Alejandra Trejo is a professor at the Centre for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies, El Colegio de Mexico, Ambassador to Mexico of the Regional Studies Association, and a UKRI International Development peer review college member. Her research agenda reflects significant interdisciplinary concerns about the issues of urbanisation, urban and regional economic development, governance and policy. She published has recently published the book “Metropolitan Economic Development: The Political Economy of Urbanisation in Mexico (Routledge 2020).
Mexico is the tenth most populous nation in the world and the fifteenth largest economy. With an urban population of 104 million people in 2018, Mexico’s urbanisation is around 80%, and 88% of the Mexican population is expected to live in cities by 2050 (UN, 2018). Urbanisation in this country has embodied the distinctive and dramatic patterns and trends that took place in the Latin American region: accelerated urban growth, super-rapid urban transition and a high primacy of the national urban system. More recently, the physical and functional expansion of large and medium-sized cities is the most manifest characteristic of Mexican urbanisation. In 2015, a total of 75 million inhabitants, that is, 63% of the total population and 76% of the urban population, lived in the 74 metropolitan areas (Trejo, 2020).
Nowadays these metropolitan areas are a major scenario of the development and urbanisation processes in the country, since they increasingly concentrate more population and economic activity. At the same time, metropolitan areas are of great concern because they impose substantive challenges in terms of mobility, housing, infrastructure and public services, finance and public policies, equity, inclusion, employment, economy and sustainability. As in most Latin American countries, accelerated metropolitan expansion in Mexico has been the product of the persistent government failure to plan, invest and proactively manage urban development in the context of extremely rapid urbanisation and significant decentralisation. One of the main obstacles to dealing with metropolitan problems refers to institutional and political structures that do not grant any type of legal or legal recognition to metropolitan areas. Thus, Mexico offers a clear example of what happens when the growth, complexity and expansion of urban areas exceed the capacities of governance and the institutional structures to manage those territories.
Among multiple threats, metropolitan areas confront the economic and financial challenge and face the need of finding adequate, effective and affordable economic development strategies. Low economic growth and limited job creation have been underlying developmental problems for more than four decades. Despite the relative importance of larger cities as engines of the national economy – with the dominance of Mexico City – urbanisation has not reinforced economic growth and development. This weak correspondence between high urbanisation and the evolution of productive activity denotes the failure of the country’s urban transition.
According to the OECD (2015), productivity per worker in Mexican cities are significantly lower than in cities in other countries of the OECD. Mexican cities have not exploited their potential for economic growth due, among other structural factors, to the accelerated and disordered urban expansion. In the previous decade Mexican cities had the third highest urban expansion rate among member countries. In metropolitan areas such as Mexico City’s, where jobs are concentrated in the centre of the city while the population settle mostly on the periphery, urban expansion has taken people away from jobs and urban services causing significant productivity losses and reduced levels of well-being. The remoteness to jobs causes high mobility needs, but mobility is usually limited by poor infrastructure, elevated transport tariffs and excessive travel times. The problems of mobility and accessibility give an idea of an urban structure that is detrimental to the well-being of population that lives in the metropolitan peripheries and far from economic centres, which in turn leads to conditions of poverty and social vulnerability.
To a large extent, the orientation of public policies and local legal and political structures have led to a model of urbanisation and urban expansion in which economic agglomeration is not efficient. Within this context economic development has become a critical problem that requires a deep understanding of metropolitan areas which are economically and politically different from the cities in the past. At a time when the country is moving towards different political direction, the recognition of the positive contribution of cities to economic development can be the foundation of a new perspective in urban planning and policy that encourages a more active approach to economic efficiency and social well-being. However, taking advantage of this opportunity requires a change in the way in which the country approaches all the difficulties imposed by urbanisation and also needs that metropolitan areas are placed as central spheres of territorial policy and planning (Trejo, 2020 ).
Prosperity will also depend on the advances observed in social mobility, inclusion, equity and environmental sustainability. High-level legal, fiscal and financial reforms that favour metropolitan management and planning will be of utmost relevance. Extensive urban, economic and fiscal reform, the structuring of multilevel governance and policy programs that empower metropolitan areas as productive forces and economic restructuring spaces are urgently needed to foster development.
OCDE (2015). Governing the City. Paris: OECD Publishing.
Trejo Nieto, A. (2020). Metropolitan economic development: The political economy of urbanization in Mexico. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429456053
UN (2018). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 revision. New York: United Nations.
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