Downtown Mexico City, with one of the world’s largest collections of seventeenth to nineteenth-century architecture, is working hard to reconnect its buildings and parks with pedestrians. When our group of City Parks Alliance board members traveled to the city in October, we headed downtown after our visit to Chapultepec Park and passed through much construction – the narrowing of streets, the widening of sidewalks, and the remaking of downtown parks such as the Alameda Central. We also had the chance to climb to the top of city hall to see its rooftop garden, and then gazed down on the main plaza in the historic center of the city, the Zόcola, a gathering place for Mexicans since the Aztec era and filled that day with a giant book fair.
In the Alameda, made iconic in the Diego Rivera mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda,” concrete sidewalks have been replaced by marble, and tarp-covered vendor stands were kicked out – a renovation that cost about $18 million. The newly opened park, anchored by the Palacio de Bellas Artes, is green, walkable, and a respite in the midst of a bustling city.
But the most impressive re-creation we saw was the Parque Bicentenario. With over 50 acres, the park is ten times as large as the Zόcola and sits on a former refinery site. It was named Parque Bicentenario in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence.
In 1991 the Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) Refinery was closed due to heavy pollution problems. Ten years passed before the grounds of the old refinery were ceded by Pemex to the federal government in 2007, and work was begun to re-mediate the property. The park, free to the public, opened in 2010 with a marvel of recreation and botanic treasures.
Comprised of five major areas – the Nature Garden, Wind Garden, Earth Garden, Sun Garden and the Water Garden – Parque Bicentenario is separated by canals and linked by a bicycle path.
The park was developed as an ecological system that could showcase eight different climates and vegetation representative of the country, including an experimental chinampa or ‘floating garden’ where small plots of land sit in some of the shallow canals for growing crops. In addition, the park is about recreation and visitors can find an auditorium, sports facilities and a museum that features the story of the park’s transformation. One of the highlights was a visit to the Orquidario featuring many of Mexico’s 1,200 native orchids. Here is a short video that shows some of the park’s features: http://vimeo.com/69935569
City Parks Alliance Board members were there not only to take in the sights but to offer their experience and ideas to help the state and local public partnership develop a management plan that would involve private partners – in both the continuing capital plan as well as for daily operations. Parque Bicentenario, unlike Chapultepec, is run by the state. The challenges of city park partnerships increase with a non-local government manager – much like the National Park Service running parks in cities such as Washington, DC or St. Louis, MO. Missions don’t always align and the sister city agencies that help make parks work – public works, police, transportation, economic and community development, e.g., aren’t so easy for a state agency to access.
Board members talked a lot about the value of developing vendor relationships as well as cultivating a group that might be friends of the park. Many felt there were opportunities around children’s programs as well as the fabulous facilities that could host corporate and other group events. We also discussed the value of giving private partners the autonomy and flexibility they needed to get their job done and bring the most value to the park.
In Parque Bicentenario as well as Chapultepec – which already has an organized private partner – Mexico City, like many cities in the US, is learning that a highly visible and well-used downtown park can’t really survive and meet its mission without private partners. The size of the park and the diversity of activities that take place to meet the public’s growing expectations about parks makes it hard for a city park agency to develop, program, and manage without partners.
As board member Gil Penalosa observed, “In many parks and public places, cities are willing to invest millions to build them but not the thousands to improve their uses and activities. Successful public places around the world are successful not just because of the design, but also because of the management – and the bigger part of management is how to involve the community in the parks. People always have the most fantastic ideas about how a space can be used and improved.”
Kathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.