Weeks after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, the combative leftist leader angered international investors and the Mexican business community by canceling the airport, which was already about a third complete. During his campaign, López Obrador denounced the project’s management for excessive spending and corruption. Then, in a post-election referendum launched by López Obrador’s party, the public voted to abandon it (although critics claimed the results were unrepresentative, with only one Mexican voter out of 90 voting).
Left behind was an eerily empty landscape larger than Paris, encircled by the sprawl of Greater Mexico City. Within this vast footprint, the president decreed, the city would build one of the largest urban parks in the world, a project he dubbed a “new Tenochtitlan”. To oversee what would become Lake Texcoco Ecological Park (PELT), he appointed Iñaki Echeverria, a Mexican architect and landscaper who had spent more than two decades advocating for the restoration of the site.
Echeverria’s vision for the park is part of a wave of projects that have turned the traditional goal of ecosystem restoration on its head: to return ecosystems to the state they were in before humans damaged them. Instead of looking to turn back time, Echeverria is creating a man-made wetland that aims to transform the future of the entire valley region, learning lessons from Tenochtitlan and modern Mexico City on how successful cities can coexist with thriving ecosystems.
With a budget of $1 billion, Texcoco Park is repurposing structural skeletons and concrete gorges left over from airport construction to create man-made lakes and habitats to accommodate human visitors and an unprecedented mix of species . And the Echeverria team hopes the park can also help foster economic development by developing native plant nurseries and reviving endangered cultural practices, including the harvesting of spirulina algae. While the end result would bear little resemblance to Texcoco’s past, it could revive something more fundamental: the Valley of Mexico’s long, dormant history of building in tune with natural systems.
Yet today, miles of Texcoco Park remain surrounded by a perimeter fence, guarded by guards in military uniforms. As the project heads into 2024, when López Obrador’s term ends (he has vowed not to seek a second), much remains inaccessible to the public and besieged by controversy. Plans to revive Lake Texcoco could still fade away.
Back from Lake Texcoco
Bordered by mountain ranges and two volcanoes, the Valley of Mexico has historically formed an “endoreic basin”, where water cannot flow but diffuses into the ground. This process concentrates the salt at the lowest point where Lake Texcoco is located, the valley’s tub stopper. Throughout history, the region’s salt and fresh waters have served as a petri dish for the evolution of unusual organisms, including an entire ecosystem of now-extinct fish species and the axolotl, a amphibian capable of regenerating limbs, named after one of the Mexican gods.