The man who remade Mexico City

Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has given Mexico's capital – once infamous for its pollution, lawlessness, and general chaos – new appeal thanks to environmental and civic programs.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, right, speaks to media members inside a train during the inauguration of a new subway line in Mexico City in October. Mr. Ebrard, whose term ends in December, is popular in his city and worldwide for the changes he has brought to Mexico's capital.

Jose Guadalupe Gonzalez walks among giant paper-mache renderings of fantastical dragons and serpents, called alebrijes, with his wife and two teenage daughters in the middle of Mexico City’s Zocalo to celebrate Day of the Dead. Later, the family considered catching a play for free, also in the main plaza, or strolling along the nearby, new pedestrian streets of downtown Mexico.

In the winter the Gonzalez family goes ice-skating in the same spot. And on Sundays, any time of the year, they can hop on free bicycles and ride along Reforma, the city's most icononic thoroughfare.

In many ways, Mr. Gonzalez says his native city is an unrecognizable place, having transformed under leftist administrations and particularly the city’s outgoing Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, who has become an international star of sorts among the municipal set.

“Before the lower classes did not have access to these leisure activities," says Gonzalez, a retired mechanic.

Mayor Ebrard steps down on Dec. 5 with wide approval ratings over his six-year administration, which has changed Mexico City both on the surface and in ways much deeper. For starters, Mexico City simply looks different. There are all-women buses that circulate the city and newly paved bike paths traversed by men in suits commuting to work.

Perhaps the most important changes have taken place under the surface, via new laws, climate action, and violence-combating plans. Abortion was legalized in 2007, as was gay marriage in 2010, and later gay adoption. Mexico City has been at the vanguard of ecological change, and has also been transformed by the things one no longer sees: It’s now perceived as one of the safest places in Mexico.

In short, a city with one of the worst reputations among urbanites for pollution, lawlessness, and general chaos, has an entirely new appeal.

“Outsiders once viewed the city as terrorizing,” says Ivan de la Lanza, who works for the city’s bike sharing program called Ecobici. “Now it’s a city that people want to visit, where they want to live.”

Quality of life

It is on the environmental front that Ebrard has garnered the most international plaudits, and one of the reasons he won the World Mayor’s 2010 prize for best urban leader. After taking office he outlined a 15-year “Green Plan” to reduce the city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. The Ecobici program now counts over 50,000 users who can forgo their cars to commute to work along 17 paved miles of bike path. The city just unveiled a new $2 billion subway line that not only cuts commutes by an hour and in some cases much more, but also aims to get hundreds of buses off the streets.

“Along with [President] Felipe Calderon, Ebrard has supported environmental causes more than any previous administrations,” says Gustavo Alanis Ortega, the director general of the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights in Mexico City.

There are of course “incongruencies,” says Mr. Alanis Ortega.

The city closed down a giant landfill as part of its environmental plan, but that’s meant that streets have piled up with garbage ever since. Ebrard has forged ahead with new road systems, including a double-decker structure for the highway that rings the city. While it's been supported by some who believe it will relieve unbearable rush-hour traffic, it is criticized by others for the additional cars it will bring to the city center.

“He hasn’t made anything better,” says taxi driver Juan Hernandez Velasquez. “There is trash all over the streets. His ‘plans’ have brought more traffic. If we are fighting contamination, it doesn’t resolve anything to have us sitting in traffic on Sundays [when Reforma is closed down to cars],” he says.

But the polls show that Mr. Hernandez Velasquez expresses a minority view.

Ebrard's general popularity is evident not only in approval ratings, but in the landslide electoral victory of his party’s candidate for mayor, Miguel Mancera. (Mexican politicians at all levels of government are limited to single terms.) Mr. Mancera won the election with 63 percent of the vote, on a platform of continuity with Ebrard’s policies. (Meanwhile Ebrard sought his leftist party’s ticket for the 2012 presidential election, but was edged out by Andres Lopez Obrador, who lost the 2006 and 2012 races. Ebrard is widely expected to be a presidential candidate in the 2018 race.)

Part of what has made Ebrard so popular is his focus on every citizen's right to quality of life. For the gay community in Mexico City, that means equal rights to marry partners and adopt children. For the lower-classes that means access to leisure. “Many people in this city could not go to the theater otherwise,” says Jose de la Rosa, the coordinator for historic patrimony for the secretary of culture in Mexico City.

In addition, the Ecobici project is not only an environmental initiative, but an exercise in inclusion, says Rodrigo Guerrero, a strategist for the program. “It is not necessary to have a car or better job to enjoy the city or have a good quality of life," Mr. Guerrero says.

But perhaps most important to Ebrard' supporters is the sense of safety that people today feel in Mexico City. In part that is because the drug-related violence that has captured global headlines has stayed on the periphery of Mexico City, for now. But the mayor also pioneered a security camera program that residents largely support.

“In terms of public security, it is clear that the city today is one of the safest in the country,’’ says Adriana Maciel, who works as the Mexico editor for the global organization City Mayors Foundation.

“This is important to emphasize given the grave situation of violence that the rest of Mexico is experiencing.”

'Thieves all around us'

Despite all of these advances, Mexico City is still riddled with problems. The capital might be perceived as relatively safer than the rest of Mexico, but the key word is “relative.” A majority continues to believe that crime is worse today. One recent poll is telling of the limits of improvement: According to an October survey in the daily Universal, there was a five percent reduction (from 66 percent in 2011 to 61 percent this year) of those who say that crime has increased in the neighborhood in which they live.

In fact, Gonzalez’s wife, Rosa Hernandez Bravo, is one who says that she feels just as insecure as she did last year, and as she did six years ago. “There are many thieves all around us,” Ms. Hernandez Bravo says.

Her husband interrupts. “It’s much better now,” he says. He lists off several programs that have improved their quality of life, especially for the elderly, he says.

“Ebrard has recuperated many public spaces,” he says.

But husband and wife clearly do not always see eye-to-eye. “I think the city’s as ugly as ever,” she says, smiling.

He shrugs, the girls laugh, and they walk off to view the rest of the alebrijes exhibit.

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