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MEXICO CITY JOURNAL Lush Walls Rise to Fight a Blanket of Pollution

The vertical garden aims to scrub away both the filth and the image. One of three eco-sculptures installed across the city by a nonprofit called VerdMX, the arch is both art and oxygenator. It catches the eye. And it also helps clean the air.

“The main priority for vertical gardens is to transform the city,” said Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, 30, the architect who designed the sculptures. “It’s a way to intervene in the environment.”

Many cities have green reputations — Portland, Ore., even has its own vertical gardens. But in the developing world, where middle classes are growing along with consumption, waste and energy use, Mexico City is a brave new world. The laughingstock has become the leader as the air has gone from legendarily bad to much improved. Ozone levels and other pollution measures now place it on roughly the same level as the (also cleaner) air above Los Angeles.

“Both L.A. and Mexico City have improved but in Mexico City, the change has been a lot more,” said Luisa Molina, a research scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has done extensive pollution comparisons. Mexico “is very advanced not just in terms of Latin America, but around the world. When I go to China, they all want to hear the story of Mexico.”

Partly, it is policy. Starting in the 1980s, Mexico’s government created mandates that reformulated gasoline, closed or moved toxic factories, and banned most drivers from using their cars one day a week. More recently, Mexico City added a popular free bicycle loan program and expanded public transportation systems.

Environmentalists are far less impressed with double-decker highways still under construction. But even the most optimistic Mexicans have never expected government to create “the best of all possible worlds,” to quote the character Pangloss in “Candide,” so many here prefer to rave about citizen-driven, cooperative efforts like VerdMX.

Mexico City has become an incubator for these kinds of groups, which mix corporate financing with new ideas. Some say the activity stems from the tangible nature of the problem; bad pollution is felt in the scratchy throats of all. But regardless, among the young, hip and educated — those opening new boutiques for modern Mexican design, and partying at the Vive Latino music festival — there is a growing civic consciousness.


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