MONTERREY, MEXICO — WITH the nearly unblemished mountains she is set on protecting rising starkly behind her, Maria Reynalda Duran looks out over the city sprawling before her and says, ''We're going to win this battle.''
The ''battle'' this housewife-turned-environmentalist refers to is one that could determine the future size, layout, and ultimate livability of Monterrey, Mexico's industrial center and third-largest metropolis.
This city of 3 million-plus people - roughly the size of Houston - is asking itself through a ''public consultation'' over several months how it wants to grow, and what kind of city it wants to be in 2010.
The self-searching is boiling down to a debate between the no-limits advocates who want Monterrey to embody the spirit of the North America Free Trade Agreement and grow as the market dictates, and proponents of controlled growth, who would use zoning and land-reserve policies to try to ensure a high quality of life.
Monterrey's debate over growth offers a picture of the ''new'' Mexico where forces such as neighborhood committees and environmental groups are battling for influence in what was formerly a monolithic system that reflected Mexico's old one-party rule.
New grass-roots organizations, encouraged by a more democratic and representative government, are challenging the traditional powers of the state, political parties, land owners, and monied developers for the city's future.
''Our thinking [in Mexico] about how we live in our surroundings is really changing, and more people are getting involved,'' says Mrs. Duran, who is widely known here for almost single-handedly saving Monterrey's oddly shaped Cerro de la Silla mountain from encroaching development.
Activists not a power yet
Yet while Duran's assertion may be true, many observers say the ''new participants'' are still too weak and dispersed to weigh much in Monterrey's growth debate.
''These small environmental groups are a factor, but they are weak and can't really claim to be rallying important public support,'' says Gustavo Garza, a Monterrey native and professor of urban studies at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. ''Quality-of-life issues are starting to be a concern in academic circles, but they still don't figure at the top of the political agenda.''
The idea that a decade-old land-use plan for the city - never really enforced anyway, says Mr. Garza - should be more ''flexible'' to permit cheaper development in the future is what's really catching on among the city's powerful elite.
And with Mexico still reeling from a deep economic downturn, local governments are tempted to follow a reasoning that promoters say promises renewed economic growth, he adds.
''This is a decisive moment in Monterrey,'' says Roberto Garcia Ortega, director of planning and urban development for Nuevo Leon, the northern Mexican state of which Monterrey is the capital.
''The developers say their no-limits arguments reflect the free-market economy Mexico has embraced, while we are the counterweight trying to put long-term interests above short-term gains,'' he says. ''But the heavy weight is not on our side.''
Monterrey might be compared to a Pittsburgh becoming a Phoenix. In this century the city grew up on steel, glass, and other heavy industries, but more recently it has begun a shift to financial services, higher education, and a general service economy.
Modern industrial parks spread out over the scrub of a semi-arid topography.
The city's population almost doubled every decade from 1940 to 1980, but by the 1980s such problems as pollution, infrastructure, public safety - and job scarcity - increasingly accompanied the fast growth.
Monterrey's problems began mirroring those of giant Mexico City to the south, although Garza says the dimensions of the problems are much different.
''At its peak Monterrey was growing by 55,000 people a year,'' he says. ''In Mexico City, on the other hand, that figure was 650,000 a year.''
''Selena Country'' is what Victor Zuniga calls the region stretching from Monterrey to the Texas Gulf coast, Houston, and San Antonio to the north. Selena was the queen of Tex-Mex music who was murdered last year.
The urban sociologist at Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Monterrey says the region is defined by a predominate philosophy of individualism and economic freedom that in Monterrey's case is both a blessing and an impediment.
Many own homes here
That philosophy has given Monterrey its extremely high home-ownership figures, and is a factor in Monterrey having better basic services and education levels that are higher than in other large Mexican cities.
The down side, he says, is that this philosophy has discouraged collective action or the kind of higher-density housing that could check urban sprawl.
''Urban sprawl featuring single-family housing is a very expensive form of development that entails costly road construction to reach ever-more-removed communities and other infrastructure costs,'' Mr. Zuniga says.
He and other urban specialists here say Monterrey is following the model of neighboring metropolises to the north like Houston. But it doesn't have Houston's budgets and technical expertise to successfully implement the ''urban sprawl'' model.
Monterrey's landowners and developers argue that the city's high development costs will fall if zoning limits are eliminated.
They blame such impediments for the fact that industrial land is costlier here than in Dallas, for instance.
But Garza and others refute that argument, saying it is other factors - the Mexican system of requiring developers to pay for the delivery of utilities, and Mexico's very high interest rates, for example - that keep development costs high.
Monterrey's battle over growth could continue into the fall, but already some participants say the lines it is drawing between protagonists could lead to some casualties.
Mr. Garcia says his support for some limits on development has already earned him powerful enemies who are lobbying for him to be fired. Garza argues that unless Monterrey listens to the new voices speaking up and plans for its future growth, the whole city will lose.
Monterrey could surpass Guadalajara as Mexico's second city soon after 2000, he predicts, ''but far from being a privilege, that will be lamentable if the city doesn't grow in harmony with its ecosystem.''