By Gabriela Faz

How do cities influence social development? While this question may have been left somewhat unexplored, it is definitely worth analyzing in detail.

In the last decades, urban development in Mexico has been characterized by a steep increase in the demand for infrastructure and urban services, with the simultaneous weakening of the institutional capacity to address these needs properly, a situation that has led cities to grow in a disorderly, unequal manner, affecting people’s quality of life and leaving negative consequences for the environment.

In this regard, architect María Elena de la Torre, member of the Sustainable Territorial Development Research Group and the coordinator of the Western Chapter of C_Lab, explains that while urban planning is as ancient as cities themselves, nowadays it is essential that all parties involved in urban development expand their perspective for both generating interdisciplinary strategies and incorporating areas such as governance, science, analysis, statistics, or resource optimization, to name but a few, into their endeavors.

“We should promote the development of both critical thinking skills and a holistic understanding of what cities need, as this will help produce interdisciplinary knowledge to address social demands in an efficient manner and from different angles: housing, equipment, transportation, sustainable management of water resources, conservation of natural and agricultural areas.”

She also stressed that professionals in the fields of architecture and urban development must be able to understand territory dynamics, find eco-friendly solutions, and propose urban and housing projects that are efficient for both users and their environment.

Architect Nélida Escobedo Ruiz, the coordinator of the Northern Chapter of C_Lab, expressed her point of view, as well. “Our country has experienced accelerated rates of urbanization, with Mexican cities growing in a disorderly manner. This has resulted in big challenges, such as pollution, social segregation, poor quality of life, and even traffic congestion.”

In this sense, she further reflected, research in the fields of architecture and urban planning plays a key role and the findings should be applied towards overcoming these challenges through inclusive and participatory processes, which are obviously essential.

Strategies Applied to Territories

Both researchers outlined the vision of the School of Architecture, Art, and Design, which is currently taking steps towards finding solutions for the real challenges our country is facing. The School expects to achieve this goal through the creation of a national laboratory specifically designed for that purpose.

Our C_Lab initiative was launched a year ago and has already been implemented across the country through the collaboration of the five regions that make up Tec de Monterrey.

Our objective is to help in addressing the complex challenges cities encounter. To this end, we work from different angles:

  • Urban sustainability
  • Participatory governance
  • Design for social innovation

We aim to become a meeting place for public, private, and social institutions in order to develop new urban landscapes.

“What we do at C_Lab is that we respond to the challenges encountered in the cities by applying the resources we produce at Tec de Monterrey,” explained architect De la Torre.

This means that we have different tools, such as our courses, where we equip students with critical thinking skills that are put into practice during the analysis of complex issues and the challenges cities face.

“We have designed diploma and continuing education courses to explore in greater depth topics of interest in the field of urban planning based on the UN New Urban Agenda. In this sense, our goal is to help in addressing the challenges cities encounter. We are also engaged in consultancy and research activities. This is how we put Tec’s machinery and resources to work, focusing on specific issues of the challenges faced by the cities with real links to training partners, projects, and attending to specific demands”.

Getting Improved Cities

The following are among the projects currently underway at the Northern Chapter of C_Lab:

  • Analysis of the physical transformation of the spaces surrounding our facilities in order to improve our relationship with the streets
  • Applied research project to assess the potential effect of improving local schools on neighborhood regeneration
  • Academic projects to address regional issues, such as those concerning the Mexico-United States border, a zone with massive economic, environmental, and human flows that define and shape the territory while providing opportunities to undertake projects to find common grounds and bridge, rather than widen, the gap between both nations.

“We would like to explore how the tools made available by the disciplines of architecture and urban planning can help come up with alternatives to the prevailing discourse, as in so doing our students will understand the relevance of interdisciplinary work in addressing issues of such complexity,” added architect Escobedo Ruiz.

Meanwhile, Dr. De la Torre explained that the Western Chapter of C_Lab has submitted sustainable project proposals to different state authorities. That is the case of Zapotlanejo, a municipality where several projects are currently being carried out under the principles of sustainable development and management of water resources. In this place, sustainable urban planning projects focused on promoting non-motorized mobility, the recovery of public spaces, and intraurban housing construction to avoid dispersal have been proposed.

“Armed with a methodology that involves the analysis of the various aspects of urban design, from natural elements like topography, aquatic ecosystems (riverbeds, streams, and rivers), vegetation, and uses of soil to mobility infrastructure (highways, streets, roads), housing, and existing public spaces, the team of teachers and students at this laboratory conduct research studies, analyze findings, and turn information into maps supported by evidence, which are then used as a basis to propose urban strategies aimed at improving the surroundings,” pointed out architect De la Torre.

To conclude, architect Escobedo stressed the importance of research for the development of cities across the country.

“Research plays a key role, as it should be the basis for any project proposal or public policy. This is especially so because urban phenomena are very complex and involve different issues and players with dynamic and interdependent relationships.

Research lies at the core of the methodological and analytical principles needed to understand these complex processes and generate comprehensive proposals, such as platforms for dialogue that help in reaching consensus regarding one or several visions for cities.”

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