The mission of the UCLA Latin American Cities Initiative - Ciudades - is to connect UCLA students and faculty to academics and practitioners focused on urban policies and planning in Latin America. Under its umbrella, I have taught several planning studios focused on urban and housing issues in Mexico. In this blog post, I’d like to highlight the fantastic work students in my spring 2020 studio course focused on how new federal guidelines influenced local planning practice in four different cities. Students carried out interviews via zoom and reviewed planning documents to analyze case studies in groups.
Throughout 2021, along with two student co-authors, I revised and expanded upon the student work to create an edited book, Urban Planning in Mexico: The Cases of Morelia, Leon, Hermosillo, and Campeche. We are very proud of this book as it not only presents a detailed description of planning practice in these four cities, but also makes three contributions to planning and policy research. The first is to propose a framework to describe “planning processes”. This may not be the final version of this framework, but the lack of an agreed upon scope of planning limits comparative scholarship and reduces the effectiveness of policy debate. The second is the evidence we provide on the impact of federal intervention in local planning through guidelines for plan development. Finally, we believe that our proposals for reform, directed at the federal agency that oversees urban development, would improve material outcomes in cities if adopted.
Going forward, I will continue creating case studies of local planning, and I hope UCLA students can participate in this exercise. It can be challenging to make sense of how a local government functions and why certain decisions are made, but it is a window into many important social issues and challenges of development, including inequality, state capacity, the role of informal institutions, and the evolution of local politics.
Without further ado, I will share the Executive Summary of the book to (hopefully) pique your interest.
Urban Planning in Mexico: Executive Summary
Mexico is experiencing critical changes in urban planning policies at multiple levels of government. Since the 1990s, many local governments in Mexico have created a Municipal Institutes of Planning (IMPLAN) to support plan development in a quasi-independent manner. The federal Secretariat of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development (SEDATU), created in 2013, has developed several new approaches to urban planning, now focused on implementing the 2016 Federal Law of Human Settlements, Spatial Planning, and Urban Development (LGAHOTyDU). New institutional arrangements and planning processes can improve Mexican cities' quality of life, environmental sustainability, equity, and economic competitiveness. This book studies the effectiveness of new planning efforts in Mexico and aims to reconsider questions too often posed not as a question but a statement. How does urban planning function in Mexico, and is it working well? How can different levels of government strengthen planning processes to create cities for all?
Many Mexican cities suffer from a cycle of residential or industrial expansion without supportive urban infrastructure, known as building housing without building cities. These urbanization trends, engendered by federal housing finance policy, exacerbate automobile dependency and make social infrastructure more challenging to provide. Municipal governments must not only build greater local capacities to tackle these challenges, such as technical knowledge and strong institutions, but also generate more revenue to invest in urbanization. Federal and state governments can play a much larger coordinating role to stimulate these actions at the local level, ensuring that local planning becomes accountable to residents through transparent measurable objectives.
We answer our broad questions by analyzing recent plans and planning processes in four municipalities: Morelia, Hermosillo, León, and Campeche. We find that each city has vital lessons for other local governments. Morelia, for example, has accessible and user-friendly digital maps that could serve as a model for disseminating information. Hermosillo’s approach to plan evaluation is exemplary. The continuity in planning policies in León is impressive, as is their system of indicators to evaluate planning progress and connection between planning and other local government areas. Finally, Campeche provides a potential model for improving the cadastre and property tax collection in other parts of Mexico.
These four municipalities have recently updated their urban development plans using new federal funds guidelines. As such, we selected them for the case studies as part of a graduate studio class in the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The case studies rely on interviews with planners and professionals in each city, document and data analysis, and literature review. We use a framework of planning processes to create a shared conceptual structure for assessing planning practice. We hope this facilitates knowledge building and policy debate.
The five processes we study are: creating a plan, implementing the plan, raising revenue to fund urban infrastructure, upgrading existing neighborhoods to ensure equal access across the city, and investing in new infrastructure to support growth.
In each case study, we first present a brief urban history and contextual data. Then, we describe the local government planning activities, the current plan, and the city’s political history. We focus on a few areas in the planning process, including transparency in local planning, the mechanisms for changing land use, examples of one infrastructure project and once case of enforcement of land-use rules, and an evaluation of the plan, including GIS analysis comparing local zoning with federal policies.
Proposals for Reform of the Planning Process
In addition to specific policy recommendations for each municipality, we synthesize our research into six guiding principles for urban planning. We consider these to be direct and effective methods of promoting better planning practice:
1. Follow the Plan
- Update plans periodically and regularly, for example, every eight years, to connect this process to other local government activities.
- Limit or prohibit discretionary changes to land-use rules between plan updates.
- Strengthen monitoring mechanisms to avoid informal development in protected land to ensure that municipal rules maintain credibility.
2. Evaluate the Plan
- Incorporate indicators with benchmarks, data sources, timelines, and a written commitment of the parties responsible for implementation in the plan.
- Share interoperable data and GIS files online with the general public and information to aid in their interpretation.
- Evaluate prior plans during the periodic updates.
3. Fund the Plan
- Tie the budgetary process directly to the plan to ensure its success.
- Connect federal transfers to specific planning requirements - for example, updating plans regularly according to federal guidelines.
4. Strengthen and Fund Planning Institutions
- Revise the municipal budget according to the plan.
- Deploy property taxes and progressive transfer taxes to incentivize densification.
- Consider spending some land-based revenue in a geographically determined manner to improve political appetite for it.
5. Promote Compact Development
- Use “carrots and sticks” such as property taxes, higher tax rates on empty lots in urban centers, and benefits for developing housing to incentivize landowners.
- Harmonize the federal urban containment perimeters policy with local zoning to improve strategic housing construction and encourage zoning transparency.
6. Ensure Participatory Processes are Representative
- Use participatory processes beyond public meetings and workshops, including talking with people in the streets (especially in underserved communities).
- Promote community engagement planning by supporting social organizations’ capacity, citizen observatories, and public access to planning information.
- Conduct representative surveys to inform plan development.
Learn More and Get Involved
The UCLA Latin American Cities initiative will continue to sponsor studio courses focused on planning and urban policy with the next one planned for winter quarter 2023. In addition, for students and others interested in learning more about the initiative more information is found on our website and you can keep up to date on our speaker series (the 2022 series will be short but excellent, previous research talks are available on our youtube channel) and related activities by signing up for our mailing list here. Suggestions for collaborations or new activities within the scope of the initiative are welcome, just reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy
UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Director of the Latin American Cities Initiative
The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.