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In Tijuana, Another Charter City, Valle San Pedro
An image of the Valle San Pedro's master plan.

An image of the Valle San Pedro's master plan. Image via www.vallesanpedro.com.mx.

So far, 700 homes have been built in what will be a 13,000-hectare development to house one million people by 2030 in Valle San Pedro, what is being billed as the “first comprehensive and sustainable urban development” in Mexico, according to the development’s promotional video.  This charter city, located outside Tijuana by the border of California, is being developed by Urbi and is the first certified Integral and Sustainable Urban Development (DUIS, by its acronym in Spanish.) “This model puts Mexican working-class families at the center of the planning and urban design process,” says Under Secretary of Urban Development and Land Planning Sara Topelson de Grinberg in a press release from the project developer. “The programs will promote community organization, order and an improvement in the quality of life of the residents in a viable and functional way,”

The future city aims to meet the needs of low- to moderate-income residents.  The developer’s public relations representative, Erin First of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, says the price of single family homes for buyers ranges from $15,000 to $22,000.  The development “will have housing, schools, shopping centers, medical clinics, parks, government offices and roads,” according to an email from First. “The plan is for the city to be self-sufficient, using wind power, local water treatment, recycling, as well as comprehensive waste management, recycling, and effective public transit.”  First says the city’s water will come from Colorado in the United States.

However, these projects that arise from nothing—charter cities—are riddled with problems.

I asked the development’s public relations firm to answer a series of questions:

  • Are any water efficiency measures being planned? Various sources say the development will be “self-sufficient” but if water is coming from Colorado, that is not necessarily the case.
  • Can you provide any more details on “efficient public transit.” What thoughts, ideas or designs are being proposed?
  • What government department is providing subsidies? And what facts or statistics prove that the development is specifically geared towards low-income residents? Does the price of a single family home  mean the development is affordable? What are rental costs?

The answers to these questions are essential to make any claims about sustainability. After a week of interacting with the public relations firm, we are no closer to receiving an answer. Erin First did tell me that the Mexican Federal Government is offering a down payment of 40,000 pesos (a little more than $3,000) to low-income families, but the subsidies are not specific to the Valle San Pedro development.

Valle San Pedro has received worldwide recognition from the international development community. It was selected by UN-HABITAT to be a part of the UN Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. Early last month, representatives from U.S. agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, toured the new site. And Al Gore presented the development at a conference, Tijuana Innovera, which covered cultural, technical and environmental and educational advances in the city.

Support for the project indicates that Mexico is moving in the right direction especially during a period of intensive population growth in its border cities. In the next 20 years, Tijuana’s population will double and each year the city adds 100,000 residents, generating a high demand of urban land and housing.

Says Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon: “There is no doubt this first sustainable development model in Mexico will not only drive growth, but will also promote public and private investment and create the sustainable development conditions needed by the Tijuana region and so many other Mexican border cities.”

Indeed, there are implications for the border towns and urbanized areas in the rest of Mexico. The housing developer, URBI, has worked in 32 cities and developed more than 260,000 homes. Given URBI’s profitability, the implications of its work are tremendous. The Mexican government also hopes the project will help to create public-private partnerships.

But the issue of charter and built-from-scratch cities is complicated.

Alejandra Rangel, the mobility and urban development manager for the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico (CTS-México), a member of the EMBARQ Network (the producer of this blog), says the development is controversial. She explains that the DUIS developments are progressive because their criteria include mixed-use and high walking and cycling standards, but the fact that Valle San Pedro is located 20 to 30 kilometers away from Tijuana means long and costly trips to get to the city. She adds, “I am still skeptical about creating entire cities from scratch that are sometimes larger than cities that have had 500 years or more of history.” CTS-México is working to improve the criteria of Valle San Pedro and other projects like this one, but currently only a small portion of revisions have been approved. (Read more about CTS-México’s land use and urban design work here.)

Nonetheless, such developments are more beneficial than low-density, single-use communities, and perhaps these cities, like Masdar in the Middle East, will spur innovation and a new understanding of the possibilities of sustainable cities. Ultimately, however, unless growth can be accommodated within the urban core of Tijuana, it will be difficult to call a from-scratch city in the desert “sustainable.”

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