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  • A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City by Matthew Vitz
  • Eric Spears
A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and
the Growth of Mexico City
Matthew Vitz. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 2018. 338 pp.;
maps, photos, notes, bibliog., and index. $27.95 (paperback)
(ISBN-13: 978-0822370406).

The literature in political ecology often focuses on contemporary problems and, at times, the forecasting of global capitalism’s impact on local environments and people. These approaches have been commonly used in the study of Latin American political ecology, where poverty, social marginalization, and ecological destruction are more pronounced on the landscape. Perhaps most noteworthy of these contemporary Latin American research efforts is the work done by Erik Swyndgedouw (1995) on the urban political ecology of water in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Other political ecology works tend to focus on the current state of the of the anthropocene era (Ernston and Swyngedouw, 2019). Matthew Vitz (2018), however, takes a decidedly different approach to understanding the political ecology and development of Latin America’s largest city, Mexico City. He looks at the city’s political ecology through an historical materialist perspective. Vitz’s book is part of a broader series by Duke University Press called Radical Perspectives: A Radical History of Review Book Series.

Vitz’s recent publication of A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City examines urban and environmental planning through the historical lens of politics, social struggle, and urban planning. Vitz bookends his Mexican study at the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1940s. He focuses on the Porfirian metropolitan environment through the rise of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PRI), which established itself as the dominate political party in Mexico. He maintains a political ecology tone throughout the book by writing “the politics of water and hygiene were the focal points of this (modernization) political transformation” (Vintz, p. 81). The decades within Vintz’s study provide an important glimpse into the federal district’s early efforts at modernization and urbanization, both of which established the precedent for the city’s exponential uneven development and environmental problems. The author argues that Mexico City’s modernization and urbanization are results of an “environmental technocracy”. The technocracy was represented by corrupted politics that favored large and expensive engineered solutions to urban planning at the detriment of marginalized communities. Vintz’s 1922 case study on the suppression of tenant rights movement exposes the power relations within a modernizing Mexico City (Vintz, p. 165).

Vintz further explains Mexico City’s technocratic approach to urban planning with his case analysis of the Lake Texcoco reclamation project of the 1930s, which [End Page 324] spawned new single housing projects for the upper middle-class and wealthier elite. He writes about this production space in the following way: “Engineers operate amid ecological change and divergent social interests, and they respond to both social and environmental forces in accord with the interests they represent, in this case, urban-sanitary and class-infected political interests” (Vintz, p. 147).

This historical analysis is reminiscent of David Harvey’s (1989) Grid of Spatial Practices, which is also based on Henri Lefebrve’s (1974) theory on the production of space, and within an historical materialist perspective of urban development and class struggle. Vintz’s research is not built on Harvey’s conceptual framework, per se, but does share its spirit of critical theory. Vintz presents a set of dialectical relations and modernism directed by another set of “elite environmental imaginaries, and vibrant natures interested to mold urban engineering schemes” (Vintz, p. 147). The author connects these environmental imaginaries to the impact of Mexico’s ejido system, a community-based and collective form of farming. Urban expansion and large-scale reclamation paved the way for the formation of Mexico City’s first modern shanty towns, as exemplified as colonia proleterias in flood-prone zones.

Vintz makes an important contribution to political ecology’s literature and discourse. His research reminds us that environmental history is fundamental to our understanding of temporal productions of space—past and present. A City on a Lake is also an insightful glimpse into Mexico...


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pp. 324-325
Launched on MUSE
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