Travelogue: Mummified town planning circa 1500s New Spain

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A novice to Mexican travel, I recently had my first ever opportunity to explore Mexico – a Mexitrip a la Eurotrip of sorts, comprised of Puerto Vallarta, Tequila, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosi. Of the five, Guanajuato will stand out in my memory as one of the most incredible places I have ever seen. All of Mexico was great, and while Guadalajara was somewhere I could see myself doing the expat thing, Guanajuato is inspiring in a different, less selfish way. While I know I will never call Guanajuato home, despite my possessive tendencies with places I love, I want the entire world to lay claim to Guanajuato and reap its wonders.

This central Mexican city, first founded by the Spanish in 1548 with the discovery of silver in the New World, is unspoiled by modernity, which it has fiercely resisted. While the rest of Guanajuato state (Leon and esp Silao) have attracted modern manufacturing, Guanajuato has remained concentrated around its historic university and growing tourism base, the latter of which is probably its economic life blood. As such, it is profitable to resist change. The Guanajuato of today is not unlike that of 1548 – a non-motorist city where the laws of engineering and planning succumb to the laws of gravity and nature, resulting in a colorful ecosystem of sandstone dwellings arranged along cliffsides and interrupted only by monumental gathering places and cathedrals.

The city was built around three key “innovations” in urban planning history: Vernacular mixed-use, functioning ecosystems of gathering places, and congestion detouring.

Categorically speaking, Guanajuato has three types of real estate I observed (compare to zoning classifications in most of the US): Hilltop/cliffside mansions (~5% of properties), main street/square frontage properties (~15% of properties), and vernacular mixed-use dwellings that line streets with steep inclines, the latter of which probably comprising over 80% of the city’s real estate. This is just simply historic mixed-use on a grander scale than we can produce in the US in today’s regulatory environment. Guanajuato is one of the few places on the planet where most residents in a city of 200,000 can live in a mixed-use dwelling, with shops (potentially their own) on the street level, which is afforded by having vernacular mixed-use. The result of this scale and practicality is that Guanajuato has gotten many generations of use out of these hundreds-of-years-old structures, while other cities across the U.S. and Mexico have repeated cycles of short-sighted development, subsequent slum clearance, and redevelopment. U.S. and Mexican cities are really not different in that regard.

As an aside, buildings are either vernacular (everyday) or intentionally designed for landmark functions, the latter of which is how and why mixed-use happens in today’s development climate. For instance in Ohio, when true mixed-use happens, it usually involves high-end condos, a flagship restaurant/retail tenant (think HQ Kroger in Cincy, or Whole Foods in many cities), and specialized/finite financing – this is moving the needle toward mixed-use, but not extending the opportunity to most housing consumers.

I believe that cultural context plays a role in Guanajuato’s ecosystem of gathering places, which can best be described as a connected string of pearls formed by intensively-used public squares, cathedrals, markets, and transitscapes, all connected by arteries large and small, main streets, alleys, and even singing choruses. The strangest thing I saw every day and night in Guanajuato was the estudiantinas – dozens and dozens of troupes of pied pipers, donning Medieval attire and customs, who lead public life in the main square around the theater and largest church. At nightfall, these troupes perform on the theater steps and then lead their audiences on a long walk around the town singing traditional songs, playing mariachi, and wise cracking at each turn. If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you know that mariachi can go on and on. I also later learned that the region’s anchor institution, Universidad de Guanajuato, is primarily known for arts/music, and this is what its students do. That said, I still found it paranormal that these troupes have been doing this – activating and programming their town’s public spaces – every single night, of every year, since 1962 (I could have been fooled and convinced it dates back to 1548).

Of note relative to Guanajuato’s public spaces are the way that one space or square (such as the Jardin Union, or central plaza) taper into others like the Cathedral Square. Also of note, squares have public display foci, deliberate views created and maintained, and often actual stages or steps used as stage. Additionally non-performance squares, such as a mercado plaza, still put vendors “on stage” and put the approaching pedestrians up in risers a la steps. These Mexican squares also make use of vertical separation by thoughtfully sinking activity spaces and raising the approach. I think a bad recreation of these spaces, as attempted by the indoor shopping mall of the 1970s and 1980s, often replicated this order in designing food courts and other gathering places.

Lastly, as pretty much all of Guanajuato City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s urban fabric is sensitive and vulnerable. Furthermore, growing tourism activity has increased traffic volume beyond what the city’s cobblestone pavers can carry. The solution to this imbalance has been an underground network of major streets that carry most of the city’s motorized traffic to a point where transportation users can switch to human means above ground. The tunnels of Guanajuato were originally built in 1883 to save the over-built hillside city from increased flooding risk; the tunnels have been expanded and converted to roadways with the added capacity for flood runoff. This reminds me of the way Houston’s freeways are designed to serve as drainage corridors (some even with advanced permeable cisterns below pavement) when the city’s frequent floods overwhelm the reservoir network. While in Houston the result has been over-built capacity for traffic and under-built capacity for flooding, in Guanajuato the opposite is true, and the practical outcome is probably Mexico’s top urban tourism destination.

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