Friday, 28 June 2013


By Ian Toal, 2nd year MDP student

In order to be close to RITA, the Indigenous tourism group we are working with in Mexico City, Alejandro, Susan and I moved into the barrio of Xochimilco. Located in the south east of Mexico City, Xochimilco is built on land reclaimed from an old lake – all that is left of the water is a system of canals. The canals are in turn created by chinampas, islands built in the water. On these chinampas, people mainly grow flowers. It is also where RITA has its main office.

Canal in Xochimilco leading to the RITA office
Xochimilco may be an Arrival City, a concept described by Globe and Mail Journalist Doug Saunders. Arrival cities are areas within larger cities where rural people migrate to in order to get a step up into the city proper. Arrival Cities are often called slums, but for Saunders, they are places of activity, creativity and hope as people work to make what they see as a better life for themselves. Xochimilco fits the arrival city pattern. I’m not sure how long the people have lived here, but there are shops everywhere. The place is a hive of activity, with people walking, riding, taking car taxis, bike taxis. Things are being scavenged, refurbished, reused, modified, sold, used to fix houses, cars, bikes, whatever. There are bakeries, fruit and vegetable stands, tortillarias, clothing stores, internet cafes, gas trucks, water

It is not a rich place, and life seems pretty hard. There is an occasional refurbished house, but it looks like the kind of place that the older inhabitants left and the rural people moved in to. As a thought experiment, we pondered whether Xochimilco needs ‘development’, and if so, what kind.

As good development practitioners, we would have to ask the people of the neighbourhood whether they wanted development, and what kind. We can’t do that, not yet, perhaps never. But looking around and observing can be very informative. What we see are people who are busy. There are few people just hanging around. People look decently dressed, and well nourished. The shops are not bustling, but are generally quite busy. Stuff is getting done. Things necessary for life are available, and at reasonable rates. There are four or five schools in the area, and we’ve seen long lines of young people waiting to take University entrance exams. There are also several Alcoholics Anonymous places around, which implies problem drinking, but they also indicate hope – people don’t attend AA unless they want to make their lives better.

It’s possible that many of the young people will not stay in Xochimilco. They may move into other parts of the city when they get their jobs, buy houses, and move their parents closer to them. Apartments won’t stay empty long – other people will arrive, and set up shop where an old one may have closed. It will likely follow the cycle of a successful Arrival City, allowing people to make the transition from outside to the city proper.
We all sort of agreed that Xochimilco doesn’t really need development – it seems to be doing pretty good as it is. Perhaps some better sidewalks would make walking a bit more convenient, but that may happen someday.

A view of Xochimilco from the roof of our house

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