Selections from La Ciudad Actual

In 2014 and 2015 I spent nearly a year in Mexico City as a Fulbright National Geographic Fellow, exploring the city’s feathered edges. While the anchor of Mexico’s capital, the Distrito Federal (or Federal District) has around nine million residents, the larger metropolitan zone of the Valley of Mexico is home to more than twenty one million people. The sixty municipalities surrounding the DF form an archipelago of separately planned and governed islands; several hold more than half a million people. And while DF is considered (both by tourists and many of its residents) a unique blend of pre-Columbian ruins, colonial-era palacios, handsome European-inspired avenues and apartment buildings, it’s toward the edges of the metro area that the western hemisphere’s largest city has feverishly been building a twenty-first century megalopolis.

Undeveloped land in sale in Tecámac, Estado de México. 34 km north of the city center.

This is a selection from that project, to be published online in 2016, entitled La Ciudad Actual—or the Contemporary City. Since 1940 the population of the valley has septupled, Corbusier-inspired “towers in the park,” housing many thousands sprouted. Hilly nature reserves and vast lakes were replaced by dense, (illegally) planned and designed informal districts. Millions of subsidized single family home developments have been constructed on cheap, distant lands, and shiny office parks have followed freeways through the canyons and ridges. In a suburban fit inspired by Mexico’s neighbor to the north and amplified by a destructive earthquake in 1985, the city has turned itself inside out. Broadly speaking, the rich flocked to gated communities and guarded towers to the west, the growing middle class secured loans from the government to buy small, aspirational homes to the north, and the poor built their homes themselves to the east and anywhere else they were able. Meanwhile, the Distrito Federal has yet to return to its 1980 peak population.

La Mancha, an informal neighborhood in a ravine in Naucalpan, Eastado de México. 14 km west of the city center.

A transect of Mexico City’s fringes captures the phenomenal diversity apparent in housing and development, and begins to reveal the commonalities inherent in all of the seemingly divergent typologies. Across economic, social, and geographic boundaries, residents confront water shortages, stupefying immobility, terrible insecurity and balkanized, wrong-headed, and often corrupt development policy, to name only a handful of the challenges. To me, the city’s built environment speaks to the breakdown of any planner’s conception of a binary between formal and informal urbanism, an ever-present adaptation to fluid (and trying) urban conditions, and a coming era of urban growth throughout the burgeoning parts of the world that will be evolving, unfamiliar, and yet inextricably suburban.

The Centro Urbano Presidente Aleman, a large housing project constructed in 1950 on empty, then-distant land within DF, 8km south of the city center.
Government sponsored homes in a development called Galaxia, Cuautitlán, Estado de México. 28 km north of the city center.
A row of government sponsored homs abuts open farmland in Cuautitlán, Estado de México. 28 km north of the city center.
People rise for commutes, often four hours daily, in Las Américas, a government sponsored housing development in Ecaptepec, Estado de México. 21 km north of the city center.


An ad for Los Héroes, a government sponsored housing development, “your best option,” in Ecatepec, Estado de México. 22 km north of the city center.

Bosque Real, a luxury golf-oriented housing development in Naucalpan, Estado de México. 15 km west of the city center

Feature Image: A shack in front of luxury condos and offices in Santa Fe, Estado de México, the city’s largest office district. 17km west of the city center.

All photos copyright Michael Waldrep 2015, all rights reserved. For more from the project, see

Los Angeles native Michael Waldrep is a documentary filmmaker, multimedia artist, and researcher focused on cities. He holds degrees in Film Studies and City Planning from UC Berkeley and MIT, respectively. He has worked as a filmmaker in the Bay Area and New York and, in 2014, was one of five inaugural Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, based in Mexico City, where he used writing, video, and photography to research the history and future possibilities of planning and architecture on that city’s edges. He now works with the interdisciplinary design group Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zürich.