draining the infinite metropolis:

engineering and the mundanity of disaster in Mexico City

A part of the massive Deep Drainage System that snakes under Mexico City.

A part of the massive Deep Drainage System that snakes under Mexico City.

Overview: My research seeks to explain how plans for infinite urban growth and "development" are maintained in light of ostensibly limiting environments. Draining the Infinite Metropolis explores the worlds of the municipal engineers, maintenance workers, and residents in the struggle against flooding and land subsidence in Mexico City, one of the world's largest urban conglomerations. The metropolitan area of Mexico City was seen as a posterchild for the coming environmental apocalypse during the last decades of the 20th century. Perpetually out of water, flooding, or suffocating, critics often dismissed the city as doomed. Yet like megacities across the world, Mexico City has continued to grow, with new luxury developments rising out of the rubble of the 2017 earthquake like mushrooms.

The fundamental argument of my dissertation is that as Mexico City has run up against increasingly hard environmental limits to its growth, engineers have sought creative solutions that have, often unintentionally, served primarily to displace these limits in time and space. I focus in particular on the city’s Deep Drainage System (Sistema del Drenaje Profundo), a 95-mile long drainage tunnel network that captures the city’s wastewater and ejects it miles away to another watershed entirely. I explore how the system was planned and constructed, and how it is operated and maintained today in a context of extreme economic austerity. I draw on ethnographic work with the engineers and workers who operate and maintain the system and the residents affected by it, oral histories with those who built the system, and research into largely unexplored internal government libraries and archives. 

I show how the drainage system has not “solved,” but rather transformed the historical problem of flooding in the city center into less visible, spatially diffuse, and temporally distant problems of land subsidence, groundwater shortages, and shallow flooding in the periphery. Building on Rob Nixon's work, I suggest that these effects constitute a kind of "slow violence," whose relative invisibility imposes fewer political costs on ruling elites and makes continued growth imaginable, even against the convictions of engineers. I suggest that the story of Mexico City’s long battle against subsidence and flooding offers a unique window in which to understand more broadly how slow violence is materially produced through engineering work and exacerbated through economic austerity.

Background: This project grows out of my longstanding interests in the way we understand "development" and "progress." We have come to see urbanization as emblematic of modernity, progress, and development. I don't seek here to rail against the city in general, but interrogate the particularly concentrated hyperurbanization we increasingly see in the global South. Is this pattern sustainable or just? If it is (as I suspect) neither of these things - and hydrologic limits very real - how is our imagination and faith in this model of "progress" maintained? And how might we change that imaginary, from the engineers and planners on down? These are the broader questions my dissertation research might begin to open up.