The Desnivel Insurgentes-Mixcoac Protests: Clean Air, Citizenship, and Middle-Class Participation in a Mexico City Urban Planning Project
BY ARON LESSER
June 20, 2021
In June of 2015, a group of retired women tied themselves to their neighborhoods’ largest trees. They were protesting the construction of a highway underpass due to environmental concerns, notably the removal of nearly 1,700 trees. The protests began during daytime hours but when the city’s public works department (SOBSE) started bulldozing trees between midnight and five AM, neighborhood residents extended their protest into the next morning. Throughout June, residents of five middle-class neighborhoods surrounding the Insurgentes-Mixcoac Junction took turns guarding the Mixcoac green space. The civil protests, and consequent legal battles, stalled the project for several years. City officials finally completed the underpass in 2017 after slightly modifying the original design to appease protesters.
This piece examines how a group of Mexico City residents protested the construction of the Desnivel Mixcoac-Insurgentes highway underpass between 2013 and 2017. I draw from documentary sources including newspaper articles, government agency reports, legal documents, and meeting notes, as well as three in-depth, semi-structured interviews with movement leaders. I argue that residents used environmental discourses as a proxy for other issues such as neighborhood densification and property tax increases while protesting the underpass construction. By asserting their claims regarding air quality and environmental protection, the protesters negotiated urban middle-class citizenship. Activists also leveraged their social and cultural capital to mobilize academics, the media, and national autonomous institutions against the project. In this way, the urban middle class developed methods to participate in urban planning decisions from which they were excluded.
On November 7, 2013, Mexico City’s Secretaría de Obras y Servicios (SOBSE) publicly announced a request for proposals (RFP) for a large-scale modification of the Circuito Interior de la Ciudad de México, a freeway that circles the city’s central regions. The Desnivel Mixcoac-Insurgentes underpass was one of 9 proposed projects meant to improve the artery’s traffic conditions (“Convocatoria 01/13”).
The city awarded the GAMI construction firm the contract on November 28, 2013. Construction for the underpass was scheduled to begin in late 2014. However, it was delayed due to protests from residents in the surrounding middle-class neighborhoods of Acacias, Actipan, Florida, Crédito Constructor, and San José Insurgentes. Following the protests, neighborhood residents had 100 meetings and conducted 38 site visits with city officials, leading to 18 project modifications. Miguel Ángle Mancera, the city’s Jefe de Gobierno (mayor), agreed to alter the tunnel’s path in order to preserve nearly a third of the strip’s trees and to enlarge the planned park for the region (“Nuevo Proyecto Mixcoac Insurgentes”). Government officials opened the underpass on August 29, 2017 without an inaugural event, several years after its original completion date (Mendoza 2017).
Why Residents Protested
I spoke with three protest leaders, all of whom initially told me that the movement to halt construction was due to environmental concerns. In our discussions, however, other reasons emerged. These included an increase in property taxes, the densification of their neighborhoods, and the government’s lack of transparency regarding the beneficiaries of the capital project. In the following section I explore these claims.
In order to build the underpass, SOBSE had planned to remove over 1500 of the region’s largest and oldest trees (“Nuevo Proyecto Mixcoac Insurgentes”). Their deep roots, claimed GAMI engineers, would interfere with the underpass. In their place, the city’s public works department proposed a streetway park with fewer and smaller trees.
When asked about the protest’s origins, one leader explained that “the movement began to take shape when neighborhood residents noticed that the trees were being taken down” and that “it was truly because we were worried about the air that we were breathing” (Sánchez 2020). Another explained that “we have rights to a clean environment,” citing their constitutional rights as Mexican citizens as the basis for the protest (García 2020).
My informants, legal documents, and news reports frequently cited conflicts over tree re-locations. The government originally proposed moving some trees to a different borough, which several movement leaders believed would worsen their neighborhoods’ air quality. Movement leaders thus treated environmental concerns and clean air as local issues, rather than as city-wide, national, or global ones. One leader stated that they had rights to the neighborhood trees and clean air because “we live here and we pay here” (García 2020). In this regard, residents framed green spaces – and their environmental and health benefits – as extensions of their middle-class properties.
Real Estate Development and Changing Neighborhoods
Another important reason mentioned by movement leaders were the non-democratic planning processes that favored large developers over city residents. Marcelo Ebrad, Mexico City’s mayor from 2000-2005, was involved in a series of conflicts over the subway expansion that included delays and cost overages. The El Financiero newspaper, a widely-read publication that covers business and economics, described the new subway line as “the most expensive in the system’s history, the most expensive in the world in terms of construction and maintenance costs, and the one that serves the fewest people” (Rodea 2017). Furthermore, many residents believed Mancera (the 2005-2012 mayor and Ebrard’s successor from the same political party) to have greatly favored real estate developers (Ramos 2019; Maldonado 2020). The construction firms and government officials that benefited from Mancera’s policies are known as the city’s “Real Estate Cartel.”
It is unsurprising that activists expressed distrust in the city’s political actors. Zapata told me that the project was “obviously intended to serve two large constructions – the Torre Manacar [adjacent to the underpass] and the Torre Mítikah,” which once completed will become the city’s largest building. She argued that the underpass would worsen long-term neighborhood congestion because it would bring more cars rather than improve traffic flow as authorities claimed.
Neighborhood densification and “changes” repeatedly came up in my interviews. Walking through the Acacias neighborhood, I understood why. One street that had been lined with single-family homes saw nearly one-third demolished for new constructions, including three-story apartment buildings. The remaining houses displayed banners demanding that developers obey the street’s mid-rise zoning. The region has become a space of contention between long-term single-family homeowners and recently arrived young professionals that work in the new commercial buildings, such as the Torre Manacar, and occupy the apartments.
All three informants cited taxation as another reason for the protests. They believed the underpass would increase property taxes in the surrounding neighborhoods. One group of protesters, described by an informant as the “Señoras de la Florida”, emerged as protagonists in the fight against property tax increases. She described these fifty and sixty-year-old women as owners of valuable properties with nearly no liquid wealth. “All they have,” she told me, “are their homes.” (Sánchez 2020). These women, who inherited these homes from family members or spouses, already struggled to pay property taxes and could not afford an increase. While some of these women had begun to rent out rooms in their homes to cover costs, others were unwilling to do so because, as one informant explained, they “placed their class prejudices above their survival as a class” (Sánchez 2020).
If the protests were fundamentally about issues ranging from taxation to neighborhood densification to opaque planning processes, why did residents turn to environmental discourses as justification? To a degree, the discursive construction of the protests is consistent with Baviskar’s theory of bourgeois environmentalism (Baviskar 2003), which Kumar (2012) describes as “the role of middle-class biases and interests—for example, the desire for beautification, particular notions of hygiene, and fantasies of control of physical space—in shaping the new urban environmental imaginary” (136). Environmentalism was a “politically correct” proxy for residents to negotiate broader middle-class issues such as protection of property rights, park preservation, and the densification of single-family neighborhoods. Yet the aging, downwardly mobile neighborhood residents also used environmental discourses as proxies for their struggle to maintain their class status and lifestyles. They performed urban upper-middle-class values through the environmental protests.
Protesters realized that infrastructural projects are discursively tied to climate change in Mexico City and thus prioritized environmentalist language. Indeed, protesters, politicians and city officials all present mobility projects vis-à-vis their environmental benefits. López (2017) supports this claim, noting that Mexican lawmakers use environmental discourses to legitimize infrastructural projects. In 2001, for example, Claudia Sheinbaum, the city’s Environment Minister, argued that the construction of the city’s BRT Metrobus and expanding the city’s highway system with a second level were necessary to improve air quality (Dewey 2019). While the Desnivel Mixcoac-Insurgentes primarily serves car owners, the government project website highlights a 44% daily reduction in CO2 emissions as the underpass’ main benefit.
Neighborhood residents used three citizen participation strategies to protest the Desnivel’s construction. First, residents leveraged their social networks to build a coalition of local professionals and intellectuals to support the protest. A civil engineer, architect, doctor, and lawyer came together to critique the Desnivel plan. They then asked a group of scientists from Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and the country’s Science and Technology Commission (Conacyt) to conduct an independent review of the project, which was released in July of 2015. The scientists, working under the moniker “Union of Scientist Committed to the Public – Environmental Impact Analysis Group,” identified flaws with the Desnivel’s environmental planning and impact evaluations.
Academics previously participated in middle-class protests against Mexico City megaprojects and are key to “how information about megaprojects’ possible dangers and human rights violations is transmitted” (Pérez Negrete 2016, 432). Domínguez notes that officials justify top-down megaproject planning in Mexico by insisting that the general public does not have the specialized technical and engineering knowledge necessary to opine on these large-scale projects. The use of academics and content experts thus democratizes the city’s infrastructural planning, albeit only for middle-class residents.
A second strategy that residents employed was generating media attention. Protesters used their contacts to get La Jornada, El Universal, El Financiero, and Milenio newspapers, among others, to cover the protests and the legal battles. Nearly all articles that I surveyed portrayed residents and academics supporting the movement in a positive light.
Finally, residents invoked federal and local autonomous institutions such as the Mexico City Human Rights Commission (CDHDF), Mexico City’s Environmental and Territorial Planning Agency (PAOT), and Mexico’s federal Environmental Protection Agency (PROFEPA) to assess the project. Horizontal autonomous institutions emerged in the 1990s as part of Mexico City’s democratic transition and have come to play a key role in megaproject protests. During the 2010 protest of the Supervía highway expansion, for example, middle-class protesters also requested evaluations from autonomous accountability institutions such as the CDHDF (López 2017). In both the Supervía and the Desnivel cases, however, protesters did not successfully use these institutions to halt project construction.
Although residents were unable to stop the Desnivel’s construction, they negotiated changes to the project by leveraging their social, cultural, and political capital. Environmentalism served as the discursive tool by which middle-class protesters made claims to space and citizenship. In the context of Mexico City’s neoliberal and democratic transition (Davis & Dewey 2012), urban middle classes used these methods not only to perform spatialized class identities, but also to make their voices heard in spite of non-democratic planning processes.
The movement leaders I interviewed had varying opinions about whether the protest was successful. One saw it as failure because the government did not listen to the citizens and went forward with the project. The other two described modest success, citing a judge’s order prohibiting the government from taking down certain trees during the construction process. This ruling, argued one informant, was perhaps the movement’s greatest success because it demonstrated that courts can side with citizens that make claims on the government. Acting as a precedent, future residents can use similar strategies to influence megaprojects.
The protesters stated “the [Desnivel] project was developed without consulting citizens and without their consent. One way to mitigate and prevent the project’s possible adverse side effects is to have neighbors and experts co-participate in the process” (“Conveniencia Consejo Consultivo”). The protesters described the inclusion of residents in urban planning decisions as fundamental to their success, revealing the tensions between the city’s democratization and neoliberalization. The Desnivel protests demonstrate how urban middle-class residents performed class and participated in broader city planning decisions. These citizens developed methods and strategies to influence planning in Mexico City, building a new form of participatory, and semi-democratic, urban citizenship. This new form of participation, however, excludes the city’s working-class residents and therefore exacerbates many of the city’s socio-spatial inequities. It also raises questions about gendered urban citizenship and the role of political parties in Mexican city planning.
In 2018, Mexico City residents elected Claudia Sheinbaum from the left-leaning National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) political party as mayor. Although she has slightly expanded citizen participation laws and more stringently enforced zoning regulations than her predecessor, the question remains: will city officials build on these protests and formally include the urban middle-class in the city’s infrastructural development and planning processes? If not, then protests such as the one against the Desnivel Mixcoac-Insurgents may become the norm.
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Aron Lesser is a graduate student of Urban Planning and the Mexican Cities Initiative Research Assistant at Harvard GSD. He holds a B.A in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from Brown University and is author of the book Piecing Together São Paulo (Narrativa Um Press, 2015).
Research for this piece was conducted with the generous support of Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Real Estate Research Grant.