Engaging Local Communities in Megacities and Microcities


This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional), Spanish

When I moved to Guanajuato, a colonial city in the centre of Mexico with only 150,000 inhabitants, I was surprised by how small it actually felt. See, I was born and raised in Mexico City, one of the biggest cities in the world. I had always felt proud of that fact, and like many big city dwellers, I constantly mocked “little towns”. Within a week of moving, I had seen everything I thought was worth seeing, and frankly, I started to get bored and wanted to leave.

It took me a while to get accustomed to a small city, but I ended up enjoying the life of a “little town”: being able to walk everywhere all the time, running into acquaintaces in the street, getting to know every nook and cranny of the colonial city, taking part in local traditions and the discussion of public issues.

Especially on the issue of public life, I always think back to Plato’s ideal polis with only 5,000 inhabitants. A city that size is way too small in our times, but that cap on population had a reason: it allowed for citizen participation, so that every citizen could have a measurable contribution to the polis (and yes, I do know that not everyone was allowed citizenship, and therefore direct participation, in Ancient Greek democracy…)

While I lived in Guanajuato, people protested passionately against a real estate development in a protected environmental zone. Passing out flyers and putting up posters was a great way to swing public opinion. People discussed the issue on the streets and they were passionate about protecting their city.

When I came back to Mexico City, I realized it’s hard to know where to start. A poster here does nothing, let alone a flyer. The city is so big; it consumes so much of our time and energy that participation in public life is reduced to a minimum. People can’t be passionate about cities they don’t even know that well because of their size.

How can we bring back that community, that participation from microcities to megacities? Social media has certainly allowed us to do this more efficiently, but we can’t just participate online; we have to reconnect with people in the real world.  How do we make people passionate about their megacities, so they are moved to participate?

Part of This Big City’s Megacities/Microcities series.

Image courtesy of Javier Hidalgo on flickr

  • Michael

    I think one key element to a city like Mexico City is to reinvent “la colonia”.  In the past, many people lived, worked and had their closest friends in the colonia.  Everyone went to the same tienditas, tortillarias and carniceros.  Thinking small in the big is I think the first key.  I am not sure how to do that, although there may be some ways to do so.