Sunday, August 26, 2007

FAQs - Yes the air is bad and there are a hell of a lot of people here

I returned home for a visit earlier this month and, without fail, upon telling people that I have recently moved to Mexico City, they asked:

1) How bad is the air?
2) How many people live there?

It doesn't bug me at all that these are inevitably the first questions out of everyone's mouth, because up until recently, I couldn't have come up with a heck of a lot more.

But I felt bad that I didn't have excellent, rock solid answers for these two questions. True, a bit part of the reason for this is that I simply didn't want to know. But that day of reckoning has come. We must face the truth.

Starting with the population because it doesn't directly affect my future lifespan.

The most recent estimates of Mexico City's population put it at 17.4 million for the Distrito Federal proper (which is kind of like Washington, D.C.). However, if you were just driving out of the Federal District, you wouldn't know you'd left it when you hit the border because many former towns of the surrounding State of Mexico have been gobbled up. The estimate for the metropolitan area is more like a mere 22.65 million, as of 2005, making it the second most populous metropolitan area in the world. Go Mexico! I'd say, "Tokyo, you are so going down," but they are seriously kicking ass.

1. Tokyo, Japan - 34,100,000
2. Mexico City, Mexico - 22,650,000
3. Seoul, South Korea - 22,250,000
4. New York, United States - 21,850,000
5. Sao Paulo, Brazil - 20,200,000
6. Mumbai, India - 19,700,000
7. Dehli, India - 19,500,000
8. Los Angeles, United States - 17,950,000

By more strenuous standards taking note of actual boundaries, Mexico City gets knocked down to 5th place, but seriously, I really doubt anyone's counting past 15 million.

1. Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan - 33,200,000
2. New York, United States - 17,800,000
3. Sao Paulo, Brazil - 17,700,000
4. Seoul-Incheon, South Korea - 17,500,000
5. Mexico City, Mexico - 17,400,000
6. Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, Japan - 16,425,000
7. Manila, Philippines - 14,750,000

Since lists are so much fun, we'll start there. However measuring pollution isn't really all that easy so take this worth a gram of particulate matter...

The BBC posted info from 2002 measuring pollution by amount of particle matter, by which the top contenders were:

1. Delhi
2. Cairo
3. Calcutta
4. Tianjin, China

Mexico City was all the way behind at 41st.

The Blacksmith Institute did another study in 2006, looking at the health danger of these pollutants and came up with this list:

The 10 worst-polluted places in the world are (in alphabetical order):
Chernobyl (Ukraine) | Dzerzinsk (Russia) | Haina (Dominican Republic) | Kabwe (Zambia) | La Oroya (Peru) | Linfen (China) | Mailuu-Suu (Kyrgyzstan) | Norilsk (Russia) | Ranipet (India) | Rudnaya Pristan (Russia)

Most have serious heavy metal or nuclear pollution which is making a lot of people sick.

So what's the deal with Mexico City?

Pollution isn't just about what factories and cars are spitting out. There are some unnegotiable geographic factors at play here:

- Mexico City is an average of 2,240 m (7,349 ft) above sea level
- It is located in a valley surrounded by mountains on all four sides with only one tiny opening at the north.
- "The region receives anti-cyclonic systems, whose weak winds that do not allow for the dispersion outside the basin of the air pollutants which are produced by the 50,000 industries and 4 million vehicles operated in the metropolitan area"

I haven't found the ultimate source that explains just where everything stands right now. To pull an Oprah - "What I know for sure" -

- It looks smoggy a lot and sometimes my lungs hurt.
- Traffic is something else and 1.5 hours is about the average commute within the city regardless of distance.
- The situation is bad enough that the government has imposed policies like certain cars can only drive certain days of the week and a month ago, the air hit such a point that they were stopping cars at the entrance to the city and not letting anyone in without Distrito Federal plates.

This was the article I found most interesting about combatting pollution, so I'll just end it there for the moment. And don't let the air deter you guys from visiting me.

"If these measures are not fully implemented, the chaos in the city could reach crisis level and we will all be sorry," Oscar Terrazas, professor of urban planning at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), told IPS. "What lies ahead is true chaos."

Enlightened prophet or alarmist? We'll see in 10 years.

Let's learn about brands!

Isn't mini-Walmart the cutest learning experience ever?! I was kind of partial to the Pfizer lab though.

This past weekend, I took a trip with my nephews to Papalote (Kite), the children's museum in Chapultepec Park. In many ways, it was everything I would expect from a children's museum - there was an Imax theater, there were games, there were helpers in orange vests reading "Cuate" (Friend), and it was about 95% educational pandemonium. There was one way it differed from the other children's museums I've visited however - all the major exhibits were branded. The science lab was Pfizer Laboratory. The mini grocery store was Walmart. The make-your-own newspaper was Reforma. And I came out with vaguely positive feelings toward Nestle, though I don't remember what their name was tied to.
The advertising industry sometimes gets a bad rap as a bunch of unabashed money-grubbers who use psychology to manipulate people and make them buy things they don't need. Usually I prefer to put the onus on the general public to be a little more critical - you don't have to buy what they sell after all. However, there was something vaguely malevolent about the rampant branding of the non-profit children's museum.
It didn't surprise me though. However many "branded messages" I get a day in the U.S., it's got to be double here. Every possible space is sold for advertising - I pass 20 street-level billboards on the way to work alone - and illegal billboards clutter every sky line.
As we walked out of the museum, we passed a bright red Coca Cola soda fountain with interactive screens, set up as an educational station, and my 5-year-old nephew took a veer right into it. "I'm thirsty," he pronounced.