I have lived the typical second generation lifestyle of being born and raised in the downtown core of a city, to then be forced to participate in the wave of mass suburban sprawl with parents wishing for a bigger home, a car dependent lifestyle, and dare I saw it “the all American dream.” Against this idea of suburban life, I have always made it a point to move back to the downtown core where walkability scores were high, transit plentiful, and I was immersed in the core of historical and cultural spaces buzzing with energy, restaurants, markets, shops, amenities and people.
This was my understanding of urban living.
So when I was given the opportunity to work in the City of Colima living within walking distance to downtown and where the office also happens to be, I jumped with excitement for a chance to continue my lifestyle in an urban setting. The thought of living in Mexico where I had quick access to events, an abundance of fruit stands and vegetable markets littering the streets at all hours, and access to all the amenities I was used to, only this time, it was going to be the “latin way” meaning, plentiful fresh fruits to my liking.
I was told Colima is “a small city” and though I was well aware of that, I continued to withhold the same preconceived notions of what I understood as a “city”.
To my surprise, my understanding of “cities” and “downtowns” happened to be the complete opposite once I’d arrived here. Yes, I live walking distance to the heart of the city, but the streets were sparse, if not mostly empty. You can easily encounter convenience shops every other block, but they weren’t the fresh fruit stands I’d been expecting. And for the most part, the downtown wasn’t this centre of exciting activity filled with people, restaurants, and an abundance of things to do.
Quite contrary, Colima operated a little differently. The general sentiments here are to avoid unnecessary walking due to daily temperatures of scorching heat. Historical and cultural spaces has largely been abandoned with the younger and mobile actively deciding to sprawl outwards ultimately relying on car ownership to get around. All the modern spaces, malls, and entertainment now reachable only via driving reserving the downtown area for a majority of retirees and pensioners.
Occupying the central area now are a mix of newly constructed, large-sized homes alongside smaller, decaying ones. Lining up the streets also lay abandoned colonial buildings with various neglected plots of land, beside homes that are converted to restaurants by day – everything is just a little random.
I found it interesting and eye opening with the realization these homes didn’t have setbacks from the walkway – a common guideline I was used to seeing. Rather, when you walk on the narrow sidewalk one can easily peek into each home to see homeowners laying in bed, watching tv, or cooking in the kitchen. It seems Colima happens to be a random mix of varying structures of height and width with no regulations on density.
Colima has helped shed light on how city centres and downtowns can have very different meanings depending on where you are. And it finally dawned on me that historically speaking, city centres were a place that witnessed its initial settlers. My preconceived notions of these spaces are based on more modern cities that have witnessed much of its regeneration process, and therefore depending on which city you’re in, there can be different connotations and perceptions to the term.
It’s interesting because everything I knew about “downtowns” have now been reversed. Living close to the centre I still reap the benefits of walking to necessary amenities, but beyond that if I’m seeking great products, services or restaurants, the need of a car is absolutely more desirable here. What was once a standard, leisure 30-40 minute stroll in Vancouver or Toronto is now an uncomfortable, sweat-drenched, heat-stroke inducing activity, deterring many from getting around unless they have a car.
And it is only now after living in Colima that I realize what the City is trying to achieve in rebranding and regenerating the downtown core. I’m understanding the reasons for opposing views as well as the City’s aggressive agenda to transition Colima to become a collaborative, smart city. There are certainly many challenges to overcome, but more than anything after only being here for a couple of weeks, I am empowered by the City’s objectives. I couldn’t be happier to be living here and a part of the process in witnessing Colima achieve its sustainable urban planning goals.
By: Wendy Ly