Lessons from Mexico on How the Federal Government Can Help Build Local Infrastructure and Urban Planning Capacity
Debates about how much the federal government should influence local-level infrastructure are not new, and as the negotiations over the American Jobs Plan have shown, these debates are often contentious. These conversations are not limited to the US. As Democrats and Republicans argue for and against federal oversight of infrastructure, we spoke with Román Meyer, Mexico’s Secretary of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development (SEDATU in Spanish), to learn how Mexico has approached the balance between federal intervention and local planning in infrastructure projects.
Under Meyer’s administration, SEDATU has set out to improve urban infrastructure, strengthen the capacity of local planning institutions, and ultimately redress the social inequities that pervade Mexican cities. To achieve this mission, SEDATU has centralized some infrastructure investment decisions previously left to municipalities and more assertively influenced how local institutions engage in land and urban planning. We have distilled some lessons shared by Meyer during our conversation that could inform how policymakers in the US approach federal intervention in local infrastructure.
Federal action should prioritize building local planning capacity
For SEDATU, improving the planning capacity of municipalities is essential. Only 10 percent of municipalities in Mexico have a local sustainable development plan, 15 percent of which are up-to-date. Between 2010 and 2019, 45 percent of Mexican municipalities experienced urban growth without any plan to guide this expansion.
Building local capacity, in part, means prioritizing the simplification of planning operations. SEDATU recently published a national planning strategy encompassing all government entities with any spatial impact in the country, with the goal of breaking down barriers in government operations and simplifying complex processes that could result in corruption or bad planning. As Meyer explained, “The simplification of the regulatory framework will allow us to scale up the use of planning instruments.”
SEDATU has also published guidelines to aid local governments in their planning processes, including some for the development of urban plans, with diagrams and examples that also acknowledge local contexts. Additionally, SEDATU is developing a national planning platform (PDF) that will provide localities with a variety of cartographic and statistical data and support documents to aid planning practice and to track progress.
In addition to operations and tools, Meyer recognized that local capacity ultimately depends on public officials. To support investment in the human capital of local municipalities, SEDATU is collaborating with the National Institute for Federalism and Municipal Development to provide trainings and courses for public servants that include best practices in urban planning, public participation, mobility, and metropolitan governance. The secretary said 10,000 public servants have already participated in these capacity-building activities.
How federal policymakers can responsibly invest in local infrastructure and foster regional and local collaboration
Although building local capacity to manage new infrastructure investments is a key goal for SEDATU, Meyer recognizes that in some instances, further intervention could lead to better outcomes. Through its Urban Improvement Plan, SEDATU directly invests in very low–income communities to revitalize public spaces, schools, hospitals, roads, and other community assets. With close to 500 projects completed in over two years of implementation, we distilled four lessons from Meyer’s experience that can also help guide federal investments in local infrastructure here in the US:
- Federal infrastructure investments should focus on communities that have been left behind. To choose the location for new infrastructure or revitalization projects, SEDATU identified the communities with the highest rates of poverty and crime and least access to public services. Those behind the program hope these interventions catalyze investments from local governments and the private sector in marginalized and historically neglected communities.
- Community engagement also includes stewardship of the projects. For these projects, SEDATU creates working groups with community members to actively include them in project design and planning. In many cases, residents participate as hired laborers in the construction or rehabilitation work. The community working groups facilitated by SEDATU also define programmatic plans for space preservation, which Meyer explained is key to ensuring the space is maintained. If the community uses the infrastructure, “they will actively participate in its conservation, and pressure local officials to also participate in its upkeep,” he said.
“We create community committees and keep them active.… We want them to understand that these spaces belong to them. They don’t belong to the federal government or the municipal government. That is what will allow [this program] to succeed.”
-- Román Meyer, Mexico’s Secretary of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development
- Minimize the burden imposed on local governments to maintain the infrastructure. Infrastructure is both an up-front investment and a long-term obligation, often carried by the local community. Meyer explained that SEDATU favors projects and designs with low maintenance requirements and durable materials.
- Administrative data can inform decisions but only go so far. SEDATU used data on crime rates, water access, housing overcrowding, and other indicators to determine under what conditions it would intervene. But Meyer emphasized that this administrative data must be complemented with field work to fully grasp a community’s needs and the feasibility of project implementation (often determined by the political will of local officials).
A collaborative approach to federal infrastructure projects and urban development policies
Secretary Meyer’s experience with federal investments in local infrastructure and capacity can be a blueprint for enhanced federal-local collaboration in the US to support local infrastructure programs and projects. In the instances when the federal government becomes directly involved in infrastructure projects, Meyer stressed that policymakers do so using data and relying on strong community partnerships.
Beyond providing lessons for US policymakers, Meyer also spoke of the potential for increased US-Mexico cooperation in housing and urban development. Improved housing conditions and better infrastructure in marginalized Mexican communities could help lessen the harsh living conditions that motivate many to migrate to the US, he explained. SEDATU is already engaging in a program to revitalize abandoned housing, an issue more prevalent in border communities.
Ultimately, federal infrastructure policy, programs, and investments at the local level depend on mutual understanding, collaboration, and trust among and between policymakers at all levels of government. This is key to foster equitable infrastructure that provides access to opportunities for all citizens.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.
Parque Bicentenario in Ecatepec, Mexico. The park was rehabilitated by SEDATU in 2020 as part of its Urban Improvement Program. Photo courtesy of Mexico’s Ministry of Agrarian, Land, and Urban Development.