doesn’t really expropriate Ejido land.

Could you explain further about how did Ejidos contribute to the rise in informal settlements in Mexico City?

Ejidos take up a significant amount of land in Mexico City, or at least they did. Most of the problem was in the 1980s and 1990s when populated explosion came into conflict with this system. The Ejido system was established in the early 1920s when the population was much lower, around 1-2 million. When population increased, there was all this land that wasn’t private property so you couldn’t buy or sell it, yet there was a need to buy and sell the land. As a result, there were informal settlements.

One of the main ways Mexico City grew was through these informal processes of buying and developing land purchased from the Ejiditarios. Property deeds were hand-written on note paper, that’s how bad it was. When a big enough chunk of the property was developed, the community would vote for the re-designation of land and attempt to obtain legal property rights.

Essentially, in the case of Mexico City, and all over Mexico, urbanization was happening before planning. In general, land is not slated for development before anything is built. Normally, the state has control over zoning, density, etc., such as in the United States. But this process is backwards here. Development happens organically and maintains a self-building culture, which I support. But this results in poorly designed infrastructure, such as transportation systems and housing in areas that should not have been developed. In the end, you end up with these complicated contexts where the infrastructure and the neighborhoods were not planned together.

So, you think the Ejido system is bad for residents of the city.

The Comuna and Ejido systems are outdated, but have their positive sides that a lot of people like. But reality speaks for itself. These systems create towns where a very small percentage of the population have rights and authority to make decisions, and the rest of the population does not. There is nothing good about that.

When the Ejidos have control, there are massive amounts of people not connected to the grid. Tlalpan has the largest number of people not connected to the grid, or about 80,000-85,000 people, yet it is the most water-rich part of the city. The situation is similar for Xochimilco. Xochimilco and Tlalpan are the most water-rich areas of the city naturally, but they suffer from water scarcity due to these political and jurisdictional management problems, as well as the property rights issues already mentioned.

To further complicate things, there are a lot of micro-cultural differences in Mexico City, which can be quite pronounced, even between neighborhoods. For instance, Xochimilco and Ajusco, which are right next to each other, are very different culturally. Major cultural differences within and between these different neighborhoods prevent coexistence and cohesion.

You mentioned earlier about people settling on conservation land. How do they get access to water if government programs refuse to establish the necessary infrastructure? Are there larger legal implications for not providing them with water? How is the city being held accountable?

Refusing to supply water to citizens comes into conflict with the constitutional right to water. As a compromise, the government subsidizes (at both the local delegation and city levels) water trucks – Pipas – to deliver water to the people settling in conservation areas and other informal settlements.

“There is no real way to realize the human right to water in Mexico City. Not really. The forces that have the authority to build the infrastructure – SEDUVI, SacMEX, Medio Ambiente – won’t. But the delegations face a tighter bind. They have to deal with these places in a much more direct way. If it were up to the delegations, they would probably give settlers access to water infrastructure, but they don’t typically build this type of infrastructure. So, the delegation in some cases will subsidize the cost of the water delivered from the Pipas. So, all these people are reliant on water trucks and extractive forms of water supply.”

Could you explain more about how the Pipas work? Who are driving the trucks?

There are three general schemes: delegation-owned fleet, private contractors who are on permanent contract with the delegation, or ad hoc truck owners. Some are large companies (10-20 trucks), but many have one. The Pipa system is massively corrupt. No one will give you good information on the Pipas.

But that’s just how it is. Just because something is written into Mexican law, doesn’t mean there are mechanisms to enforce it. Mexico is a really weak state, and it is a very non-monolithic state. Branches of government are sometimes actively trying to undermine or sabotage each other. This results in a very absurd situation.

Tlalpan, for example, spent about $100,000,000 Mexican pesos (approximately $5.3 million USD) subsidizing Pipas, which is an insane amount of money.

How expensive would it be to formalize the water supply?

Depends over what time period. You could probably connect everyone to the water grid for the same cost as subsiding the Pipas over a two year period, and then it would cost very little from then onward.

Is Isla Urbana in direct competition with the Pipas in providing water at the household level?

Because we operate at a more gradual, incremental process, it really helps. The Pipa drivers and proponents don’t react the same way as they would if we operated at a much larger scale.  

Let’s get back to the water crisis itself. Is there simply enough water for everyone in Mexico City?

At the macro level, the amount of water exceeds consumption. Rainwater is more than replenishing the watershed than the amount consumed. The design of the watershed is the issue; the vast majority of the water leaves the watershed. About 10-11 percent of rainwater goes into the aquifer, the rest either evaporates or goes into the sewage system. The sewage system pumps the water out of the aquifer.

The biggest problem is that recharge areas have been severely reduced. Recharge happens in the south of the city, but that area has been urbanized informally, and no one was able to stop it. So, you have reduced recharge areas and damages to forests, which causes more inefficient recharge.

Also, the initial decision to drain the valley is perhaps the main factor to the problem of water scarcity because all of the water that falls into the valley goes straight into the sewage system.

There is a huge water deficit between recharge and use, even if there is no deficit of precipitation and use. There needs to be a better balance between recharge and use. It would be ideal if recharge could exceed extraction, even if by a little bit. If there is a 50 percent loss in the grid, then you would need a 150 percent recharge rate to sufficiently supply water and the watershed level can be maintained. We are very far from that balance.

I imagine Isla Urbana helps restore that balance between recharge and use. 

Yes, Isla Urbana slowly shifts the city to a system that is more balanced because it reduces the need to extract water and helps households live self-sufficiently.

The vision is if you start layering sustainable practices onto the city, including rainwater capture systems, you slowly begin to achieve a bunch of things:

  • Reduce the need for extraction to supply a certain area
  • Increase resilience so families/neighborhoods are less dependent on Pipas and extraction systems to supply water
  • Reduce the severity of episodic water stress
  • Start to make fundamental changes to the vision of water use within the city, and transition away from a fully centralized system where people are passive consumers to a vision that is more decentralized, provides more agency on part of the population, and begins to break the monopoly of the conventional water system, which fails a huge portion of the population

Is the city making strides towards more sustainable practices of water management systems? 

Today, water management is very reactive. Even in planning, the current system resorts to building more sewage lines that drain the water out of Mexico City. They drain groundwater, as well. They build these sewage lines due to issues with flooding. There are parts of the city (i.e. downtown) that sink 40 cm per year.

How would you plan the water management system if you worked for the government?

There needs to be an integration of projects, which are not taken seriously by the water commission. Solutions like rainwater harvesting systems for specific parts of the city (like Tlalpan) would cost half of what it costs to deliver water through the Pipas.

Some are talking about refilling the Texcoco Lake to use it as a new watershed, but the water commission isn’t considering this project. Civil society takes this project seriously, but not the government. There is this guy who has plans for protecting the forests, others are wanting to clean the water. Currently, rainwater harvesting is still very much a private endeavor at the household level. These projects need to be scaled up.

Yet, the Water Commission is always working on relic, grandiose engineering projects, such as building additional, deeper sewers. They are hard to move. The big projects for the water commission right now are the deep wells and new sewage canal. The water commission found fossil water 2,000 m below ground of very poor quality and with no recharge value (it fell millions of years ago). The government wants to pump this water from 2,000 m below ground and proposes this as a viable solution to the water problem in Mexico City. But eventually you run out of this water, and you’ve spent billions of pesos over several decades. This type of water infrastructure project just kicks the can down the road, it doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems of water scarcity.

The last major drainage tunnel the water commission installed is Grand Canal Profundo (or the Grand Canal), which is a sewage canal 80 meters below ground. The geography allowed for a 0.5 percent grade, which is not enough for a wastewater system – it should have a 4 percent grade at least. The last stage of the project, which took place before inauguration, was to build these four big pumping stations so the water could be pumped out of the watershed. But by the time the project finished, the city had sunk below the drainage canal, which caused a reverse grade inside the tunnel. This is the fourth time this has happened – when a huge drainage canal ends up higher than the city. And it will happen again.

“If I worked for the government, I would integrate these projects, take them seriously, and move towards a more sustainable system. I would build-up these programs. But I wouldn’t shut down the current system. The Systema Cutzamala cannot be shut down; it provides 30 percent of the city’s water. People are too reliant on it. I would build up these parallel systems that help keep water in the watershed to reduce dependence. I would focus on harvesting water, increasing recharge areas, and reforestation, and I would implement projects that would reduce the amount of water that ends up in the sewer.”

Change will have to be a multi-generational effort – 50 to 70 years. I would do everything I could do to increase the retention of rainwater within the watershed, decrease how much is expelled, and close loops – treat water and put it back in. Less than 10 percent of the rainwater is treated and put back into the system. None of these things are particularly complicated, they just need to be taken seriously.

What about at the policy level. Is the issue more with policy development or implementation of water policy?

I lack faith in the legal process. The process of writing water laws into the Constitution have involved a lot of civil society. I have been involved in writing them. However, the city’s water problems aren’t due to bad policy or bad laws. They are pretty good. The problem in Mexico City is implementing them and turning them into action. The machine is broken there: executing laws.

Examples of policy inaction:

  • Water should be returned to the environment in the same or better condition than when you got it, yet the city pours all of its raw sewage into a river.
  • People have a universal right to water, yet 12 million people in the country have no access to water systems.

It’s not that there isn’t money to do these things. Mexico has plenty of money to implement public projects. There is a lack of respect for the law. Mexico City is a weak state. We don’t have a functioning government.

We should replace people in government and have independent people – not career, party politicians – run for office. There is no excuse for that in this city. There is a monopoly.

Civil society should take over delegations directly, that’s where this road ends.

There a lot of autonomy movements – Michoacan has a lot of these areas where the government isn’t welcome, and they run the regions themselves. Some of these are run well, but some are not. Even still, they are no worse off than they were before.

There is a real possibility that Mexico might have a lot of autonomous regions, which might be a logical move. Mexico consists of regions of people that have nothing to do with one another.

Mexico won’t be a strong country for a long time. Meanwhile, it has an enormous capacity to absorb crises and it is very resilient.

If you could envision a sustainable model for water management in Mexico City, what would that model look like?

Envisioning a more sustainable and resilient water management model for Mexico City means pushing the envelope of water management practices today. Moving towards water sustainability includes solutions that reduce the need for extraction, increase the resilience of neighborhoods and families, so they are less dependent on extraction systems to supply water, and reduce the severity of episodic water stress.

milpa alta conalep_mexico city_ credit_isla urbana(8)

I really wanted to get into the people’s role in all of this. Do citizens have access to formal channels for verbalizing their concerns about their living conditions and lack of access to water?

I believe in returning agency to citizens in a very direct, local way, which is why I install rainwater capture systems at the local household level.

Amongst the people, there is a strong sense of not having that much power as citizens. It’s a weird duality. Citizenry of Mexico have a certain level of power that citizenry of the United States don’t have. For instance, the ability to build their own land and lay the streets themselves, deciding where schools will go, etc.

On very local levels, people display a tremendous amount of agency and power. But on these large things that require coordination and organization, there are few mechanisms for citizens to get involved.

“People have a high tolerance for the desmadre (chaos). Oftentimes, I feel like rather than standing up and yelling, “This is crazy! Let’s form a citizen’s committee and solve this!’ People laugh in this crazy, uncomfortable way, recognizing they are in this absurd theater. We laugh about it, kind of. In many ways Mexico City is a theater of the absurd, but with tremendous grit, tremendous resilience, and tremendous beauty, and tremendous capacity to laugh, which is really great. There is this capacity to be alright.”

Also, an important factor is that education levels are low amongst the population of Mexico City – most people are fairly illiterate. There are people working 12 hours a day just to get by. People are capable of living with things they shouldn’t, but they do.

hidalgo_mexico_credit_camaroni producciones

In conclusion, what would you say is the way forward?

Collectively, civil society has done a lot to move opinion about water management practices. Isla Urbana has gained traction because we work incrementally, and generate impact with very little resources and support. We have installed 7,000 rainwater harvesting systems in the city, and plan to hit our target of 10,000 systems soon.

After the earthquake in September 2017, there was a boom in demand for rainwater capture systems, and Isla Urbana gained attention of the delegations. Even still, it’s a slow, gradual process.

“It’s hard to do something quickly when it comes to changing huge systems like water management in a city like Mexico City. It requires a lot of money, there are a lot of mafias and corruption. So, change is slow in Silicon Valley terms, but it’s not so slow in terms of cities. Mexico City has been in this mess for 400 years, it won’t be able to get out of it in 10 years. We need to dig ourselves out of this hole by building acceptance of viable alternatives. It starts with changing who is in office and implementing small-scale projects run by CSOs.”

Isla Urbana has a good relationship with the delegate from Tlaplan, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, who is running for mayor.* She has worked with Isla Urbana for three years on rainwater capture systems in the delegation. If  Sheinbaum wins, she wants us on her Water Advisory Board. It could happen, it could not.

So, it could be that a new mayor wants 100,000 rainwater harvesting systems in Mexico City, but it could also be that this doesn’t happen. At the end of the day, I remain optimistic. noun_766494-1

*Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo won the mayorship and was sworn into office in November 2018

Additional resources:

Feature image credit: Community Hands, World Design Organization, 2018

Image credit in order of appearance: Enrique Lomnitz, MIT Technology Review; Installation School, Nabani Vera, Mexico, 2017; Isla Urbana House Installation, World Design Organization, 2018; CONALEP, Mexico City, Isla Urbana; Isla Urbana House Installation, Hidalgo, Mexico, Camaroni Producciones

Community, Immigration, Right to the City

My Visual Portfolio

Here’s a preview of my visual portfolio!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To see the full portfolio please download by clicking on the following link: Jordan’s visual portfolio

Want to collaborate?

Need a new team member? Want to know more? Are you in the Greater NYC area and would like to meet up for coffee? Let’s link up!

Use the below contact form to send me an email and I’d be happy to meet you and see how our interests collide! noun_766494-1

Community, Right to the City

“Shaping urbanization for children”: A handbook for planners – created with UNICEF

I had the honor of working with Jens Aerts, an Urban Planning Specialist at UNICEF, to create a handbook for urban planners to better plan cities for and with children. The general idea is that if cities are planned with children in mind, the most vulnerable population, then cities are made safer for all, and more conducive for a more productive, healthier, and enjoyable life. Below is an introduction to the handbook, its purpose, a list of the 10 guiding principles for children’s rights and urban planning, as well as the essential “Why, What, How” to plan cities for children.

November 26, 2018 UPDATE: If you are in the United States, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving with family and friends. Today is Cyber Monday, and I am pleased to announce that the handbook is now available online on the UNICEF website, and as always, it’s free to download! Please click on the link below to download your very own copy. Enjoy, and happy readying!

August 29th, 2018 UPDATE: Unfortunately, the handbook has not officially launched yet to the UNICEF website. Below is a brief description of the handbook. Stay tuned for the official launch! noun_766494-1

Image credit: UNICEF/UNI123447/Pirozzi

Purpose of the Handbook

Shaping urbanization for children, a handbook on child-responsive urban planning, presents concepts, evidence and technical strategies to bring children to the foreground of urban planning. By focusing on children, this publication provides guidance on the central role that urban planning should play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from a global perspective to a local context, by creating thriving and equitable cities where children live in healthy, safe, inclusive, green and prosperous communities.

The handbook aims to inspire everyone involved in planning, designing, transforming, building and managing the built environment:

  • Urban planning professionals that use different tools in spatial planning and stakeholder engagement on a daily basis to help shape the built environment;
  • City governments that are responsible for city development and management decisions;
  • Private sector, such as developers, investors, service providers and technology companies that build the large majority of urban infrastructure;
  • Civil society organizations that support local communities in raising their voices to define which spaces, services and land are needed.


The 10 Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles

The handbook is structured along 10 Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles that cities should commit to so they will not only support children’s development, but thrive as homes for future generations:

Principle 1: Investments – Respect children’s rights and invest in child-responsive urban planning that ensures a safe and clean environment for children and involves children’s participation in area-based interventions, stakeholder engagement and evidence-based decision making, securing children’s health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity, from early childhood to adolescent life.

Principle 2: Housing and Land Tenure – Provide affordable and adequate housing and secure land tenure for children and the community, where they feel safe and secure, to live, to sleep, to play and to learn.

Principle 3: Public Amenities – Provide infrastructure for health, educational and social services for children and the community, which they have access to, to thrive and to develop life skills.

Principle 4: Public Spaces – Provide safe and inclusive public and green spaces for children and the community, where they can meet and engage in outdoor activities.

Principle 5: Transportation Systems – Develop active transportation and public transit systems and ensure independent mobility for children and the community, so they have equal and safe access to all services and opportunities in their city.

Principle 6: Integrated Water and Sanitation Management Systems – Develop safely managed water and sanitation services and ensure an Integrated Urban Water Management system for children and the community, so they have adequate and equitable access to safe and affordable water, sanitation and hygiene.

Principle 7: Food Systems – Develop a food system with farms, markets and vendors, so children and the community have permanent access to healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food and nutrition.

Principle 8: Waste Cycle Systems – Develop a zero waste system and ensure sustainable resource management, so children and the community can thrive in a safe and clean environment.

Principle 9: Energy Networks – Integrate clean energy networks and ensure reliable access to power, so children and the community have access to all urban services day and night.

Principle 10: Data and ICT Networks – Integrate data and ICT networks and ensure digital connectivity for children and the community, to universally accessible, affordable, safe and reliable information and communication.

The “Why, What, How” to plan cities for children

The handbook answers three questions:

  1. Why planning cities for children matters, collecting the evidence on the urban specific vulnerabilities of the most disadvantaged children and explaining how urban planning can support urban programmes for children.
  2. What to plan for children, based on the 10 principles and resulting in sustainable and children’s rights-based urban places, systems and networks that ensure children’s health, safety, citizenship, environmental sustainability and prosperity, from early childhood to adolescent life.
  3. How to plan for children, reviewing urban planning tools and practice that illustrates how cities can be planned to be child-responsive, building on three potential strengths of urban planning: to provide space for children, to include children in the process of change and to develop urban policy that is based on child-specific evidence.

Within the handbook there is a central place reserved for a checklist Children’s Rights and Urban Planning Principles that allows every stakeholder to quickly evaluate what can be done to take up responsibilities and improve the situation of children, respecting capacities and resources. The checklist takes a central place in the handbook, providing the main reference for starting, monitoring and evaluating investments of every stakeholder involved in child-responsive urban planning, in the short-term, mid-term and long-term. noun_766494-1


Community, Right to the City

Community, art, and placemaking: The incomplete transformation of The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery

“Give some of the streetscape back to the pedestrians”

– William H. Whyte


In the book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte (1980) foresees the increasing need for cities to seek opportunities for placemaking in small spaces. The Bushwick Collective is an outdoor street gallery that runs mainly along Troutman Street between Wyckoff and Cypress avenues in Bushwick, Brooklyn. If you’ve never been there, it is an extremely small space but it is an exemplary space. The area is fascinating because, despite its crime-ridden past, street art has livened up the old abandoned manufacturing buildings and has helped generate a booming street front, complete with cool bars and restaurants. Even the pizza chain, Artichoke Pizza, has entered the neighborhood on the corner of Wyckoff and Troutman, which is directly across the street from a giant Bushwick Collective mural of cartoon-like skulls reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. However, I would argue that the space is compromised by its appeal because of the Collective’s exclusivity regarding how they select street and graffiti artists, which impacts the types of audiences attracted to the space. I would also argue that the physical design of the space is in need of alteration considering the lack of adequate infrastructure, such as benches and trees, that would attract more members from the community. There are various ways to improve the area’s connection to the community and design.

Even though the area has reached great commercial success, the space is too disconnected from the community who live there. Physical distance from local residents is not the issue. Just a few blocks southeast of the Collective is a local nursing home, and just a few blocks east and west of the Collective are a couple of elementary schools. Although the physical distance between The Bushwick Collective and neighborhood residents is relatively small, the cultural divide is quite vast.

My main contention with the outdoor street gallery is that locals do not participate in co-creating the space. Only world renowned graffiti and street artists have the luxury of creating street art with The Bushwick Collective, if they are lucky. Space is limited and the Collective is very selective. I will say, it is important not to dismiss what The Bushwick Collective has achieved for street and graffiti art due to their expansive popularity. In many places graffiti art is still stigmatized and misunderstood as being associated with gang activity and vandalism, thus it is often widely discouraged and degraded to less than art. The work of The Bushwick Collective helps to reduce these stigmas. Furthermore, the Collective acquires permits for their art, and it is a safe place for artists to show off their talents. Despite all of the good The Bushwick Collective achieves for graffiti and street art and artists, the art has limited meaning to the community who have lived there for perhaps generations (before gentrification). While The Bushwick Collective focuses on garnering national and international talent to produce incredible works of graffiti art, it mainly attracts non-Bushwick natives. Visitors from around the world often go on walking tours to see the murals, and take selfies with the murals along the way. These tourists are often hipsters who also shop at the neighborhood’s overpriced vintage stores. But what about other members of the community? Where are they?

What you see is not always what you get. The overwhelming presence of hipsters at The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery and at the shops and restaurants popping up throughout the area (a token to the Collective’s spillover effects on local commercial businesses and housing prices) successfully masks what inspired Joe Ficalora to create the organization in the first place, which is actually deeply rooted in the neighborhood’s history and culture of violence and poverty. In fact, Ficalora had a rough childhood growing up in Bushwick. In the short documentary published by Tribeca Film called, “Born and Bred: The Bushwick Collective” (Hybenova, 2015), Ficalora talks about his story and why he got into street art:

My father got murdered. I was in eighth grade. He was murdered here in Bushwick, on Starr Street and Wyckoff. I asked some owners for permission to use their buildings for this idea, and they asked me, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘Well I gotta work here every day, I live here, I gotta drive this street every day. So when people come, they got something beautiful to look at.’

It takes a strong person to convert a space that evokes so much pain and suffering into a place that others can enjoy and appreciate; into a place that could fill others with hope and inspiration. What Joe Ficalora did with The Bushwick Collective was, for all intents and purposes, placemaking. But when I last went to The Bushwick Collective along Troutman Street between Wyckoff and Cypress avenues, the connection between the site’s current status and its legacy felt disjointed. Like with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, I was hoping the art would speak to me in some way; I was hoping it would tell a story with pictorial elegance of this place and the people who live here. It’s not that the art isn’t impressive, on the contrary, it is extraordinarily artistic and colorful. It may even have soul, but it does not contain the soul of this neighborhood.

It’s not that the art isn’t impressive, on the contrary, it is extraordinarily artistic and colorful. It may even have soul, but it does not contain the soul of this neighborhood.

Joe Ficalora’s vision for beautifying the Bushwick streetscape and placemaking is incomplete without enhanced community ownership. As noted earlier, street art along The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is not co-created by the community. Other non-profit organizations with similar missions of beautifying decaying neighborhoods in outer New York City boroughs, such as 7 Train Murals in Queens, have done remarkably well at involving the local community in beautification projects. On their website, 7 Train Murals proudly proclaims in all capital letters, “ALL MURALS 100% PAINTED AND MAINTAINED BY VOLUNTEERS WHO LIVE AND WORK IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD!” (n.d., p. 1).  By contrasting the missions of these two nonprofits it is easy to see the difference in priorities between a community-based mural organization and an outdoor street gallery featuring artists from all over the world.

In the book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte (1980) explains that city streets serve as informal recreation areas. He hinges his analysis on observations he made of the street life on 101st Avenue in East Harlem. On 101st street, the street was the play area – not because children had no other place to play, but because they liked to play on the street (Whyte, 1980, p.10-12). In addition to serving as a play area, a city street is something of an “art area” for children to create and recreate the streetscape. In Bushwick, children often draw colorful figurines and hop scotch games onto sidewalks and streets during the summer. The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is the perfect place to activate neighborhood children in the arts and harness their creative minds through the co-creation of murals along with professionals and other community members. To avoid mission creep, perhaps The Bushwick Collective could partner with the City, local schools, businesses, non-profits, and/or organizations to co-sponsor this type of artwork. However, the issue of children lacking exposure to art may already be near and dear to Ficalora’s heart because in the short film he mentions not having access to artistic pathways growing up (Hybenova, 2015). Perhaps he would be open to expanding his legacy and impacting the community in this profound way, too. Additionally, to further engage the surrounding community, The Bushwick Collective could partner with other organizations to participate and sponsor in neighborhood networking clean-up events, which is another creative idea developed by 7 Train Murals.

In addition to engaging children and the community in placemaking, expanding the publicness of The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery requires important structural elements, too. In my most recent visit to the space, I noticed there were very few benches to sit on, which were all fixed, shallow and very uncomfortable looking. Few trees lined the sidewalks to shade pedestrians from blazing hot summer days. According to Whyte (1980), the availability of sitting areas impacts the usage of the space. Therefore, more benches may attract the elderly, such as those living in the nearby nursing home, who may wish to admire the art but have nowhere to sit.

More benches may attract the elderly, such as those living in the nearby nursing home, who may wish to admire the art but have nowhere to sit.

A critical juncture to optimizing the publicness of the space would be to permanently close off The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery from cars altogether (particularly along Troutman Avenue, between Wyckoff Avenue and Saint Nicholas Avenue). Closing off the street to cars would make it safer for children to play in the street; it would allow the space to act more as a public plaza, opening up the street for outdoor seating, street vendors, and three dimensional artsy structures. However, a barista informed me during one of my observations of the space that street parking is an issue in the area, and local shop owners and trucks park along the street in the mornings until about one in the afternoon. Still, considering the level to which The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery is already public, and in spirit of Whyte’s plea to “give some of the streetscape back to the pedestrians” (p. 100), a compromise, at the very least, should be considered.

Since I moved to Bushwick in January of 2014, I have admired the The Bushwick Collective outdoor street gallery, and how frequently the street art changes like the seasons. It’s like I get to experience my neighborhood for the first time all over again each time a new mural goes up. Surely, The Bushwick Collective have helped liven up a neighborhood previously known for high crime rates and abandoned manufacturing buildings, which felt more like streets lined of abandoned dreams. The organization has successfully transformed a space into a place, and involving the community in placemaking and incorporating structural improvements would help complete its transformation. noun_766494-1

UPDATE (3/30/2017): I have contacted Joe, the creator of The Bushwick Collective, to gather more information (that may not be available on the web) regarding whether or not The Bushwick Collective has had the opportunity to partner with local public schools or community-based groups/organizations to create murals in the neighborhood. And if this is something The Bushwick Collective has done in the past, or if this something that the organization is potentially interested in doing in the near future. There may be bottlenecks to such collaborations (particularly with the City) to which I am currently unaware. I really look forward to hearing from him (fingers crossed). Hopefully more to follow on this soon. Thanks for reading!


7 Train Murals. (n.d.). 7 Train Murals [Website home page]. Retrieved on March 27, 2017, from Link

The Bushwick Collective. (2017). The Bushwick Collective: Facebook homepage. Retrieved from Link

Hybenova, K. (2015, June 4). Tribeca Film published a short film about The Bushwick Collective: Just in time for this Saturday’s Bushwick Collective Block Party, Tribeca Film. Bushwick Daily. Retrieved from Link

Whyte, W. H. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. New York, NY: Project for Public Spaces.