Mapping My Megacity

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Heat map based on time travel to major cities.

To this day I stare out the window like a wide-eyed child, amazed by what seems to be equal parts chaos and order. I have practically memorized the 50-minute flight path from Guadalajara to Mexico City. Upon descent into the former crater lake, you first make out Chapultepec, the massive urban forest that is often described as this polluted city’s overworked lungs. It was also the scene of a battle between Mexican and US troops in 1847, which led to the western United States and the legend of Los Niños Héroes, a group of teenage Mexican soldiers that ignored orders to retreat and fought to their death. (While nearly all the streets in my immediate neighborhood are named after the “Hero Boys,” a far lesser known story is the mass hanging of US soldiers who defected to fight alongside the Mexican Army.)

From Chapultapec extends Paseo de la Reforma, a massive 12 kilometer artery that cuts diagonal across the city from Chapultapec to the downtown Zócalo, formerly the heart of Tenochtitlan. The wide, monument-dotted boulevard was originally named after Charlotte of Belgium, but then renamed to commemorate the liberal reforms of 19th century president Benito Juárez.

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Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s 1556 map of Mexico City

I could continue to write pages and pages about Chapultepec, Paseo de la Reforma, and Mexico’s City Center. They are three of the few areas of Mexico City that I visit on a weekly basis. Meanwhile I’ve never once been to Naucalpan, Itzacalco, Aztahuacan, or La Joyita. If I were to actually use Foursquare on a consistent basis then I – like Wall Street Journal outreach editor Zach Seward – would be able create a heat map of my presence around Mexico City over the past six months. It would show an intense red dot around Condesa and Roma with a line of yellow down Paseo de la Reforma, some orange downtown, with a sprinkling of green islands around Coyoacan, San Ángel, Magdalena Contreras, the airport, and Polanco. It is a depressingly upper-middle class map of Mexico City. As Ethan quotes Guy Debord, we should feel “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited.”

The problem is that merely mapping where I have been does not suggest where I should go to broaden my horizons. For that I tend to rely on local bloggers and friends: Daniel Hernandez, Nicholas Gilman, Tomo, Chilango, Condesa 140, Vivir México, Defecito, Pase Usted. While such a reading list will never leave you without dozens of things to do every single day, you will still likely find yourself in the same few neighborhoods and surrounded by the same crowds.

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Everyone is making lists these days. The best music of the last year, the last decade. The most important scientific discoveries. The best movies, the most livable cities, the technologies that have most changed our lives, the most important political developments. I’ve read hundreds of these lists, but only one remark stays with me: for the first time in all humanity we are now a majority urban species. Compare that to 1800 when only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. (The BBC has a great interactive timeline map that shows urbanization from 1955 to today.)

For me, the last decade was the rise of the megacity. Today greater Tokyo has a population larger than that of Australia and New Zealand combined. Mexico City’s population is now around 25 million; that’s about two-thirds of the population of all of Central America. How can you possibly wrap your head around something so enormous, so dense, so complex?

That’s a question that Juan Gonzalez has been asking himself for years now. As he writes in the introduction to his newest project:

Over the last few years, the amazing evolution of digital maps as pervasive canvas for statistics, galleries of avatars and location tools has given us a new perspective on cities that is fueling a great generation of tools that is helping us as individuals make better use of our cities. From traditional road assistance and full featured maps, to social games and applications that change our social behavior or the way we leverage the resources of a city.

Yet, in doing so, these maps have abstracted the beauty of our cities into polygons, dots and labels. In the best case scenario they have used an outdated satellite image or a few 360 panoramas taken a few months ago. In the worst case scenario we could completely misunderstand what a place is all about.

A native of Mexico City who now proudly calls Toronto home, Juan is worried about what we could call the “ushahidization” of how we interpret the world. That is, our inability to extrapolate meaning and significance from a satellite map with a bunch of colored dots.

I concur.

His new project, TinyWrld.com is a Tumblr blog that collects tilt-shift/time-lapse videos of major cities around the world. Through the trickery of a technology that has fallen drastically in price over the past few years, these videos are like snow-globes, condensing entire worlds into a snappy five-minute experience. The videos are compelling and offer a great snapshot of each city, but do they convince us to step out of our comfort zones? Or is our attention drawn yet again to the most iconic monuments and landscapes?

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To break out of our comfort zone is to explore. But why do it? What do we aim to get out of our explorations? I think that part of the answer is pure aesthetic beauty – the shape of a city, its buildings, parks, graffiti. This is why we tend to carry a camera around. Then there is the culture – everything that is handed down from generation to generation beyond our genetic code. The food, music, pottery, furniture, art, jewelry. All of this tends to change from community to community and there is a natural human impulse to seek it out, to discover how culture and place influence one another.

Lately I’ve also been thinking about the exploration of sound. Mexico City is probably the most musical city I’ve ever encountered. There is a language of sounds here that I am still struggling to interpret. Who in the hell is the guy who walks down the sidewalk every afternoon ringing his cowbell? How does one distinguish if a police officer’s brief siren is a greeting or an admonishment? What exactly is it that the old indigenous grandmothers are saying as they stumble up to you with a styrofoam cup of change, mumbling in victimization?

Daniel Hernandez and Daniel Perlin did a great job documenting the soundscape of Mexico City last month – a collage of street recordings, underground music, and readings from Hernandez’s forthcoming book Down & Delirious in Mexico City. But there is no way to visualize the sounds over the neighborhoods where they come from. (My guess is that nearly all of the recordings come from the city center.)

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A map of my first contribution to Soundcities.

It should come as no surprise that others are already on it. In fact there is a whole movement of “sound maps” with sub-genres like collaborative documentary, composition/artwork, consumer empowerment, preservation, and policy data. The most ambitious of these many sound maps is probably Soundcities, which calls itself “The first online open source database of city sounds and soundmaps from around the world, using found sounds and field recording.” While I love the outputs of the database, I think its greatest limitation so far is that there is no simple Android or iPhone application to record a sound, tag it with geo-data, and automatically upload it to the server. Though I imagine that dozens of such applications exist (such as GeoGrafifiti & Audioboo) and that’s it’s only a matter of time until we can browse all such recordings on a single map interface. In fact, having just discovered that you can now literally bicycle through Google Earth, I suppose that in a few years you will be able to “cycle” through any neighborhood and hear its ambient sounds as we peddle by.

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A map of Audioboo recordings from around Mexico City. I find the ephemeral poetry and meditations of Alex Marduk to be particularly intriguing. Others, like Nadia Molina, are clearly just practicing their radio voice.

In fact, if you are Mexican and listen to the audio recordings of Nadia Molina you will immediately recognize that she is from Mexico City. Mexico’s accents are as unique and multitudinous as those of its northern neighbor. Residents from Tabasco, Sonora, and Mexican City sound as if they’re from completely different countries. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any map of Mexican accents, and certainly nothing that compares to Rick Aschmann’s ridiculously comprehensive map of North American English Dialects complete with hundreds of links to YouTube videos that exemplify the differences in North American speech patterns.

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And yet still I don’t know where to explore to discover new spaces and cultures in Mexico City. I’m still dependent on the same usual suspects to offer their suggestions – especially my favorite set of guides, dF a la Mano. The problem with depending on digital media – or any media for that matter – to explore a city is that you depend only on those who produce it, an extremely small elite. Yet again we arrive to the fundamental problem that led to the creation of Rising Voices.

The world needs more projects like HiperBarrio and Map Kibera. Without them we’ll be constantly aware of how our lives are “so pathetically limited” in the words of Debord, but we won’t know how to step across those limits.

For the time being I’m happy with my new life in the world of philanthropy, where everyone’s greatest stress seems to be that they don’t know how to give money away quickly enough. But I have a feeling that at some point I’ll want to get back involved in project work. If I were to start a new project today I’d collaborate with the city government’s new Vasconcelos 2.0 digital inclusion program, which seems to be going nowhere fast. Through this network of “digital youth clubs,” which is being financed in part by the government and in part by the Telefonica Foundation, I would set up a series of digital workshops (ideally at libraries) in which youth:

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Three more links to conclude:

The public libraries system of the State of Yucutan has received a scholarship from EIFL to train a team of Mayan translators in order to create a digital library named “U Kuuchil Na’at” (The House of Knowledge), which is supposed to launch sometime this year. Once it does I’ll probably finally take a trip to Yucatan, perhaps the only Mexican state I have yet to visit.

I highly recommend Radiolab’s “It’s Alive” segment which looks at the research by Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt that finds a correlation between population density and all sorts of other variables such as life expectancy, economic productivity, energy consumption, etc. (Jonah Lehrer penned a much more detailed piece in New York Times magazine.) But what’s most surprising is their finding that every city has its own inaudible beat, a certain pace by which we all walk no matter where we are. Yet another statistic to place on a map. :)

Finally, if you’re a Spanish speaker and interested in the urban development of Mexico City, I highly recommend the Pase Usted talk by Onésimo Flores of Ciudad Posible.

4 Comments

  1. I need to get used to the term “ushahidization”, but I believe it is correctly conceived in that crowdsourcing technologies give us (the privileged) the illusion of participation in global affairs without really getting involved. Great visualizations are both fantastic instruments and monumental traps. Perhaps that’s why I think video is the last chance we have to leverage technology to bring people closer to understanding the soul of a city. My hope is that their documentary-quality will entice people to get closer to areas of a city they would’ve never even considered. If your “digital youth clubs” are up for the task, this is certainly a task that requires locals to get involved (and I’m building all the right tools).

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  2. Thanks for this great post, David.

    Just a few quick corrections: The Ushahidi platform and crowdsourcing are not synonymous. The former is a tool to create and visualize real-time maps. The latter is a methodology to collect information. Ushahidi platforms are not just dots on a map. Surely you know that. Ushahidi maps are interactive and can include pictures, video footage and audio files. The reports can also be commented on via discussion fora. Many Ushahidi users will also launch associated Google Groups and dedicated Skype chats for real time collaboration. So as I’ve said before, the main added value of Ushahidi platforms often lies more in the conversations they catalyze and people they connect than the map itself. So I do feel that the characterization of the Ushahidi platform that you and Juan present is just plain wrong . The quality of participation around an Ushahidi platform has less to do with the technology and more to do with preparedness and experience. If you really want to see dots on a map, just look at a hard copy map.

    Reply
  3. This post brought back a lot of memories.

    I find flying into Mexico City more fascinating than any other city. It is equally impressive during the day or night. It’s not just the sheer size of the city – Sao Paulo is pretty impressive too – but the flight plan that takes you over most of the city as you arrive. Sometimes the descent into the thick layer of smog is both fascinating and revolting.

    As to the sounds of the city, I remember that we knew the coming and goings of the neighborhood based on what we could hear. Because doorbells often didn’t work, people would announce themselves based on a particular sound. There was the man who drove up on his loud motorcycle and yelled “Las tortillas!!!” You had only a few minutes to grab a few pesos and run outside to buy them before he zoomed off. The milkman had his own particular whistle. Then there were the camoteros, who would ride around on their hybrid bicycle/oven that would emit a particular whistle. Another biker would be the guy who would sharpen knives by propping up his bicycle and pedaling to spin the sharpening stone. He had a little bell he would ring on his handlebars to alert everyone that sharpening services were being offered. The mailman would just tap on our gate. Our neighbors’ friends would have their specific whistles to announce that they were there for a visit. A few would yell out the specific person they wanted to see. Then there were car horns that differed in timbre and people had their unique rhythm of honking. And I can’t leave out the music – people sang without inhibition and car radios shared the music with the rest of the neighborhood. However chaotic all this may seem, the cacophony was woven into a complex symphony of place. All this may now just exist in my nostalgic thoughts, but I have no doubt that they have been replaced by a more contemporary version.

    As to exploring neighborhoods. I don’t think you are alone in the city when it comes to finding your movements constrained to a few areas. Involved I do think the difficulty of movement (traffic in particular) in the city is part of it. But Mexico is also very segregated by class (and by fear). Another issue is that a lot of the places you list, there isn’t much that would draw an outsider. For example, Naucalpan was right next to where I used to live, but there really isn’t much there for you to really explore. Unless you like small industrial parks and warehouses. Obviously, if you know someone there, they can take you to that special taco stand or show you that small plaza where you can hang out. But otherwise, you are the guero who got lost or came to gawk at how the “others” live.

    My suggestion, though, is to find specific places to visit in different parts of the city. For example, go to the Sonora market and get a limpia or a sobada. Go to la Villa and sit and watch the pilgrims. If you want to go to Naucalpan, go visit the Basilica de los Remedios where people with illnesses go to pray for cures (there is also a cool statue of St. George slaying the dragon/devil – I could see that statue from my childhood window). Or just ride the length of a metro line, getting off at every other station. An interesting illustration of segregation is if you go to the south of the city, go from Jardines del Pedregal to Cuidad Universitaria to Colonia Santo Domingo. Three completely different worlds within a few kilometers.

    But the city extends way beyond the DF. I couldn’t tell you what to see in Cd. Neza or Ecatepec or Santa Fe, for that matter.

    In any case, have fun and thanks for the trip into my memories…

    Reply
  4. Erick, that’s a beautiful description of the sounds of Mexico City – most of it still holds true today. You write:

    Obviously, if you know someone there, they can take you to that special taco stand or show you that small plaza where you can hang out. But otherwise, you are the guero who got lost or came to gawk at how the “others” live.

    And I suppose that’s my exact point about the importance of projects like HiperBarrio and Map Kibera – they make it that much easier to meet someone who will take you to that special taco stand. Or, at the very least, you understand why it’s special. Besides, I hold no shame at experiencing how “the others” live and I hope they have no shame coming to hang out in my hood. (Whoever “the others” are.)

    Reply

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