I have lots of reasons for liking Mexico and Spanish -  a grandmother who was born in Mexico, an excellent Spanish teacher in high school (gracias, Senora Burr!), a year at the University of Madrid, a talented daughter living in Mexico City, and many trips south of the border.  Although saddened the last few years about cartel violence, I continue to admire the resilience and zest for life of the Mexican people.  And a big part of that attraction for me is the liveliness and color of Mexican cities, plazas, and streets.

"Papel picado" - decorative streamers - add beauty to
many Mexican streets (Sayulita, Mexico)
As my favorite urbanist, William Whyte (see my blogpost from Sept. 3 - American Plazas) said – “Streets are the lifeblood of a city”.  In that regard, Mexico is a very rich country, indeed.  Streets in Mexico feature a parade of people. Ours too often are a parade of cars.  The reasons for the presence of so many pedestrians are many: lots of small stores generate interest, smaller homes encourage people to stroll more, an economy of street vendors.  Cities big and small, rich and poor are a carnival of color and action.

Part of the reason for this rich public life is historical.    Every town, big or small, has a central plaza - a tradition dating back to the Spanish Laws of the Indies in 1542.  These laws required every settlement to have a public plaza with arcaded streets, symmetrical planning, a church and public buildings located around it.  After independence from Spain, the Latin American countries continued to build on the tradition.  The result: every town, big or small has a centrally located town plaza, usually with a kiosk and lots of sittable space.  The plaza is where the town goes, hangs out, listens to music, has a bite.  American colonies  grew with less top-down planning from the mother country resulting in very few town squares and a paltry tradition of cherished public space.

Guanajuato's plaza is a beautiful example of vibrant
public space - defined by buildings not parking lots

Even car-loving Los Angeles started out with planned public
space.  This 1869 photo shows the early Plaza & Olvera St.

There's another big reason for the human liveliness of Mexican streets which has to do with its town planning tradition.  Many Latin American (and European, for that matter) cities grew before the advent of the automobile and zoning.  There were no parking requirements and not enough space to require a front-yard setback.  The result is that in the center of town the buildings come all the way to the sidewalk, creating more defined urban space with few breaks for parking lots.  This creates a linear, outdoor urban room focusing the eye on the street and its surrounding buildings.  Add color, vendors, stores, street furniture and you're  sucked in.  Often delightfully so.

Notice how the buildings edge comes all the way
to the sidewalk in San Miguel de Allende.  You cant'
help but be drawn in to the action on the street.
Regarding color, I don't exactly know where Mexico got the chutzpah, but it sure is fun!  Part of it comes from the country's many indigenous peoples.  Also, the tropical areas seem to get their cues from nature.  The country's rich tradition of art, handicrafts, and murals is another factor.  Attracting the customer and tourist eye plays a role as well.

Typical streetscape in Guanajuato.  I wonder if the homeowner's
or business association requires vibrant colors.
Mini-plaza in Guanajuato.  Central Mexico's colonial towns - Queretaro,
Morelia, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato are urban gems.
Whatever the reason, residents and visitors alike in Mexico are drawn into this street carnival, constantly stimulated (and overstimulated, at times!) by sights, sounds and smells.  These principles are at the core of the American planning movement called "New Urbanism."  But there's really nothing new about it.  Cities are places for social interaction, business, and pleasure.  Of course, low density development is appropriate further out from the urban core, but, in the city center, people want to embrace the joy of urban life.  There's a lot we can learn from the master.  VIVA MEXICO!

San Miguel de Allende's central plaza is the social heart of the city.

Sayulita's town plaza.
A wonderful example of well-defined urban space.