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Restoring an ancient lake from the rubble of an unfinished airport in Mexico City

Weeks after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, the combative leftist leader enraged international investors and Mexico’s business community by canceling the airport, which was already around one-third complete. During his campaign, López Obrador railed against the project’s management for overspending and corruption. Then, in a post-election referendum launched by López Obrador’s party, the public had voted to scrap it (although critics claimed the results were unrepresentative, with just one in 90 Mexican voters casting a vote).

Left behind was an eerily empty landscape bigger than Paris, circled by the sprawl of Greater Mexico City. In this vast footprint, the president decreed, the city would build one of the world’s biggest urban parks, a project he dubbed a “new Tenochtitlan.” To oversee what would become known as Lake Texcoco Ecological Park (PELT), he appointed Iñaki Echeverria, a Mexican architect and landscape designer who had spent over two decades advocating for the site’s restoration.

Echeverria’s vision for the park is part of a wave of projects that have upended the traditional goal of ecosystem restoration: returning ecosystems to the state they were in before humans damaged them. Instead of seeking to roll back the clock, Echeverria is creating an artificial wetland that aims to transform the future of the entire Valley region, drawing lessons from both Tenochtitlan and modern Mexico City on how thriving cities can coexist with flourishing ecosystems.

With a budget of $1 billion, Texcoco Park is repurposing the structural skeletons and concrete gorges left behind by the airport construction to create artificial lakes and habitats intended to host human visitors and an unprecedented mix of species. And Echeverria’s team hopes the park can also help foster economic development by developing native plant nurseries and reviving cultural practices facing extinction, including the harvest of spirulina algae. While the end result would look a little like Texcoco’s past, it could revive something more fundamental: the Valley of Mexico’s long-dormant history of building in step with natural systems.

Yet today, miles of Texcoco Park remain ringed by a perimeter fence, manned by guards in military uniforms. As the project races towards 2024, when López Obrador’s term ends (he’s vowed not to seek a second one), much remains inaccessible to the public and besieged by controversy. The plans for Lake Texcoco’s rebirth could yet vanish.

Lake Texcoco returns

Edged by mountain ranges and two volcanoes, the Valley of Mexico has historically formed an “endorheic basin,” where water cannot flow out but instead diffuses into the ground. This process concentrates salt at the lowest spot, where Lake Texcoco sits—the plug in the Valley’s bathtub. Through history, the area’s mixed salty and fresh waters have served as a petri dish for the evolution of unusual organisms, including an entire ecosystem of now-extinct fish species and the axolotl, an amphibian with the ability to regenerate limbs, named for one of the Mexica’s gods.

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