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Sustainability and adaptation to trace pathways of reconstruction and future risk management in Mexican cities after the earthquakes of September 19th

October 2017

The earthquakes of September 19th 2017 in Mexico City and in several states are natural phenomena that require rethinking the traditional scheme of decision-making over which cities are built, public spaces are chosen, and fundamental rights exercised in Mexican society. Their shocking impacts fill us with sadness and demand establishing solidarity ties that appeal to our human condition which allow us to build community, in order to route the reconstruction and recovery of the social fabric through sustainability in all its dimensions.

These events were an occurrence that shocked yet again Mexican society. They motivated citizens to demonstrate their solidarity, strength and organizational skills to help affected people through rescue and relief efforts, food supplies and financial aid, data collection to identify risk areas, as well as show of affection and empathy that reflected a concerned and active society that put the wellbeing of our neighbors above our own comfort.

However, reintegration of the population in their productive everyday activities reveals the gaps and necessities that need to be taken care of with regards to urban development and the responsive capacity of cities to confront phenomena of such magnitude, and where authorities, professionals, citizens and the market have a responsible and active role to play. In such a scenario, it is necessary to open a space for reflection to rethink the technical and regulatory instruments and citizen participation through which cities can prepare to encounter emergencies due to earthquakes or other natural phenomena in a sustainable way. Any event of this type should be planned in different stages – before, during and after- with the intention of planning actions and diminishing risks, as well as enabling damage repair.

The 1985 earthquake also shocked the city, showing a great spirit of cooperation and solidarity. Now, 32 years later, there is proof that there were lessons learned, which resulted in the modification of the technical norms established in construction regulations, having as a requirement the publication of information of architects and contractors of new constructions, strengthening older buildings based on anti-earthquake codes. This way, buildings over 57 floors did not suffer important damages. However, even though the damage of the recent earthquake was far less if we compare it to the one in 1985, it is necessary to highlight the different areas of opportunity that threaten the development of sustainable urban planning.

Pathways forward: normative and regulatory needs

From an integral perspective, with the objective of tracing legal pathways for the implementation of recommendations of this collective effort and in light of the urgent need to design instruments and mechanisms that address construction and civil protection, we consider it urgent to review the regulatory parameters in such matters. These instruments should contribute, in a transparent and unobstructed manner so that city growth takes into account planning factors so urban policies are not designed in a corrective manner.

There is a need to study in depth the present processes in public management regarding authorization, supervision, evaluation and sanctions of construction processes in the city, so that they may be more efficient, promote better access to information and citizen participation in the decision-making process. Also, it is necessary to consider the design of creative policies to strengthen access to adequate housing, boost refurbishment of buildings and decentralization of services and employment in the capital of the country.


The Risk Atlas of Mexico City. Need for transparency and information for decision-making

The risk that several cities of our country face, including Mexico City, need planning instruments that will allow citizens and authorities to react in an efficient manner when faced with emergency situations, in some way guaranteeing the exercise of fundamental rights. The recent and late publication of the Risk Atlas of Mexico City reveals the need to have robust instruments with solid scientific content so that these may be authentic tools for decision-making and prevention. These instruments should contribute in a transparent and unobstructed way, so that the growth/expansion of cities reflect planning factors that can identify where the risks are for the population and which urban policies be designed ex ante and not as a form of direct reaction.

Even if ever since the 1985 earthquake contingency plans and norms have been designed for disaster attention through different levels of government, the need to update the civil protection protocols persists as well as the need to improve its dissemination to confront future seismic emergencies. Evermore so, we need to diminish vulnerability of cities, mitigate the effects of such phenomena, strengthen the culture of prevention among the population and improve readiness of the population’s response in evacuation and withdrawal proceedings.


The housing and real estate market problem in Mexico City

One of the most affected sectors from the earthquake was the real estate market and rental housing. This sector will be in constant fluctuation for a long period, speculating with the value of land according to its location and the absence or presence of damages. This is why there is a need to develop mechanisms to stabilize prices and regulate the acquisition of property and leasing that have historically been in the hands of individuals, creating high levels of uncertainty. Regulation would avoid that the zones which did not suffer damages increase their value and avoid other phenomena to occur such as gentrification, real estate speculation, exceeding carrying capacity in certain areas, amongst others. Also, there is a possibility of suffering a depopulation of certain central zones of the city, saturating surrounding areas and exercising constant pressure for the expansion of the city.


Lessons learned. Reinforcing buildings built before 1985

The reconstruction agenda cannot forget the agenda to reinforce buildings. The large majority of buildings that collapsed in the last earthquake had been built between 40 and 50 years ago. Many of them were not repaired after 1985. This is why the most vulnerable buildings must be identified, especially the ones built before the construction regulation of 1986 (without anti-seismic norm) and have work done on the main structures for the security of its inhabitants. For this, creative policies are required so that individuals have a financial interest of their own to obtain resources that secure the seismic refurbishment of these buildings. Designing a scheme of bonuses of additional density can be an attractive incentive in order to achieve the construction improvements of older buildings where the economy is notoriously unfavorable.


How do we build our City? Local design and urban social fabric

The reconstruction of affected households must be done while respecting the tradition and local culture, improving social cohesion and guaranteeing an optimum level of comfort through designs adapted to the climate, amongst them local design. The urgency to reconstruct must not mean renouncing to this even though it takes more time. Also, building only with designs and conventional materials (like industrial blocks, concrete and steel, among others) could elevate its price and diminish its availability. Finally, imposing foreign models in traditional localities could also compromise social cohesion, the urban image and cultural identity of an entire community, so having a long term vision is necessary.


A new model of decentralization of services and employment

Mexico City is the most important center of the country as it concentrates the majority of educational, cultural, services and employment offer. This makes it the city which attracts the most population of the country. Even though there have been several attempts to decentralize the city in the 1970s through the National Development Plan and after the 1985 earthquake, the expected results were not achieved. This has encouraged a growing housing, land and water demand. Events such as floods, poor air quality and earthquakes remind us that the city requires a new decentralization model and new poles of development for the country. The design and execution of the new model should be implemented through programs that promote and boost economic development in other cities. In the country, there are at least ten emerging cities that could be the object of this new model to diminish pressure over Mexico City.


Mobility and resilience: Reorienting infrastructure and transport systems

Facing an emergency, public transport systems are essential, as saturation of roads occur as well as closing of certain circulation areas. Transporting more people with fewer vehicles becomes of utmost importance. For this, it is necessary to establish emergency protocols so that, together with the government’s massive transportation, licensed public transport can function more efficiently during a crisis. On the other hand, the exclusive and priority lanes for public transportation also serve for emergency vehicles, so its expansion to more areas in the city would allow to better everyday mobility, as well as to give more access to assistance during a crisis. The recent event reveals that betting on the creation of an Integral Transportation System not only allows for the betterment of everyday mobility but also constitutes support in emergency situations in cities.


Final reflections

Although emphasis is made on the case of the tragedies occurred in Mexico City, the Mario Molina Center sends its condolences to the hundreds of Mexican families that have suffered and lost their loved ones. We hope that the lessons learned in any city of the country will contribute to alleviate the gaps and pitfalls that will translate into the mitigation of any deaths caused from the flaws in the planning strategies of cities, the management of risks and the insufficient mechanisms for adaptation of cities to such events.


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