Special Report on Mexico: When the smog lifts to reveal a hidden beauty: A city which has air thick with petrol fumes is committed to the fight against pollution, writes Colin Harding

ONE Sunday last month the air in Mexico City was so clear that you felt you could reach out and touch the distant wooded hills that ring the valley. It's not supposed to be like that. More often than not the sky is overcast, the atmosphere thick with petrol fumes and particles that stick in the throat and sting the eyes. The mountains are usually hidden behind an impenetrable curtain of smog.

On 20 March, the air pollution reached crisis pitch, with the ozone levels measured at 360 in the city centre. A reading of more than 100 is regarded as 'unsatisfactory' by internationally accepted standards, and more than 200 is 'dangerous'. But that was at the driest time of the year, when the dreaded thermal inversion strikes: the hot, stagnant air hangs over the city like a malignant grey blanket, leaving no escape route for the 17 million people below.

It's not as though they're unaware of the problem. There is an entire department of the city government (DDF) dedicated to reducing air pollution, which has produced a stream of measures ranging from keeping cars off the roads one day a week to planting trees on the eroded hillsides. Air pollution bulletins are issued three times a day, and show that all the main contaminants except ozone - lead and sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide - are under control, according to Fernando Menendez Garza, technical secretary of the commision set up in January to co-ordinate policy on atmospheric pollution in the Valley of Mexico. 'I don't know any other city in the world that's managed that,' he said.

The walls of the city are plastered with posters and slogans, urging people to keep their cars off the road and take the metro, have their engines tuned, take care of trees and so on. There are several green pressure groups and even 'ecological taxis' in this acutely environmentally-aware city: green VW Beetles with catalytic converters.

The rest of the world has been so impressed with Mexico City's clean-up efforts that the mayor, Manuel Camacho Solis, received a special award at the Earth Summit in Rio last month. But the sad fact is that it is hard to find anybody who believes the DDF has made much impression on the pollution problem. Mexico City has about three million vehicles on its tangled roads (compared with six million in Tokyo), and about 30,000 factories, or 40 per cent of the country's manufacturing industry, are located in the Valley of Mexico. Whatever the government may be doing, the only solution perceived by those with the means is to get out for as long and as often as possible. Anybody with money has a weekend home south of the city, in the neighbouring states of Mexico or Morelos; the traffic jams on the motorway south on a Sunday night are horrendous.

And then, just when you feel you've had about enough of all the smog and scramble, there is a day like that Sunday, limpid and blue, giving an inkling - just an inkling - of what it must have been like before the internal combustion engine and the industrial revolution brought a messy end to Mexico City's state of grace. Coyoacan, a southern suburb, is the only place to be if you are stuck in Mexico City on a sunny Sunday. The beautiful main square is thronged with strolling families, eating ice cream and watching the street theatre shows put on for children, before a late lunch at one of the many restaurants. The place is packed, but the atmosphere is peaceful and relaxed. It boasts elegant cobbled streets lined with whitewashed colonial houses and a marvellous craft market.

Coyoacan and neighbouring San Angel are a marvellous, and very necessary oasis amid the urban clamour of Mexico City. That is how its inhabitants see it, too, but they are under siege. The Sanborns supermarket chain is building a store in Coyoacan's main square, and other developments could be on the way. For the first time neighbourhood action groups are being formed, in a belated realisation that there is a lot worth saving.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
News
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
music
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Charge Accountant

£20,000 - £22,000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Property Management Grou...

Head of Sales, London

£70 - 95K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Milton Keynes

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Head of Sales, Bristol

£70 - 90K OTE £125K. Plus Car,Private Healthcare and Pension: Charter Selectio...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game