In Monterrey, Mexico, a University’s Tragedy Sparks a Citywide Turnaround
Monterrey, like other major Mexican cities, rapidly expanded outward during the end of the 20th century. New policies favored investment in new suburban neighborhoods, attracting residents and businesses to the periphery, and provoking several decades of insecurity and population decline. City streets emptied, unused public spaces fell into disarray and drug-related criminality tore at the social fabric of local communities.
In 2010, Tecnológico de Monterrey (Tec), Monterrey’s historic and prestigious university, reached a crossroads when two students were killed right outside the university’s gates. This was a turning point for the university and Monterrey. Tec’s response to the tragedy would eventually shape the fate of the city; it laid the groundwork for a new model of dense and mixed-use city planning and design that would draw people back to the city center.
Deciding to Stay
Prompted by the tragedy on its doorstep, Tec faced a difficult decision: it could abandon its increasingly unsafe historical location and start fresh elsewhere, or it could stay and take part in rebuilding trust in the local area.
The university stayed. This decision was not a foregone conclusion — many others have taken flight when faced with violence. But as Tec president David Garza told WRI, this decision came with “a commitment of transformation — not of the campus, but rather of the surrounding areas.”
In 2014, Tec launched the vision for DistritoTec, a district-scale regeneration initiative and a finalist for the 2020-2021 Prize for Cities, alongside an area masterplan. With DistritoTec, Tec formulated a new role for itself in local urban development. Today, the university plays a key role in reweaving the lost connection with its 24 surrounding neighborhoods by working with local residents, business owners and the city government.
Bringing Communities Together
Delivering the vision for DistritoTec involved an inclusive process of co-creating solutions with the local community to transform the surrounding areas.
The team behind DistritoTec immediately got to work. They adopted a measured and deliberate approach to build trust in the community, engaged in multiple conversations around the current state of the city and its future, and encouraged neighbors to meet each other and interact regularly. Local residents, business owners and the DistritoTec team then converged around a central set of goals for the district. These included employment opportunities, affordable housing, high-quality public spaces and sustainable mobility options.
To ensure continued input and support from local residents, the team encouraged the formation of neighborhood committees that were represented in a new, larger governance body for the district, the Neighborhood Council of DistritoTec. In 2015, the Council gained formal recognition by the municipality of Monterrey. While establishing a grassroots model for governance in the district took many months — some residents were initially afraid to even open their doors or share their names due to the area’s security challenges — this time was essential in co-creating a shared vision for the area and establishing clear roles and responsibilities.
These neighborhood committees bring community members together, help them identify the specific needs of the area, and transform abandoned or underutilized public spaces into vibrant community hubs. The committees have also participated in reforestation programs and organized events across the district, including cinema nights, concerts, local markets and art shows, which attract tens of thousands of people. But above all, by shifting the perception that urban development can only be led and enacted by the government, the committees have given district residents the control to create the neighborhoods and city that they want.
Since DistritoTec’s launch, Monterrey has become markedly safer. Within the district, there has not been a robbery in two years. But as Alejandra Naranjo, a local resident puts it, "The most significant change is the interaction between the communities: the neighbors, the students and the project team. The students approach us. They have improved the public spaces. It is charming to live here."
People at the Heart of Infrastructure
Between 1980 and 2010, Monterrey experienced rapid and sprawling urbanization, such that the city’s population doubled, but its density decreased by 75%. In the district neighborhoods, 36% of homes were uninhabited by the end of 2010. As the distance between their homes, jobs and services grew, residents increasingly relied on private vehicles that contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions.
To address sprawl, Tec co-created a proposal with the neighborhood committees, urban planning experts and municipal authorities to create mixed-use development and increase the density of the district through efforts like new affordable housing. This kind of special development zone was new for district-scale development in Mexico, as it had previously only been applied at the much smaller scale of individual neighborhoods.
Municipal support helped finance the key physical improvements that made the district’s streets safer and more conducive to people — particularly to active, low-carbon mobility. The Garza Sada roundabout, a major hotspot for road traffic injuries, was transformed to include crosswalks, wider sidewalks and pedestrian lights. In addition, more than three kilometers of “complete streets” — design changes that improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, were implemented across the district.
“Infrastructure has this ability to shape us, but we also can shape the infrastructure and our spaces,” said Lorena Pulido Ramírez, manager of the DistritoTec team. “We are reclaiming the streets for people.”
As a result, the district became a dense, compact place with significantly less dependence on cars and a much lower environmental impact. Census data from 2020 revealed that the district’s population increased 56% and the number of uninhabited homes decreased by 27% since 2010. DistritoTec reshaped the district’s physical environment to meet the needs of its residents, prompting people to stay in Monterrey — and incentivizing others to return.
A Commitment to Connected Cities
Today, the district is breathing again.
Once a month, people of all walks of life mingle together in Calle Junco de la Vega, Monterrey’s first complete street, to enjoy live music, eat together, and play and dance in the open air. The street comes to life with the sounds and smells of Callejero — an open streets event during which pop-up tables, food trucks, performance stages and play spaces provide a meeting space for people who live, work, walk and study here.
For Mexican cities challenged with sprawl and other problems similar to Monterrey, DistritoTec symbolizes the transformative potential of socially committed institutions in creating compact, connected and thriving urban centers.
The model has already begun to scale: changes to the city’s public participation laws and financial mechanisms have laid the groundwork for other districts to flourish, providing stakeholders with a direct voice into city affairs and a viable financial model for funding programs and physical upgrades. Three additional districts in Monterrey are now replicating DistritoTec’s model.
Scaling has also taken place through the students. Since the creation of DistritoTec, the university has modified its learning model to allow a more hands on approach to education. Students have taken active part in restoration activities, ecological studies and park rehabilitation, and they are encouraged to develop innovative ideas for the district. By allowing students to connect with their surrounding communities, Tec is ensuring that its commitment to social transformation lives on.
The 2020-2021 Prize for Cities celebrates innovative approaches to tackling climate change and urban inequality together, showing how to live and thrive in a changing world. From five finalists, Sustainable Food Production for a Resilient Rosario, a project by the municipality of Rosario, Argentina, was announced as the grand prize winner on June 29, 2021.
Urban Transformations is a series that spotlights projects and lessons learned from the WRI Ross Center Prize for Cities, a juried, global competition celebrating transformative urban change.