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Exploring the Roots of Urban Agriculture in Mexico

1865 photograph shows two fruit and vegetable vendors in Mexico City.

Local, Slow, and on the Street

By Devon G. Peña
New Clear Vision
Oct 12, 2012
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.


When I see this photograph, something entirely different comes to mind. It is not poverty that I see, but abundance, culture, and right livelihood. The photograph tells me that Mexicans have done local, slow and deep food for a long time. We have practiced urban agriculture from the start and farming in the backyard and on rooftops as well as food vending in sidewalk and plaza markets have been standard activities in the city since the time of the Colhua Mexica (Aztecs).

In the Southwest, the Chicana/o Mexicana/o compact town or ‘urban village’ form of the 19th century was really a second form of urbanism preceded by the indigenous pueblo builders (see Arreola 1998, Mendez 2005). Well into contemporary times, Chicana/o urbanism has been characterized by a preference for dense neighborhoods with proximate circulation networks that allow people to live, work, play, and socialize in the same overlapping local spaces (Díaz 2005).

The contemporary urban vecindad form takes some of its cues from the urban cultural landscapes of pre-contact indigenous forms. Barrio urbanism, to borrow David Díaz’s term, directly incorporates design principles rooted in the metropolitan vernaculars of the Colhua Mexica at Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco that favor high density as well as an abundance of common and agricultural spaces.

In many parts of the Southwest, the contemporary urban village vernacular architectural and landscape forms evolved from earlier traditions embodied by hybrid forms including essentially rural patterns like the acequia riparian systems with its dense linear village clusters, acequia water webs, and resultant ‘messy’ biodiversity (abundant green spaces).

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