Mexico City: That Sinking Feeling

Recently, Venice made a number of headlines around the world when over 70% of the city flooded as a result of unique weather conditions causing an irregular amount of water to be funnelled into the Adriatic Sea. Apparently flooding in Venice is a common event, its just that this one was significantly greater than the usual.

I’ve never been to Venice, but reading into the geography of the city, I think its safe to say that the root of the problems relating to flooding, drainage, sewerage and the structural integrity of the city’s buildings are a no brainer. Regular flooding in Venice grabs no headlines because its pretty obvious that water problems are always going to be associated with a city build on a marshy lagoon. The 2012 flood was just extra-ordinary in terms of “ordinary” Venice flooding.

A recent adventure through Central Mexico ended with a few days spent in the country’s glorious capital, Mexico City. Mexico City was about 3.7% of what I expected it to be. Just like every other City I had managed to visit on this trip to Mexico, Mexico City took me by complete surprise and ended up smashing most of what I was expecting it to be.

One of the things that surprised me most was that Mexico City has been constructed on very similar terrain to that of Venice in Italy. The main difference being that the powers that be behind Mexico City’s development, decided to build roads over most of its canals and eventually drain the waters of Lake Texacoco, the lake in which Mexico City was built over.

Mexico City Cental Post office building

The result of this un-insightful planning decision is that most of Mexico City’s incredible colonial era buildings are suffering major structural problems as their footings continue to sink under the weight of the old stone structures.

Walking along downtown Mexico City’s gridded streets (Being from Sydney where I’m pretty sure the roads have been set out by a toddler with a crayon, I’ll have to give the colonial Spaniards credit for their planning here), the severity of this sinking becomes immediately evident. Church steeples uncomfortably lean over the sidewalks, parallel lines that run along the uniform patterns of numerous building’s masonry work takes random jolts in its consistency and a good portion of the city’s oldest buildings have to be entered by way of modern concrete steps to alleviate the problem of the buildings sinking below the street line.

Mexico City architecture

Mexico City magnificent architecture has another threat constantly looming over it: earthquakes.

As if building stone structures on clay footings weren’t enough, Mexico City also sits inside the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt. The earthquake of 1985 is a commonly referenced event in the city’s history, giving a chilling reminder of how devastating these two planning failures can be when they are combined.

Walking along the slumped marble floor of The Mexico City Cathedral (we’ll give the Spanish conquistadors another slow clap here for destroying the main Aztec temple where the cathedral now stands. These guys clearly didn’t read Dale Carnegie’s book  “How to win friends and influence people” before they rolled through the “New Spain”), you can eventually find yourself looking at a weighted level wire hanging from the cathedral’s ceiling, providing a measurement of the buildings movement. The visible signs of the buildings significant movements are amplified when you realise that this type of movement is happening all through out the city.

Structural movement measure inside Mexico City Cathedral

Structural movement measure inside Mexico City Cathedral

In wake of the 1985 earthquake disaster, the Mexicans have taken huge steps to ensure both their historic and modern buildings remain intact if similar events occur in the future. Old colonial buildings are full of engineering aids and modern structures are built using stringent earthquake resistance measures. New suburbs, such as the commercial hub of Santa Fe, have been built on the stable rock of the City’s surrounding ridge lines. They are prime examples of the steps taken to improve the issues faced in the valley below where the majority of Mexico City sits.

Mexico City’s architectural history is ripe with grand examples of all eras of Mexico’s past. It has remnants from its indigenous people, brilliant baroque buildings from its colonial settlers and inspiring modern structures such as the art-deco monuments dedicated to its revolutionary wars. Buildings are an essential factor of a city’s character and there probably aren’t many cities in the world that better reflect the diversity and history of its inhabitants than how Mexico City does.



Author: Ash Clark

With past employment in areas from Civil Construction to the Military, Ash Clark has actively joined the growing global community of people who are leaving their day jobs for the freedom of a location independent lifestyle. Having already backpacked through over 30 countries, he is now pursuing personal entrepreneurial projects, which he hopes will eventually release him to work on infrastructure projects in developing communities in the Middle East. You can follow his personal blog at and twitter @themostalive

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Mexico City: That Sinking Feeling