Mexico City’s Evolving Landscape: Mario Schjetnan on practice and theory

Photos courtesy of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, photographers: Gabriel Figeroa, Jerry Harpur, Michael Calderwood.  

Ask any resident of Mexico City—known colloquially as “DF”—where they would like to be on a warm, Sunday afternoon, and it may well be a landscape designed by Mario Schjetnan. On Tuesday, February 17, Schjetnan described his latest projects on the practice and theory of landscape in a public lecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Schejtnan’s intersection of sustainability, nature, culture, site, and Mexico City’s bio- and geodiversity informs the development of his landscapes. With his firm, Grupo de Diseño Urbano (GDU), Schjetnan’s interdisciplinary approach to landscape has helped shape Mexico City’s most famous open spaces, from Xochimilco Park to the Bosque de Chapultepec.

Schjetnan, a 1985 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard GSD, is acutely aware of the nature of place in his work. With a focus on “green and blue infrastructure”—recreating a landscape’s natural water cycle in conjunction with natural vegetation—GDU has pioneered a reintroduction of nature and space to public areas throughout Mexico.

Adhering to a conceptual continuum between architecture, urbanism and landscape, Schjetnan highlighted the need for multiple angles when approach to his work: “Today, there is never only one scientist who is going to discover an innovation. Instead, there needs to be new hybrids of specialties,” he pointed out.

Below are some of the projects that exemplify Mario Schjetnan’s blend of his philosophical concern of site with practical design.

Restoration of Xochimilco Park

Historically, one could take a boat from downtown Mexico City to Xochimilco Park, about 14 miles south of the historic city center. As urbanization expanded, however, this aquatic link was severed and Xochimilco’s environment degraded.

Key to GDU’s restoration of Xochimilco Park was the infrastructure of water control. Reimaging “chinampas”— historic artificial islands built into the Mexico Valley—GDU succeeded in reestablishing the Park’s ecology as a wetland habitat for birds.

Rehabilitation of Chapultepepc Park

Of DF’s 19 million inhabitants, 17 million visit Chapultepec Park every year. GDU’s rehabilitation of the park addressed the uneven distribution of people, the overplanting of trees and the lack of management of the natural spaces. By removing 12,000 trees and creating open space out of previously overgrown areas, the park provides a public oasis in the center of Mexico City.

Indicating the number and variety of people that now enjoy Chapultepec Park, Schjetnan commented, “Throughout the history of my work, when I see young couples in my park, then I know it is a success.”

Natura Garden, Bicentennial Park

After the closure of a PEMEX refinery in northern Mexico City, GDU were presented with the challenge of transforming the site into a public park. Fusing different ecologies in a multi-layered botanical garden, the park reintroduces nature of place to a post-industrial site.

Mario Schjetnan’s talk is part of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design Spring 2015 public lecture series.