An Opportunity for a Regenerative New Airport in Mexico City

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Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico, 66 miles wide and 68 miles long. Top: hydrology and agriculture. Below: hydrology and urban systems. The Texcoco Lakebed is the large blue area at center-right / INEGI topographic charts. Maps by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor.

Last September, the Mexican government announced the construction of a new airport for Mexico City. The current airport is the second busiest, per number of passengers, in Latin America, just after Sao Paolo, Brazil. The airport was recently declared to be at full capacity. It has two runways that cannot be operated simultaneously and it’s surrounded on three flanks –north, west, and south – by dense neighborhoods. Along its east site, the airport is adjacent to the Texcoco Lake bed. There is no more space for growth, so a new airport is needed.

The new airport master plan, as presented by Sir Norman Foster and Fernando Romero from Mexico, the architects who won an international design competition, is located just 5 miles north of the current airport and will occupy 17.5 square miles of the Texcoco lake bed. The remains of this formerly grand lake covers some 50 square miles. Spared by urbanization but partially used for agriculture, the lake bed has both permanent and temporary water bodies. Although miniscule in comparison to the original lake system, the lake bed sits at the lowest part of the basin, helping concentrate and infiltrate water, supporting the unstable soils of Mexico City. The lake remnant protects the city from more flooding. And the water it collects keeps the city afloat by infiltration.

Mexico City drinks more than half of its water from the valley of Mexico’s aquifer. This valley is a closed basin draining serviced, storm, and waste water towards the Gulf of Mexico via a deep and massive underground system. The load pressing on this desiccated, lake landscape, along with aquifer exploitation, has led to Mexico City actually subsiding by over 30 feet in its central area in the last century.

A recent public presentation about the new airport plan failed to discuss how the project will address these critical environmental issues and improve water quantity and quality, support soils, recover wildlife habitat, and create a regenerative relationship between the city and its lakes.

There are ways landscape architecture can be used to help the lake system recover. Among some existing concepts is Ciudad Futura (Future City) by Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, their Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) architecture students, and other collaborators. Published in La Ciudad y sus Lagos (The City and its Lakes) in 1998, this project proposes the recovery of the lacustrine system through the construction of infrastructure for water management and treatment, the definition of active lake edges, the creation of new public spaces, and the development of a new airport as an island in a regenerated Texcoco Lake.

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The Future City / City of the Lakes project. The new airport as an island in the regenerated Texcoco Lake / Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, UNAM students, and other collaborators.

A more radical concept would be to turn the current airport into an ecological reserve and park, performing water and soil management and providing wildlife habitat. Parque Texcoco (Texcoco Park) by Iñaki Echeverria doesn’t address where to place a new airport though.

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Texcoco Park. The recovered Texcoco Lake with no airports / Iñaki Echeverria

With the new airport plans, the Mexican government promises not only first-rate architecture but also a place that creates ecological value, largely through a 1,730-acre public forest. But it remains to be seen whether the new airport’s master plan project can create a reconciliation between the built and natural environments, and this project can become a global best practice from an under-developed country. The health of the underlying ecological systems must be considered. Let’s demand this happens.

This guest post is by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, The University of Texas at Austin

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