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Designing on Wet Ground: La Quebradora Hydraulic Park in Mexico City

On the 8th Venice Architectural Biennial in 2002 a transcendental urban and landscape project received a Special Mention: Next Mexico City. This proposal, coordinated by Alberto Kalach and Teodoro González de León, focused on recovering the lost waterscape of this megalopolis while reestablishing a balance between built and natural environment. After a continuous effort of more than 400 years aiming to desiccate a system of five lakes (which originally had 1100 km2 in surface) this radical project presented a strategy to reflood the old lakebeds, recover rivers and streams, restructure ecosystems, and give the city back the image of water while providing fresh ground for a contemporary megalopolis to flourish.

Apparently, the project was way too innovative to be understood by decision makers and traditional hydraulic engineers, two groups who had been in charge of controlling the rebel waters of the lake since the arrival of the Spanish. Nevertheless, the idea resonated in the minds of many other citizens, opening an important field of work where urban design, landscape, architecture and water can establish a fructiferous dialogue. This text tells the story of a project inspired in Next Mexico City, rethinking, tuning and scaling down its most relevant contributions in an attempt to change the urban and environmental future of this megalopolis.

In 1325 a group of nomads that called themselves Mexicas, coming from the north of Mexico, arrived in the Anahuac Valley, a place located at an altitude of 2240 m, in the center of a volcanic mountain range, characterized for being an endorheic or closed basin, holding a system of lakes in the lowest areas. The success of the Mexicas and of Tenochtitlán, their city, had a lot to do with the sensitive understanding of the context in which they settled. By creating a landscape based on digging earth from the lakebed to fill out enormous wooden baskets grounded in the bottom of the lake, and constructing broad roadways that also worked as dikes, they were able to live together with water.

The lake was never completely domesticated, but it became a terrible threat after the Spanish conquest, when, together with the religious, political and cultural dominion, came a change in the urban form. In 1604 the Viceroy decided to perforate the closed basin, aiming to drain lake water and stop floods. Ever since, a complex, expensive and fragile system of pipes, pumps and tunnels has been building up in the basin. Today the surrounding mountains at the north count with four perforations. The lake system disappeared from the surface, leaving the soft, wet and muddy presence of the underground, but giving space for a sparse city to grow.

Mexico City is currently home to more than 22 million inhabitants. Natural water sources have dried. Excess pumping from the underground has caused differentiated subsidence, creating ground cracks where the most vulnerable communities live. A system with a length of more than 120 km was built to bring drinking water from other basins. The urban fabric works like a voracious machine, sucking water, polluting it and draining it away with, in the best scenario, a poor treatment.

The hydric paradox of excess of rainwater and lack of drinking water is better perceived in the eastern areas of the city, such as Iztapalapa. This borough represents a collage of problems related to an inefficient water management system that are evident in people’s daily life, when queuing behind the water truck to fill a tank is an activity that takes at least one fourth of the day or moving furniture form the ground level to the rooftop repeats itself yearly. In parallel, the district holds approximately 2 million inhabitants, has an important lack of recreational open spaces (counting with 3 m2 per inhabitant or less), is home to a marginalized population and is one of the most insecure boroughs of the city.

In 2013 our team from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1) was asked to develop a research project aiming to understand the hydric condition of Iztapalapa while proposing a series of strategies to better the prevailing situation. Under that commission, we developed the Hydrourban Acupunctures project. We found a site in the eastern part of the borough, sitting on the hillside of Sierra Santa Catarina, a small volcanic mountain range that originally divided the lakes into brackish and sweet water bodies. The 3.8 ha site, located in transition ground (2), became our pilot project. This place holds the name of La Quebradora (the breaker) due to its history of being a site where volcanic stone was extracted, characterized for holding broken basalts, able to naturally infiltrate water through cracks that have been framed by two manmade basins, excavated and maintained clean during several years (2000 – 2015).

In the context of Iztapalapa, La Quebradora is surrounded by a densely populated area of 28,000 inhabitants/km2 where people used to have only 1.13 m2 per inhabitant of open spaces. Immediately to the North of the site there used to be recurrent flash floods as the result of rain running-off Sierra Santa Catarina’s hillside. Additionally, there is lack in the provision of drinking water and several mobility related problems in the corner where the site met the main and historic avenue, Ermita Iztapalapa.

We proposed to design a project for the 3.8 ha site that aimed to address each and every one of these issues, mitigating them. Additionally, the place would be self-sufficient energy wise, become home to endemic and highly adapted vegetal species, harvest rainfall, treat wastewater for its maintenance and for the provision of liquid needed in the planned public toilet facilities. We designed a landscape infrastructure: Parque Hídrico Quebradora.

The terrain was addressed by conforming programmatic platforms that adjust to the natural slope of the site, providing a promenade through these stepped plazas, until they reach the level of the infiltration basins, which were planned to remain untouched, only removing the excess of mud settled in the lower part. Contention walls were built out of volcanic stone from adjacent quarries. Four buildings were designed following this strategy, making rooftops part of the transitable spaces, and using large stairs and ramps as transitions between one and the other. The image of water was always considered as an important element throughout the project, showing drought or rainfall, following the topography and making use of some platforms as contention basins: rain fountains and floodable areas as well as wetland systems and enormous rain cisterns were designed.

It is important to mention the role of the community. They designed the program of the park, following upon what our team established as the infrastructural functions that it would need to keep and show. Their involvement throughout time in several design reunions has been determinant until today.

La Quebradora has had a tortuous history of seven years now. Its design began in mid 2013 through a conceptual project that could not be developed. In the second half of 2015 a newly elected mayor came across the project and hired our team from UNAM in early 2016 to develop the design, which took until mid 2017. The first phase of construction started with an amount of money sufficient to do the land work and build the volcanic stone platforms. These were concluded during the early 2018 when construction stopped. By the time, the design of the park had been merited with the LafargeHolcim Awards’ Latin American Gold Prize. This was determinant for both the project and us, helping push for fund raising from the city government to start the second phase, which was achieved. It is relevant to mention that by that time our contract had expired. All the support given to advance the park’s construction was done because we knew the project would mean a step forward on how public spaces of the XXI century should perform.

The second phase started in July 2018 under a lot of political and time pressure. Presidential and local elections had just happened. The newly elected leaders were all from a different ideology. With 75% of advance in construction, work in La Quebradora stopped under the premise of a mishap in paperwork. By then, the project had already won the LafargeHolcim Global Gold Prize, the Premio Ciudad for the best architectural intervention of the year, and a mention by CAF, a Latin American Development Bank.

La Quebradora was one of the several important projects, together with the airport, a train and some museums, being halted around the country with the change in government. There was also unfortunate and disinformed talking about it not being able to stand to its main purpose: mitigate flooding through natural infiltration. For eight months several things were said against the project, even by professionals developing similar work. These were all silenced because of three main reasons:

1. The project itself, cautiously designed and supported by the work and experience of more than fifty experts.
2. The support given by national and international prizes.
3. Most importantly, the involvement of the community since the beginning of its development.

On July 2019 the restarting of the construction was announced, now supported by the current mayor and the Water Works Office of Mexico City. Today the park is mostly completed, expecting to be inaugurated by July 2020. Several changes were made to the original design, such as the addition of a public pool and two canopies over an open-air theatre and one of the roof platforms. Even though we were not considered to develop these designs, we are happy to see that the essence of the project is still there and that it will finally be delivered to the community. We also learned that making a change in a paradigm that has been there for over 400 years, such as water management in Mexico City, takes an enormous amount of time, energy, strategy and, most of all, will.

Today, not only in Mexico City, but in other urban areas around the country, projects of the sort are being developed. At least five interventions are under construction in the city’s area, us designing one in Ecatepec which includes a series of filtration platforms and rainwater harvesting systems. Another transcendental assignment for the northern border town of Nogales in Sonora, where a dam is being restructured and transformed into a floodable public space. We have learned that public space projects become better by building one over the next, understanding their strengths and failures, the essence of their natural, urban, but also cultural, social and political contexts. These hydric acupunctures have historically healed specific spaces and their surrounding areas, but most importantly, they become part of a set of typologies that can be rethought and redesigned for centuries to come.


Projects main authors: Manuel Perló Cohen and Loreta Castro Reguera (UNAM).


Transition ground is the name for the land that sits in between the lakebed and the volcanic mountains, what used to be the perimeter of the lake. It is usually a vulnerable area as earthquakes produce clashes between rock and soft ground, affecting it.

11.Sep.2020 3536 views
Loreta Castro Loreta Castro Reguera

Loreta Castro Reguera is co-Founder of Taller Capital in Mexico City with José Pablo Ambrosi and Professor in the School of Architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FA UNAM). She studied architecture at FA UNAM graduating with Suma Cum Laude (2004). She holds a Master of Architecture from the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio (AAM) (2004) and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design with Distinction from Harvard GSD (2010). She was awarded several scholarships and prizes including a Fulbright Scholarship and CEMEX Marcelo Zambrano prize. Her focus is on the design of infrastructural public spaces to better manage water through urban design. She was the design director and technical coordinator of the UNAM project Hydropuncture in Mexico City, which received the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Gold 2018 and LafargeHolcim Awards Gold 2017 for Latin America. She was head of the LafargeHolcim Awards jury for region Latin America in 2020. She has written essays and articles for several magazines and books. She is a member of the editorial board of Bitácora (FA UNAM magazine) and TRANSFER.
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