Tijuana is crumbling under the weight of its population growth (2024)

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

All that was left of a three-story apartment building situated atop a Tijuana hillside was a pile of rubble and cloud of smoke.

The building fell during a landslide in April brought on by heavy rains. The impact was so powerful it caused the nearby road to shake. It was the second building collapse in Tijuana that month — and more are likely to come.

City officials are currently monitoring 12 other buildings that are at risk of collapse.

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Experts see this as the latest sign that Tijuana’s infrastructure has failed to keep up with growth — they say the city is crumbling under the weight of its 2.2 million residents.

Building collapses are just part of the problem. Poorly constructed homes and drainage systems have made the streets of some neighborhoods death traps during heavy rains.

Decades of shoddy and sometimes illegal construction and poor government oversight are largely to blame, according to Carmen Romo, an activist with Tijuana Calidad de Vida, a group that monitors Tijuana’s infrastructure woes.

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero Ramirez’s administration could do more to prevent these catastrophes, but she, like her predecessors, doesn’t have a clear plan, Romo said.

“What happens is, the city comes out with a more reactive action for whatever is already broken,” she said. “But they don’t actually have programs to rehab, modernize and maintain. So, when it collapses, that’s when they come.”

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Tijuana isn’t alone among Mexico’s big cities when it comes to infrastructure problems. According to a recent study, 25% of people who moved out of Mexico City between 2015 and 2020 cited poor infrastructure and mobility as the main reasons.

But Tijuana is different in terms of geography. The city’s steep hillsides and canyons create complex problems. Rains cause flash floods to rush down those hillsides with enough force to drag people and cars to the bottom of canyons.

“We had (the bodies of) two teenagers wash up just a little bit south of here,” Romo said while standing in the bottom of an area called Cañon del Matadero a few miles west of the San Ysidro border crossing.

The entire city shuts down during heavy rain events. Traffic comes to a standstill, neighborhoods flood, schools close and officials blast public service announcements asking everyone to stay indoors.

Tijuana is crumbling under the weight of its population growth (1)

Charlotte Radulovich

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KPBS

But deaths are still relatively common.

In November 2022, a brother and sister were swept up by a particularly strong current. Their bodies were found days after the storm three miles away from where they were last seen.

In January, two children died when their home collapsed during a storm. Firefighters rescued their parents and a younger sibling.

Building without permits

Roughly 40% of Tijuana’s homes are built without permits, according to Romo and other experts. Many don’t have retaining walls or a solid foundation. They are built on bare hillsides that don’t have any vegetation to prevent erosion.

City officials call this type of “irregular construction,” as one of the main contributors of landslides.

“All of this is based on the fact that they don’t respect the rules and regulations in these neighborhoods,” said Juan Enrique Bautists Corona, director of Tijuana’s Urban Development Department.

Tijuana is crumbling under the weight of its population growth (2)

Charlotte Radulovich

/

KPBS

Tijuana is in the midst of a housing construction boom that is partly fueled by Americans in search of more affordable housing options. Rents in Tijuana are among the highest in Mexico and supply is limited. So it’s not uncommon for people to simply build a house on a vacant plot of land.

Bautista Corona insists that city officials are proactive when it comes to this issue.

The city works with engineers and geologists to monitor structures that are at risk of collapse. It also has a program to assist families willing to relocate from dangerous areas, he said.

However, some of the relocation programs and alternative housing options are only available for residents who can show an official deed of ownership. People who live in illegal buildings don’t have that document.

Bautista Corona said the city can only do so much if residents won’t protect themselves. Some have spent decades in these neighborhoods and won’t leave, even with the landslide risk.

“Unfortunately, we cannot remove them by force,” he said.

A complex problem

That dynamic is one reason why Tijuana’s infrastructure challenges are so difficult to solve.

It’s not just a matter of throwing money at it, according to Juan Manuel Rodriguez Esteves, a professor who has spent decades studying and writing about the issue.

“This is a problem that, when you look at it from the outside, it looks straightforward,” Rodriguez Esteves said. “But when you get into the details, start talking to people involved, it gets much more difficult.”

People moved into these hillside neighborhoods because there aren’t other affordable housing options. Some of these areas have grown from one or two houses to entire communities with schools and jobs. Residents aren’t going to leave unless there is a better option, he said.

Rodriguez Esteves compared the dynamic to people living in California’s flood and fire-prone areas.

“Their priority is getting to work on time, picking up their kids at school, making sure they have enough to pay the rent,” he said.

It’s also a matter of holding the government accountable. That three-unit apartment building that collapsed in April went through Tijuana’s permitting process.

“There are a lot of regulations in Mexico, the problem is that they aren’t enforced,” said Rodriguez Esteves.

Activists aren’t optimistic about Tijuana’s ability to address this issue any time soon. And the clock is ticking.

“Climate change is imminent,” Romo said. “Storms are going to be more intense. We need to be prepared for that.”

As someone deeply familiar with civil infrastructure, urban planning, and the challenges faced by growing cities around the world, I recognize the gravity of the situation described in the article about Tijuana. My expertise is grounded in a comprehensive understanding of urban development, structural integrity, and the socio-economic factors influencing city growth and decay.

Now, diving into the concepts and issues highlighted in the article:

  1. Infrastructure Decay and Growth Mismatch: Tijuana's rapid growth to a population of 2.2 million has put immense pressure on its infrastructure. Cities need to upgrade their infrastructure systems as they grow to accommodate increased demand for housing, transportation, utilities, and public services. Failure to do so leads to vulnerabilities like building collapses and compromised drainage systems.

  2. Landslides and Geographical Challenges: Tijuana's geographical location, characterized by steep hillsides and canyons, presents unique challenges. Heavy rains exacerbate these issues, leading to landslides and flash floods. Such events can be deadly, as seen with the unfortunate incidents involving teenagers and children.

  3. Illegal and Irregular Construction: A significant portion (around 40%) of Tijuana's housing is constructed without proper permits. These structures often lack foundational support, making them susceptible to landslides and collapses. The absence of vegetation on bare hillsides further accelerates erosion risks.

  4. Government Oversight and Enforcement: Despite existing regulations, poor enforcement mechanisms allow irregular constructions to persist. The Tijuana permitting process may exist on paper, but its effectiveness is questionable. As highlighted by Juan Manuel Rodriguez Esteves, regulations need stringent enforcement to be meaningful.

  5. Socio-economic Factors: The housing crisis in Tijuana, fueled in part by Americans seeking affordable options, complicates matters. Residents often settle in these vulnerable areas due to limited alternatives. Relocation programs, even when available, often exclude those residing in illegal constructions, further exacerbating the problem.

  6. Accountability and Long-term Planning: The cyclical nature of reactive versus proactive measures by city officials indicates a lack of comprehensive planning. Carmen Romo's assertion that the city tends to react rather than rehabilitate or modernize underscores this issue. For sustainable solutions, Tijuana needs long-term strategies that address both immediate vulnerabilities and future growth challenges.

  7. Climate Change Implications: The looming threat of climate change intensifies existing infrastructure vulnerabilities. As Romo points out, the city must prepare for more frequent and severe storms, necessitating adaptive measures to mitigate risks.

In conclusion, Tijuana's infrastructure challenges stem from a combination of rapid urbanization, geographical complexities, ineffective governance, and socio-economic pressures. Addressing these multifaceted issues requires a collaborative effort involving urban planners, policymakers, community leaders, and residents. Without concerted action, Tijuana risks further tragedies and setbacks in its quest for sustainable growth and development.

Tijuana is crumbling under the weight of its population growth (2024)

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