Mexico City borrows ideas from Paris

A new mayor installs 'urban beaches' and removes 15,000 street vendors to make city more livable.

Taxi drivers are now wearing seat belts. Office workers can finally stroll through downtown streets without dodging vendors at every turn. And residents in one of the world's largest and most polluted cities – which is landlocked – can even swim at a local "beach" now.

This is the Mexico City of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, whose mantra is a better quality of life for all.

Some Mexicans say the mayor has presidential aspirations, and is making his mark on this sprawling metropolis of 8.7 million at the expense of more pressing problems. Others say that Mexico City residents have a right to less noise, leisurely bike rides, and smoke–free dinners just like urban residents in the US and Europe.

This past week, in one of his more contentious initiatives, the mayor sent riot police to remove an estimated 15,000 vendors from 87 streets in the city center. Successive administrations have tried unsuccessfully to shift the vendors out of the areas near the main central plaza. Store owners complain the illegal vendors block access to their shops and force pedestrians into the street. Vendors say they are simply entrepreneurs who can't find jobs and need to feed their families.

Since this past Spring, Mayor Ebrard has rolled out a series of steps intended to turn the capital into a more "fun" and habitable place. One of the first was "urban beaches."

Twelve-year-old Estefany stepped onto a beach for the very first time surrounded by towering apartment buildings and next to a major thoroughfare. But she didn't mind. On a recent afternoon, she had a bathing suit in one hand and a sand shovel in the other. "There's a lot of people who can't go to Acapulco [180 miles away]," she says, "but now we can go to the beach too!"

Complete with palm trees, live Marimba music, piña coladas, and large fans simulating a sea breeze, the seven newly constructed urban beaches initially were Ebrard's attempt to give lower-income Mexicans a place to cool off during the Easter holidays, when Mexico City's elite flee to expensive beach resorts on the coast. The seafood and marimba players are gone now. But most of the artificial beaches have remained open through the summer and fall.

Ebrard has also put on outdoor movie screenings and closed off Mexico's main roads to cars on Sundays, when thousands of cyclists and roller skaters take over the streets. He has implemented stricter traffic laws to protect pedestrians and has mounted 4,000 security cameras throughout the city to help fight crime.

Last month, Mexico City police got new powers to ban drivers for up to three years under a points system that increases punishments for drunk driving, speeding, and other violations. Drivers will lose their licenses if they accumulate too many points. Overnight, taxi drivers are wearing their seat belts.

The eco-friendly mayor also recently brought Al Gore to the city to talk about global climate change and is demanding that city officials bike to work once a month in order to reduce emissions. He bikes to work on the first Monday of every month – with his bodyguards following on bicycles closely behind.

Drawing from a variety quality of life and anticrime initiatives in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, and other cities, the newly elected mayor brings a unique blend of progressive ideas for the first time to one of the largest, most densely populated cities in the world.

"For us, it's important to continue promoting healthy living, and that means taking back public spaces to create a safe, better city," Ebrard told the Associated Press. "If there's no public spaces, there's no citizenship and no way to truly live side by side. What we are trying to stop is a phenomenon that tends to segregate us socially," he explained at an August speech.

These relatively inexpensive measures have been hugely popular with low-income residents. It is estimated that Mexico's urban beaches, which are modeled after the Paris Plage on the banks of the River Seine, attracted more than 100,000 visitors when they opened last March. Of the 100,000 visitors, 60 percent had never stepped onto a beach before, according to a Mexico City government poll.

But critics say that in a city where 40 percent of the population lacks basic services such as water and electricity, the money could be better spent elsewhere. In an interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the director of the National Water Commission, Jorge Luis Luege of the conservative PAN party, accused the Mexico City government of misusing resources. He warned that the city's drainage system is badly in need of repairs. If not tended to "the results could be catastrophic; we're talking about inundations like the ones in 1920. A megainundation."

Some Mexicans sneer at the urban beaches. Susana Obregon and Ricardo Thompson, who own a café in the upscale La Condesa neighborhood, erupt into laughter when asked if they have ever been to one of the beaches. "That beach thing was great, 100 percent a populist move to win over the masses," says Mrs. Obregon. "I think that the only purpose of it was to divert public resources," agrees Mr. Thompson.

Yet the criticism has not discouraged the mayor, who, among various future quality-of-life projects, plans to toughen antismoking laws and to bring wireless Internet to the masses.

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