By Paavo Monkkonen, FCL of Global Urbanization and Regional Development, Professor of Urban Planning
This quarter, I am teaching an international planning studio; Urban Policy and Housing Markets: Increasing Infill in Tijuana, Mexico. As others from Luskin Global have written about in prior GPA blogs, I think international experience is important for all planning graduate students, even if they do not intend to work outside of the United States. Moreover, I feel strongly that planners (and everyone) in the United States should make an effort to understand Mexico better. I hope that this quarter’s planning studio in Tijuana will become an annual Luskin effort to learn about and learn from the exciting urban landscape that is Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.
The course has two goals. The first is to evaluate the impacts of the new federal approach to urban policy in Mexico through a case study of the city of Tijuana, and to provide some analysis and perhaps recommendations to the federal government. The second goal is to explore the social construction of property markets in a more abstract way, and think about what it means for people’s lives when housing finance becomes more available and the way people access housing is transformed. It is a focused study, examining and questioning assumptions within the somewhat vague idea of ‘international development’. Tijuana is our case study because it is a Mexican city, and we are trying not to focus on the city’s vibrant art scene, food scene, craft beer scene, music scene, and fashion scene, and the myriad cultural debates about hybridity and identity at the US-Mexico border.
Context: Reversing two decades of ‘overbuilding’
After two decades of what is considered a failed housing policy or even a major planning disaster, Mexico’s federal government is attempting to reverse course. A series of new policies promoting compact cities and ‘densification’ are being implemented to address the impacts of the massive increase in housing finance across the country that started in the mid-1990s and culminated in a construction boom between 2000 and 2008. The prior policy, based on the federal housing fund INFONAVIT, was the driving force behind the construction of large, peri-urban developments of small single family homes in almost every city in the country. Many of these houses are now empty (roughly 30%) and many of the developments exhibit serious signs of physical decay, even though they are less than a decade old.
Reforms are attempting to direct new housing loans to the central areas of cities, to emphasize lending for ‘used’ housing rather than new housing built by developers, and to modernize property registries and cadasters. The success of these reforms depends in part on what I call the ‘institutional infrastructure’ of the housing market, the legal, financial, and planning systems, as well as public services, real estate development, market practices, and social norms around property transactions. These are the parallel institutions that must also function if the federal government’s vision of a ‘developed’ housing market is to be realized. In this course, we are assessing how this infrastructure functions in the city of Tijuana, and whether it can be reformed to promote federal government goals of infill development and higher urban densities.
At the same time, we are asking ourselves the more difficult questions about what it means to have a ‘developed’ housing market, and what the goals of a financialized housing system imply for people’s lives. On this latter point, we are engaging with theory on how markets are enacted and performed, and have had brought in guest speakers from anthropology and economics to unpack several basic but core concepts. We are also contrasting the operation of housing markets in Mexico with those in the United States and considering the implications of the differences in institutions.
Site visits and meetings in Tijuana
As a studio course, one of the core components is a problem-oriented applied research project. We are taking two trips to Tijuana to do site visits and research different topics. In our first trip, we met with several experts, and visited two new, very different housing developments.
At the Business Innovation and Technology Center, an adaptive reuse co-working space formerly housed a big-box supermarket, we met with Saul de los Santos (Figure 1), an economic development consultant who discussed regional industrial development in the region with us; Armando Diaz, a representative of the major federal housing finance organization INFONAVIT, and Miguel Angel Grajeda, a real estate consultant who explained several aspects of the property market including the models for land values he had developed for the city government. These discussions provided important background for the research and identified key challenges to the functioning of the property market; high vacancy rates because of oversupply, a lack of information, and numerous problems stemming from the local government’s inability to keep pace with the rate of development during the boom period.
The first housing development we visited was a 28-unit apartment building near completion on the top of a hill in Col. Cumbres de Juarez. The architect/developer is Jorge Alberto Gutierrez Topete, who has done such projects as the large New City towers near the San Ysidro border crossing. In addition to being impressed by the view and the layout of some of the units in this building, we were interested to learn that roughly a third of the units had been purchase in part through the federal housing agency INFONAVIT. In this case, the push towards density had functioned though only for the relatively high-income households that would live here. Figure 2 shows our class touring the building’s penthouse, Figure 3 is the view, and Figure 4 is a picture of Arq. Jorge Alberto Gutierrez Topete with our class.
Later in the day, we had a fruitful happy hour (Figure 5) with graduate students in Regional Development from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), and Professor Tito Alegría. We discussed possible collaborations between the two institutions and the need for cross-border interaction in the area of urban planning. A planner originally from Tijuana but now working for SANDAG discussed how only in the last few years did planning organizations in the San Diego region begin incorporating cross-border flows into their models.
The second project we visited, Natura, was a sharp contrast to the new condo building in Cumbres de Juarez. It is located at the farthest edge of the city’s peri-urban space, what is actually ex-urban. Figure 6 shows the class in front of one section of Natura, surrounded by gorgeous countryside. The Natura development combines mid-rise buildings (Figure 7) with single-family housing, but its biggest selling point is that unlike the failed, peri-urban developments of the boom period, it includes services such as a community center (Figure 8), a fire station, and retail shops. In spite of the federal government’s efforts to promote infill development, this most active housing development in the city, what the federal housing fund’s representative referred to as his best client.
We visited the site of housing mass production in Natura’s new section, and watched as new houses of poured concrete were made out of molds (Figures 9 and 10), like so many cookies. But the original cookie-cutter houses are transformed within a short period of time (Figure 11). Second floors are added, new rooms built on front lawns, and commercial spaces replace living spaces as residents of these low-income suburbs begin informal business (we saw internet cafes, restaurants, car repair shops, and a cross-fit studio).
Our guide to the Natura development epitomized an earnest practitioner trying to do the right thing in a flawed system. She began her presentation by invoking the Margaret Mead quote that adorns the entrance to the Luskin School (Figure 12). She praised the focus on community development in this new housing project, repeatedly emphasizing how it would not end up like the other, failed projects where houses were abandoned and vandalism is rampant. She assured us, they were educating the residents so that once the developer left they would be able to take care of their space. She invoked broken-windows theory and told us about their youth anti-graffiti team. She explained how they had been inspired by the experience of Detroit and were working on building community gardens, ‘urban agriculture’ she called it, in this ex-urban landscape.
On our way back into Tijuana from Natura, we drove through three housing developments that had been built during the boom. We quickly understood why our guide in Natura had emphasized their graffiti prevention program, as graffiti covered almost every building in sight, highlighting the disrepair. This began in what was meant to be a monumental entrance to housing development (Figure 13). We saw row after row of housing that had been abandoned after being completed, and row after row of housing that had been abandoned mid-construction (Figure 14). We all asked ourselves, what kind of system is still building new houses so quickly when there are so many already built houses sitting empty.
The goal of this studio course is a collaborative report. Students will return to Tijuana for a second set of site visits and interviews in small groups. There are five groups, each focused on a different aspect of the housing market; informality, infrastructure, developer practices, the social norms of property ownership, and housing policy/planning. We are all looking forward to learning what comes of this research project.
In addition to the course’s report, I am optimistic about building a stronger connection to various institutions in Tijuana, so that UCLA’s urban planning students can continue to learn from this amazing city and perhaps one day contribute to policies and planning efforts there. The wall separating Alta and Baja California’s coast (Figure 15) is a reminder of what we are all working to make obsolete.