The Lake’s Specter: Water and the History of Mexico City


Until images of Beijing air pollution captured the world’s attention several years ago, few megalopolises rivaled Mexico City in the global imaginary of urban disaster and unsustainability. In the 1980s and early 1990s, news of black smog clouds asphyxiating Mexico’s capital and of birds falling to their death from pollution circulated in major media outlets. A 1985 earthquake toppled hundreds of buildings, killed thousands, and created a dystopian and eerie urban streetscape. Reflecting on daily smog, twisted steel, and concrete ruins, Mexico’s leading cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis wondered if the city’s inhabitants might have already lived through the apocalypse. If Mexico City had had a Hollywood, it, not Los Angeles, would have been the global icon of apocalyptic and dystopian imagery at the end of the twentieth century.

But Mexico City’s environmental woes do not end there. In fact, while Mexico City continues to experience toxic levels of air pollution, government regulations on gasoline, automobile usage, and industry have at least mitigated it and brought to the world’s attention other ecological problems of a more insidious nature. These problems stem from one element: water. One might say, albeit ahistorically, that these environmental dilemmas have a single origin—an environmental original sin if there ever was one: the Aztecs’ decision to build Tenochtitlan on an island surrounded by a vast lake system and in an enclosed basin at 7,250 feet above sea level. Ever since, Mexico City has been unable to escape its destiny; it is a city on a lake, an environmental paradox: a city with simultaneously too much water and too little, flooded while desiccated.

Of course, the explanation of urban ecological crisis is much more complex than assigning it to geographical determinism. Over centuries, colonial and postcolonial authorities, engineers, planners, landowners, and others have transformed Mexico City’s environment to suit landowner interests, capitalist urbanization, public health, and state builders’ dreams of a Mexican modernity where nature would be subdued and controlled. Two monumental and costly drainage projects from the early colonial era to 1900 drained most of the largest lakes including Lake Texcoco; the drinking water imperative depleted much of Lake Xochimilco and its canals, the iconic space south of the city where indigenous peasants relied on a healthy waterscape to practice the productive agricultural technique known as chinampería.[1]

Fig. 1_1
The General Drainage of the Valley of Mexico, completed in 1900

Sanitary engineering of this sort promoted urban expansion that accelerated after 1940 as streams of campesinos (country-people) fled precarious rural conditions for the promise of a job and urban lifestyle in the capital. Mexico City’s manufacturing output skyrocketed at mid-century, but a sparse few of the millions of recent migrant arrivals secured a job in the industrial sector and even fewer could afford a home with adequate urban services like water, sewerage, and electricity. Many eventually settled in the flood-prone dried lakebeds or in the foothills at the edge of the basin’s mountainous walls, on land once used for conventional farming, chinampería, hunting, fishing, or forestry. They bore the brunt of the city’s environmental troubles: dust storms from the dried Texcoco lakebed; land subsidence caused by desiccation and aquifer overexploitation, the effects of which resulted in exacerbated flooding; and sporadic, or non-existent, water supply.

Mexico City’s environmental crisis is part and parcel of a larger social crisis rooted in an unequal geography of settlement. But the crisis is also felt by the affluent. Whereas urban elites might succeed in isolating themselves from poverty and the social problems associated with the lower classes, flooding can occur almost anywhere in the basin; water supply is, indeed, a long-term problem of sustainability; and land subsidence threatens to impair all kinds of infrastructure, both above and below ground. It was in this context, one of fantastical urban growth (the population increased from 2 million in 1940 to nearly 15 million by 1980), that a host of urban professionals—engineers, planners, scientists, and artists—began to question the urban growth model’s dependence on draft-and-drain hydraulics.

Dissenters among Mexico’s lettered elite expressed nostalgia for a lost Tenochtitlan, for a time when the basin’s inhabitants ostensibly lived in harmony with their natural surroundings. The eminent Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes wrote of the Aztec capital: “Two lakes occupy almost the entire Valley: one saline, the other fresh. Their waters mix together to the rhythm of the tides within a narrow straight formed by the surrounding sierra…In the middle sits the metropolis, like an immense stone flower (flor de piedra), connected to the mainland by four gates and three causeways.”[2] He went on to praise the bustling canoe-based trade within the lacustrine space, a sine qua non of any paean to the Aztec city during this era of nationalist myth-making and revolutionary indigenismo.  The juxtaposition with modern Mexico City was made explicit in Reyes’ later essay, “palinodia del polvo,” in which he rued over the desiccated lakebeds and the tormenting alkali dust storms that rose from them.

National Palace mural by Diego Rivera showing the chinampas in Lake Xochimilco

Engineers and scientists centered their critique on the environmental blindness of past engineering philosophies and the absence of a conservationist ethic. To be sure, they too often tapped into memories of a lost past, but their objectives were not literary let alone to muster a social critique of unequal capitalist urbanization; rather, they sought to pursue new means of intervention in the material environment that might better sustain such urbanization. These “engineer ecologists,” as one vociferous opponent pejoratively labeled them, wholeheartedly believed Mexico City’s growth was imperiling urban health and prosperity. They promoted a new environmentalist engineering, along with a liberal dose of family planning, to place the city within the limits of nature. This represented “sustainable development” avant la lettre. It was also highly technocratic; only experts could conceive of the city’s environmental predicaments as an integral whole of interwoven elements—both human-made and natural—and devise the appropriate prescriptions. In Mexico’s mid-century authoritarian political climate, this philosophy lent itself to contempt for the urban working classes, perceived as threats to ecological balance and as profligate users of resources.

Influential experts such as scientist Enrique Beltrán, agronomist Gonzalo Blanco Macías, and architect Guillermo Zarraga drew on Pan-American scientific dialogues in the wake of WWII and the oncoming Cold War to craft their environmental thought. Mid-century U.S. environmentalists Tom Gill and William Vogt had spent time in Mexico City where they shared ideas with Mexican professionals confronting emerging environmental problems and fast-paced growth. Zarraga perhaps best captured the tenor of the times: “The different issues that constitute the problem of the Valley of Mexico are interconnected in such a way that one cannot refer to one of them without alluding to the rest. Water and subsidence, for example, are intimately united, just as water and sewerage are and the latter to flooding. Deforestation, erosion, and dust storms are other threads of the same warp.”[3] They decried “ecological disequilibrium” spawned by past hydraulic engineering projects. The cornerstone of their environmental vision, in fact, was a return to the city of lakes. Ecological balance hinged on a healthy waterscape to curtail dust storms, facilitate aquifer recharge, and curb flooding by storing water. Layers of development, infrastructure construction, and the twin processes of lakebed sedimentation and land subsidence meant resurrecting Mexico City as an environmentally healthy land of lakes necessitated additional artifice, that is, more engineering.

DF Map of Tramways and Railroads
Mexico City on the eve of its twentieth-century boom, circa 1910, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

These ideas were both reaction against Mexico City’s development and a remedy to ensure the continuation of it. Only one planner, the socialist architect Alberto Arai, seemed to upend the principle of growth, but did so only partially. He proposed descaling the city, in which five urban centers positioned along the rim of the regenerated lake Texcoco would reorganize urban life. This descaling and reorganization would usher in a new era of urban development for the city, one that supposedly adhered to the precepts of environmental health. Development was (and remains) the hegemonic script in Mexico City, as it has been throughout the urbanizing global south, and has hampered the imaginaries of environmentalists and social justice advocates for decades.

Thus far ideas of environmental rebirth have outpaced action. Besides a partially revitalized (and artificial) Lake Texcoco and the much-maligned Lake Xochimilco “ecological park,” little has been accomplished to deal with Mexico City’s water woes. Indeed, even these so-called solutions have tended to aggravate social inequalities, exemplars of the technocratic and decidedly neoliberal urban environmentalism currently sweeping the globe. Other Mexican architects and planners now follow in the well-trod path of history, presenting proposals for urban sustainability through lake regeneration in ways that would reproduce—even exacerbate—existing social and economic inequalities throughout the urban fabric.

Aerial photo of Lake Nabor Carrillo within the Texcoco lakebed and the sprawling Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl in the background.


If air pollution and the devastating 1985 earthquake temporarily displaced water in Mexico City’s environmental imagination, a wide array of chilangos (as residents of Mexico City are known) are now contemplating Mexico City’s water predicaments like never before. The Mexican Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennial featured Tania Candiani and Luis Felipe Ortega’s work “Possessing Nature,” which juxtaposed Venice’s aquatic environment with Mexico’s legacy of drainage and desiccation. A social movement has surged in the last 6 months to rescue the place long depicted as Mexico’s Venice, Xochimilco, a synecdoche for the world-renowned chinampería, which depends on the area’s iconic and fast-drying canals. NGOs and community organizations, meanwhile, are working to achieve a more equitable distribution of environmental services and cultivate environmental consciousness, including an appreciation for lost waterscapes, around the city.

The vast lake system of the Basin of Mexico is mostly gone now, but it has not been vanquished. It has persisted in all kinds of foreseen and unforeseen ways. The lake has helped define the city’s social geography and its cultural imaginary. It has haunted planners and has been at the heart of social and scientific disputes over equality, the distribution of resources, and the very nature of growth. The story continues: President Peña Nieto broke ground on a multibillion dollar airport on Lake Texcoco’s eastern fringe, a project that promises to unleash another round of debates about the place of the lake in urban development. Urbanization around the airport will no doubt induce further subsidence of the spongy clay soil, flooding, and community land dispossession. Mexico City’s rich past of environmentalist thinking is laudable, but it has not been up to the task of tackling the city’s intricate social and environmental problems. In fact, they have been more about reaffirming the power relations and structures responsible for the problems in the first place. A new vision is necessary, one that borrows from long-standing dreams of a city of lakes and environmental equilibrium but one that also learns from past limitations in confronting Mexico’s deep-seated developmentalism and its obdurate inequalities.

Matthew Vitz is assistant professor of history at UC-San Diego. His book, A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, is forthcoming from Duke University Press



[2] Alfonso Reyes, “Visión de Anáhuac” in Visión de Anáhuac y otros ensayos (Mexico City: FCE, 2004), 17

[3] Guillermo Zarraga, La tragedia del valle de México (Mexico: Stylo, 1958), 29.

3 thoughts on “The Lake’s Specter: Water and the History of Mexico City

  1. The incredible damage that the Spaniards did to Lake Tezcoco as you already know is an ecological disaster with no respect for the land and of nature itself and still to this day nothing has learned by mankind who’s sins have already piled up to the heavens and now the day of reckoning will soon be at hand. All those new projects envisioned for the area mean nothing and as usual the corrupt government of Mexico is only part of the problem with a population of 20 million and still growing. Just going to continue to get worse. The Aztecs had it right. Too bad it’s all gone now. Mexico City Is a complete disaster.


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