Ciudad Juárez, Mexico - When most people think of Mexico’s border cities, they envision violence and drug smuggling. But if you are willing to risk a visit—and, frankly, it doesn’t feel all that risky once there—you'll find dynamic urban street settings that are largely unsurpassed in America. From almost the second you cross the bridges into these cities, you leave the suburban sterility of the U.S. and enter an oasis of density, mixed uses, and narrow, crowded streets. Central to this atmosphere are the many brilliant public spaces.
I had the pleasure of discovering this during several weekend trips across the border throughout my stays in Texas and Arizona. I visited Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Acuña, and Ciudad Juárez, along the Texas portion of the border, and Nogales and San Luis Río Colorado along the portion facing Arizona. I plan later this year to visit Tijuana, just south of San Diego, before reaching points further down into Mexico.
It’s hard to explain just how extreme the differences are from America, with streets jammed with people, commerce popping up in every nook and cranny, and Latin dance music thumping from storefronts and off the walls. Much of this is because Mexico's border cities have great residential density, with tight-knit single- and multi-family buildings sitting within or just outside downtown commercial areas. They also have retail strips that would violate U.S. zoning codes, crunching small brick-and-mortar storefronts up against mobile sidewalk food carts. But the thing that ties it all together are the public spaces.
Foremost among these--and present in every city--is the public square. These are one-square-block plazas that are centrally located, and form the de facto hearts of their communities. They are lined with trees, shrubbery, elaborate gates, kiosks and statues of historic Mexican figures. Unlike many similar spaces in the U.S., people actually use them, playing checkers and strumming guitars, and this is largely because these parks allow commerce, including shoe-shine stands, clowns selling balloons, fruit carts, and so forth.
Mexican border cities also have pedestrian malls, and like the streets in general, they are narrower, more intensive and less watered-down than those in the U.S. Whereas an American planner might walk down one of these malls and find dozens of code violations, they seem to work fine for the people here. The malls are open bazaars for society, commerce, and performance, serving as models for the organized complexity advocated within public spaces by American urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte.
Commerce also exists in the street arcades, which are often fit within narrow spaces, like alleys or the central hallways of buildings. This is where you can buy all the classic knick-knacks of Mexico: sombreros, cowboy hats, pinatas, soccer jerseys, Virgin Mary figurines and knock-off Gucci sunglasses, among countless other products.
Even many streets within the regular grid have this closed-in quality, with sidewalks that are covered by balconies and porticoes.
Along with the plazas covered by trees and shrubbery, there are more expansive ones that have tasteful tile and cement layering, and that are also closed to automobiles. They, too, are swamped with people, representing the greater pedestrian orientation of Mexico's border cities.
Of course, these qualities aren't unique to the border; they are common throughout Mexico and much the rest of Latin America. They result from Mexico's one-time status as a Spanish colony. The Spaniards, inspired by European design sensibilities, wanted to center the commercial and government uses within each town around public squares, and near the ornate churches that faced those squares. They also wanted, in an era well before the automobile, narrow streets and symmetrical plans that would grant pedestrians proximity to their daily needs.
In the United States, many cities were also built before the automobile, and some, such as San Antonio and San Diego, were even settled by the Spanish. But they evolved differently than Mexican cities, according to Daniel Arreola, an Arizona State University professor emeritus of urban planning, and author of the book The Mexican Border Cities: Landscape Anatomy and Place Personality. Arreola said by phone that throughout the 20th century, the U.S. began retrofitting its cities for the automobile—neighborhoods were torn apart by the government to build highways, public housing, sports stadiums and more. Zoning codes were written to separate uses and enforce setbacks from the street. And minimum parking mandates required that space which could go for housing and commerce must instead become parking lots. Many of these laws still exist, effectively illegalizing the architectural and design motif common in Mexico.
Arreloa said that American-style “modernization”, on the other hand, has already been applied to richer Mexican cities like Monterrey and Mexico City. But poor cities, such as the ones along the border, have never had the money for this. So their designs have remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries. This may or may not have hindered their economic progress. But one thing is for sure--it has helped preserve their engaging public spaces, and their broader urban realm.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]