Macehual Urbanism

After last September’s earthquake, I had Mexico City (CDMX) on my mind quite a bit. Not just the city and its residents, but also what it represents to people in Mexico, both the good and the bad. I ended up going down a historical rabbit hole trying to break down this complicated relationship, which led to the idea of ‘Macehual Urbanism’, a type of Indigenous urbanity that existed in pre-contact North America.

Origins of CDMX

CDMX was founded in 1325 as Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan, part of the Triple Alliance. When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés and his crew rolled in two centuries after its founding, about 212,500 people lived there. It was by far the largest city in the continent and one of the largest in the world.

Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan was more than just a large city though. It was also a dense city. An Indigenous urban city. CDMX back then was more than twice as dense as today’s San Francisco. Built in the middle of Lake Texcoco, it covered 1,350 ha (5.2 sq miles), roughly the size of a San Francisco supervisorial district. Today, San Francisco has about 72 people per hectare (18.6 thousand/sq mi). In 1519, Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan had 157 people per hectare (40.8 thousand/sq mi).

And Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan wasn’t alone either. The entire metropolitan area had a handful of cities as dense as today’s San Francisco.

Our ancestors achieved this authentically urban lifestyle without homes taller than a couple of stories, without metals, fossil fuels, domesticated animals or the wheel for transportation. It was an urban existence outside of anything that could be called “market capitalism”. It was a city built around and for humans.

The conquest, the plagues, colonial slavery and forced relocations shrunk the city, but it quickly grew again and became the focal point of Spain’s colonial empire. The Philippines was even “administered” from there.

When independence came around, the new national identity became intertwined with CDMX’s history. The flag celebrates the founding of CDMX. After a debate at the first congress, the new country ended up taking the name of the city, like Rome. All of these things were challenging for the people of a new country that had (and has) dozens of languages and cultures.

Many people living outside of today’s CDMX (the ‘provincian@s’) resent this level of influence, but whenever a disaster hits CDMX, it also makes it impossible to ignore, as we saw with the earthquake last September.