By: Alec Young
Touching down in San José del Cabo, my fellow intern Ezra and I didn’t know what to expect. Already sweating buckets in the “winter” heat while being blinded by the tropical sun, we excitedly inched forward to be picked up by our new boss, Alex Gallardo, and co-worker, Andrea Barrera. After a short tour of our new home before being dropped off at our hostels, we quickly noticed the stark contrast in development – from immense luxury beachside resorts to modest Mexican suburbs residing closer to the airport. After a stumbling “thank you” in Spanglish I cowered to my room to continue my Spanish lessons on Duolingo.
Apparently I hadn’t practiced enough because the next day, we had to introduce ourselves to the rest of the office and describe what we’re bringing to their organization (Instituto Municipal de Planeación Los Cabos – IMPLAN). Needless to say, more stumbling ensued. That didn’t matter though; we quickly became comfortable with our new language, and with our new coworkers and friends. They made it easy by taking us to Chileno beach for our first weekend.
On our way to the beach, the amount and scale of development was staggering. Between seeing big-box department stores such as Walmart, manicured tourist resorts, and the stampede of tourists, it’s often hard to know where you are. One minute it feels like you’re in sub-urban Southern California, and the next, you find yourself in a more authentic México with makeshift taco stands, cevecherias, and livestock roaming largely uninhibited. Despite rapid development, approximately 25.8% of the population live in poverty, 5.6% live in extreme poverty, and 18.1% live in substandard housing. It’s not hard to see that a different, more sustainable type of development is needed. Especially given that the total municipal population is expected to triple by 2040 (reaching approx. 600,000), with tourist development pressuring the coast, and with the associated sprawl threatening the livability and sustainability of the San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. As tourism makes up around 90% of the Los Cabos economy, tourist development isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just has to be approached with caution so that public beach access isn’t reduced, viable agricultural lands aren’t encroached upon, and city growth occurs sustainably.
Luckily, there are opportunities for this to happen. There are a surprising amount of underutilized vacant lots in the central areas of both cities; ideal sites for our pilot project. In fact, vacant lots make up 18% and 14% of the urban land area for Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo respectively. Making better use of these spaces is an exciting challenge for Ezra and I. As Urban Development Research Assistants, our goal is to create a mixed-use, dense development plan for centrally located vacant lots in both cities with hopes of replicating the project in other growth centers. The idea is to incentivize density, retain neighbourhood character and identity, and provide opportunities for social housing, local business development, and depending on the lot – tourism as well.
Our project aligns with IMPLAN’s objectives within the larger municipal plan (PDU 2040):
Planning and managing land in a transparent and efficient manner. Intensifying the use of urban land – changing the sprawl city model to a compact city model that benefits the population by providing services, infrastructure and amenities to their home areas, reducing commute times, reducing costs by occupying urban voids, densifying housing, establishing mixed uses and intensifying land use on hubs of activity nodes and urban corridors.
Some of the work mediums include: research and analysis, GIS, Sketchup, site visits, feasibility studies, market studies, and conducting interviews. Currently, we are developing community consultation side-projects to see if density initiatives would be suitable in each locality. I imagine the coming work will switch gears a tad with more focus on design, consultation, interviews, and project implementation. Though I should mention there is an awful lot of behind-the-scenes work – by that I mean – discussing our projects over beers and fish tacos. Hard at work (see below).
Unfortunately, not all lunches look like this. The IMPLAN team is an inspiring and incredibly hard working team. They are altruistic in nature, and they often stay in the office well past dark to have their innovations become a reality. While our work with IMPLAN is our priority, our adventures, road trips, and our absorption of Mexican culture has been equally rewarding; camping on the beach, swimming with whale sharks, and going on dates in a new language, just to name a few. Two and a half months in, and México already feels like home.