Huerto Tlatelolco garden created by Gabriela Vargas
© Adam Wiseman

Green trumps gray

  • TEXT PATRICK WITTE
  • PHOTOS ADAM WISEMAN
  • ILLUSTRATION CRISTÓBAL SCHMAL

Mexico City is erecting green barricades to battle pollution: Lush vegetation on rooftops, in gardens and even on freeway pillars is improving air quality – and life in general.

Gabriela Vargas stands on the hill in Huerto Tlatelolco and surveys her realm. Blossoming cherry trees sway in the breeze, and in their neat beds, bok choy and tomatoes the size of tennis balls wait to be picked. “I didn’t even know that a lettuce could flower,” says the 47-year-old. That was before she began gardening in the middle of Mexico City 17 years ago. ­Today, she is harvesting bananas, and runs her hand over the nasturtiums as she breathes in the scent of lavender and sage. Vargas has created a green oasis at the heart of the Mexican capital. Her garden is surrounded by an ocean of buildings, a population of roughly 22 million people in the metropolitan ­region, and a tangle of access roads and freeways. Mexico City is one of the world’s most densely populated areas, but Vargas and her fellow gardeners have conquered a new open space for themselves here.

For decades, D. F. – short for “Distrito Federal” and the name many here use for the city – used to be the very embodiment of a rampantly expanding metropolis bursting at the seams: the ultimate traffic hell, a megacity enveloped in a milky cloud of smog. Mexico City was suffering from chronic shortness of breath, and taking a stroll here was as exhausting as running a marathon.

True, the city has always had its green areas: Chapultepec Park, the floating gardens in the borough of Xochimilco, and the parks in the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, to name just a few. But given the more than 50 million tons of greenhouse gases still being ­released into the air by the factory chimneys and millions of cars in 2014, there was always something positively moving, almost ­ridiculous, about their defiant greenery.

Gabriela Vargas, green activist

Gabriela Vargas, a green activist for the past 17 years...

© Adam Wiseman
Gabriela Vargas in her garden Huerto Tlaltelolco

...here in her garden, Huerto Tlaltelolco

© Adam Wiseman
The Angel of Independence gleams golden above Paseo de la Reforma

The Angel of Independence gleams golden above Paseo de la Reforma

© Adam Wiseman
Green treetops in Parque México punctuated by the lilac blossoms of jacaranda trees

Leafy roof in a concrete jungle: green treetops in Parque México punctuated by the lilac blossoms of jacaranda trees

© Adam Wiseman

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  Now, though, activists like Vargas are transforming waste ground into flourishing gardens, turning gray freeway supports into green pillars, and growing vegetables on roof terraces for restaurants in upmarket areas of the city. Even Vargas is amazed at the speed with which this green movement is progressing; it’s only been around for about ten years. The Mexican version of urban gardening is not all about pretty ornamental gardens, instead the many major public garden projects currently in progress are all focused on productivity. Vargas alone harvests over 1.5 tons of vegetables and more than 300 kilograms of fruit from her carefully tended beds and trees. She started the project 17 years ago on her balcony before taking it to schools in the neighborhood. She recalls kids who got their first taste of spinach at school and then went home with bits of green between their teeth to demand their parents start a spinach garden. Four years ago, Vargas found the patch of waste ground that has become today’s Huerto Tlatelolco. There, she cleared innumerable piles of rubble and garbage, carted it all away before beginning to plant.

We live in a big city. What we make of it is up to us.

Gabriela Vargas, garden activist

“The weather is ideal all year round, so we can basically plant anything,” says Vargas. More than 30 volunteers are buzzing around the beds with their neat brick borders, watering, raking and shaking so that the more than 90 different kinds of vegetables, fruits and herbs planted here can thrive. Some people spend hours on the subway traveling in from outlying districts to the huerto, just to plunge their hands into the cool, damp earth. The garden is open to all comers, admission is free, but you do have to pay for what you pick – the price is calculated by weight. In addition to healthy food, the people who come to Huerto Tlatelolco take something else away with them, too: a message. “We want the garden to act as a catalyst, to let visitors see that growing your own produce is worthwhile,” Vargas explains, “not just from a health point of view, but financially, too.” So she holds regular gardening workshops and ­invites school classes to visit the garden. She doesn’t want the next generation to wait 30 years before finally discovering that a lettuce has blossoms.

Via Verde along one of Mexico City’s busiest freeways

For the past nine months, ivy,foxtail and aralia have been growing on 50 of the highway’s pillars

© Adam Wiseman

  The problem is that the city offers precious little space for growth. Vargas’ garden itself came to life on a patch of waste ground left by the massive earthquake of 1985, but gaps such as this have disappeared. So if there’s no room to expand sideways, another solution must be found, mused architect Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, and directed his gaze upward. “Via Verde” (green street) is what he calls his project, which has since blossomed into a garden at the middle of the Periférico freeway.

A couple of years ago, a second level up to 30 meters high was built over the freeway, turning it into the asphalt monster on stilts it is today and one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. ­Resembling moving volcanoes, hundreds of buses and trucks gulch clouds of black fumes into the air every second.

Ortiz’ garden defies those fumes. For the past nine months, ivy,foxtail and aralia have been growing on 50 of the highway’s pillars, creating a green tapestry along a one-kilometer stretch of road. Over the coming 18 months, another 650 pillars will follow suit, bringing their total green area to more than 40 000 square meters and making for better air – and also for less stress. The mere sight of plants automatically puts people in a better mood, says Ortiz. “Here in D.F., we cannot wait for the government to improve the situation,” he says combatively, “we have to take matters into our own hands.” The World Health Organization, WHO, states that nine square meters of green space per inhabitant is necessary in order to prevent chronic respiratory problems, but Mexico City has just 5.3 square meters per person. In other words, another 30 million square meters of green area need to be created by 2030. That’s a very ambitious target, but Ortiz and his team are keen to do their bit. They are working to create a balance between the environment and the city. “I wanted to exploit my enemy, the concrete, by making it an accomplice for green building,” says Ortiz. He discovered the concept of vertical gardens in Madrid and immediately saw its potential for Mexico, where there is “no space to branch outward, but there is space to branch upward.” Ortiz held onto the idea for many years, burning the midnight oil, working with engineers and technicians, designing the sensors for light incidence, temperature control and water consumption fundamental to what would become his Via Verde project. “Some of the people living in this city do not have access to even one glass of drinking ­water a day. That’s why we collect rainwater from the freeway drains and purify it for the pillars.” As well as water, the pillars are given a three-layer felt carpet with pockets that serve as the individual plants’ “homes.” All of the technology comes from Mexico. Other countries, such as Japan, the USA and Germany, have been showing an interest in the concept for some time. Ortiz is very proud of it. Via Verde is a long-term project, and ­Ortiz talks of it enduring 20, 50, or even 100 years. “We can’t ­really make any major mistakes,” says Ortiz, “because we have already made them all before in smaller projects.”

The campaign for healthy nutrition and better air is gradually gaining momentum across Mexico City, both on the ground and in the air. Even the city council has caught on to the movement and is supporting the transformation from gray to green: “Plan Verde” is the name of the green program the city’s environment agency introduced in 2007, along with tax relief measures and subsidies. By 2014, the city had handed out a total of 1.2 million euros in grants. According to the plan, Mexico City should be able to breathe easy again by 2030, thanks also to cultivated roof terraces. So far, 28 roof terraces totaling 60 000 square meters have been planted. Step onto the roof of many a museum, hospital or bank here and you will not necessarily find yourself in a ­cement desert with water tanks, but more and more often among lime trees, kumquat bushes or zucchini plants.

Chef Irving Chavez Playas harvests greens on the terrace of the Porco Rosso restaurant

Chef Irving Chavez Playas harvests greens on the terrace of the Porco Rosso restaurant

© Adam Wiseman
Lily Foster’s Huertos Concretos

Lily Foster in the Huertos Concretos

© Adam Wiseman
Tuscan kale grows on the terrace of Porco Rosso restaurant

Tuscan kale on the terrace of Porco Rosso restaurant

© Adam Wiseman
Huerto Roma Verde

Other green projects in D.F. include Huerto Roma Verde

© Adam Wiseman

  Chef Roberto “Bobby” Craig, 36, was one of the first to use roof terraces in a big way as kitchen gardens for his restaurants. The son of a U.S. American and a Mexican, he is a native of Mexico City. He now owns over 20 restaurants, spread across several districts – and many of them supply a large portion of their daily produce needs by making a short trip onto the roof.

Map of Mexico City

1 Huerto Tlatelolco Garden
2 Parque Chapultepec
3 Via Verde
4 Restaurant Porco Rosso
5 Floating Gardens of Xochimilco

“The idea was perfectly simple,” says Craig, as he picks rosemary and lavender on the terrace of the Porco Rosso in ­Roma. “A tomato that has traveled 2000 kilometers cannot possibly taste as good as one that’s just been freshly picked.” Since 2006, he and his business partner have created an infrastructure that guarantees fresh products and short delivery distances. The government’s Plan Verde suits them down to the ground. “If we can make the most of the space available in the city, we will be able to offer our guests marvelously fresh products – without the delivery costs and without even more CO2 emissions.” Environmental activists, architects or chefs, the people of Mexico City are red-discovering their green thumb. Gabriela Vargas, for one, is highly motivated. “This is where we live, in the big city,” she says, “but what we make of it is up to us.” So saying, she walks slowly down her hill in the direction of some ripe eggplants that are ready to be picked.