Taming the streets - Issue 67 - Magazine | Monocle

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Like many city leaders who come to office and discover that their new post includes slogan-writing authority, Miguel Ángel Mancera ensured that one of the first things he did after being elected Mexico City’s mayor last year was erase his predecessor’s catchphrase from government buildings. As the city’s attorney general, the new mayor had earned the newspaper nickname “Supermancera” after personally negotiating a hostage crisis. Yet when it came time to re-caption the municipal crest, Mancera didn’t assert his own superpowers, instead replacing the grandiose “A Vanguard City” with the more restrained “We Decide Together”.

Around city offices, aides call him Dr Mancera, a reference to his credentials as a former law professor and celebration of the fact that in a country of party hacks their boss built his career outside politics. He has spent his first year reinventing government in his technocratic image, devoting a mechanic’s attention to internal processes largely invisible to his eight million constituents. Soon, Mancera promises, the results will reveal themselves in the daily life of the hemisphere’s largest city, one so complex it was not long ago considered ungovernable. “The citizens will begin noticing that things will become easier,” he says. “It’s a very important part of us wanting to become a government of innovation."

Mancera’s boldest innovation is the Laboratorio para la Ciudad, an in-house think tank whose staff is united only by the fact that they look and think nothing like the municipal bureaucrats whose work they support. “They’ve started to realise the potential this little monster has,” says Clora Romo, the lab’s director of creative projects. Already the lab has won promising partners: Mexico City is the first municipal government outside the United States sought out by Code for America, a non-partisan California-based organisation that is committed to deploy their digital skills to make local governments work better.

In Mancera’s case, the overarching theory is that only information can fully set free liberal policy making. A predecessor, Marcelo Ebrard, won international headlines in 2007 with a new law guaranteeing the right to an abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy for Mexico City’s women. Mancera has avoided the contentious cultural debate but has his own agenda to expand access to birth control: he’s asked his health department to organise its data on clinics that provide abortions so it can develop a phone app that helps women find one.

But Mancera is betting that sensibility can produce more than new apps. His economic development ministry is busy organising 182 scattered layers of data about every property in the city: their demographic and household characteristics, permits and licences issued, types of businesses and number of employees. These searchable maps will help entrepreneurs and investors, from a baker looking for a neighbourhood with a bakery shortage to a foreign company seeking to build a factory, with specific water-access needs at a given land price.

Mexico City has had only four permanent mayors; before 1997, the head of government was appointed by Mexico’s president and the capital ruled as a federal fiefdom. Each of the first three elected mayors had larger political ambitions and governed the Federal District – the core of a metropolitan region that accounts for one-fifth of Mexico’s national population and a far greater share of its economic activity – with an instinct for the type of dramatic gestures that can mark a plausible president.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador presided over massive new investments to make the city a primary deliverer of social services to its residents. In addition to abortion, Ebrard legalised gay marriage and adoption rights, projecting a progressive beacon in a traditionalist Catholic region. Under both, the city became dramatically safer and cleaner, with many of the familiar totems of the attentively governed modern city – rapid buses, bike share, closed-circuit cameras.

Mancera, who won as a candidate of the left but belongs to no party himself, captured nearly two-thirds of the vote last July but claims no mandate except as a steward of “continuity.” “The role of the government has been,” he says, to “push these initiatives along, to continue them along their path."

Mancera has reorganised government to promote collaboration across agencies, most notably by creating a new post of city manager to serve as a planning czar coordinating development.

“We lost a lot of opportunities in the past,” says Fernando Aboitiz, a former public-works minister whom Mancera named to the manager post. “There have been several periods of growth but the government has not been a big part of that.” Within months, the spirit of integration was everywhere. When targeting neighbourhoods for investment Mancera’s economic-development chief would name “walkability”; his environmental minister used crime reduction as a factor when identifying parcels of underused land for pocket parks.

Unlike López Obrador, who curtailed much of his administration’s foreign-travel budget in order to fund social programmes, Mancera has encouraged his team to look for inspiration far afield. But even so they acknowledge that the limitations to learning from peer cities are not solely fiscal. “Sometimes we don’t have the time to see what are the best practices, and sometimes we get the information but don’t have enough people to work on the ideas,” says environment minister Tanya Müller García. “You’re so caught up with the day-to-day work.”

The incoming mayor asked Gabriella Gómez-Mont if she would tend to the ideas. Gómez-Mont had launched Tóxico Cultura, a self-described “creative think-tank, a cultural salon”. Mancera tasked Gómez-Mont with creating a comparable unit within his administration, and she became the government in-house over-thinker. The Laboratorio para la Ciudad she established “is out to discover provocative ways of both thinking and creating city life”, she explains, “from the practical to the outlandish.”

Gómez-Mont describes her nomadic crew – which includes an architectural historian, a sociologist, a graphic designer, the founding editor of the Mexican edition of the magazine Domus – as “a City Lab with a delirious megalopolis as playground”. Although many of them have been active in civic life, only four have worked previously in government at any level, and even those are far from the profile of a typical Mexican bureaucrat.

Outside help in the form of Code for America is also making a difference. Since 2008 the organisation has placed fellows into city halls and state houses on short-term assignments with a charge to help US bureaucrats develop new digital tools. This year it started work on three international pilot programmes, each partnering with a different level of government, and found in Mexico City’s new mayor an ideal collaborator. “He’s putting a lot of skin in the game,” says Catherine Bracy, Code for America’s director of international programmes. “But I’ve no idea how long that political will or capital for something like this will last.”

One of the first requests the Laboratorio received this summer was to aid the mayor’s design department with the preparation of the annual report the executive delivers each September.

“They thought we were this agency that would make prettier the things they were already doing,” says Clora Romo. For annual reports, that often meant producing as thick a booklet as possible (even if that meant including blank pages) to send the signal of an active government. The outsiders argued that Mancera, whose administration makes something of a fetish out of modesty, could break from that tradition. (Müller even brags that her agenda contains only five major priorities, compared with her predecessor’s extravagant 21.)

The bureaucrats eventually relented and the booklet published recently was both leaner and more attentively produced than his predecessors’. The official record of his first year in office will be, appropriately enough, both a document of Mancera’s accomplishments and a testament to his restraint. “It’s OK to be a little thinner than the six years before,” says Maru Calva, a former book designer on the lab’s staff. “That makes sense.”

Street smart

One of the first places Mancera’s impact will be felt is on the city’s Axis 3 thoroughfare, 10km of which will be unveiled this autumn as the first example of the mayor’s Calles Completas (“Complete Streets”) initiative.

Instead of carving out space from existing roads to accommodate express-bus routes and bike lanes, the city will redo its major arteries from scratch to “design a street for every use of mobility”, as transport minister Rufino León Tovar puts it.

Pedestrians and cyclists will no longer be shoe-horned into streets laid out long ago for cars, Tovar says. He has begun to rebrand his office the Ministry of Transport and Mobility to demonstrate the expanded range of priorities.

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