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Is It Time to Move Our Cities?

The devastation in Mexico City reveals there’s wisdom in ‘moving house’ to avoid repeating catastrophes

Severe earthquakes in 1957 and 1985 led to the more stringent building codes for Mexico City. Despite the code changes, at least 50 buildings in Mexico City collapsed in the recent 2017 earthquake. (The photo shows earthquake damage in 1985.)
Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

The end of this wretched summer will go unlamented by all North Americans: raging wildfires from British Columbia to California, no fewer than three catastrophic hurricanes (so far), and two disastrous earthquakes in southern and central Mexico.

Having grown up in Mexico City when it was a sleepy pueblo of just three million under clear blue skies, I’ve taken its latest earthquake very personally. I went through a couple of minor quakes there, and a big one in July 1957. Even then, everyone knew the Valley of Mexico was a terrible place to build even a pueblo, let alone a huge national capital.

Much of the valley used to be a lake, and the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán was built on islands in it. The conquering Spaniards drained the lake looking for treasure (no luck), and then built a new city on the lake bed. The water kept seeping back. I recall a huge excavation across the street from our house, the intended foundation of a large building; it was a vast rectangular lake, supporting billions of mosquitos.

Downtown, the Palace of Fine Arts had been started circa 1910; it sank into the lake bed, and wasn’t finished until the 1930s. In the 1950s, you had to go down a long flight of stairs from street level to enter it.

Mexico City’s spongy soil, like the Fraser Delta’s, tends to liquefy in severe earthquakes. That made the quakes of 1957 and 1985 notably bad, and led to tougher building codes. But corruption, like love, will always find a way, and almost 50 buildings collapsed in the September 19 quake. Hundreds more will have to be abandoned and demolished.

The quake brought out the very best in the Mexican national character, with neighbours struggling to rescue neighbours. But it’s been a struggle they should not have had to make.

Move Mexico City?

That thought sank in with me when I read a comment on a New York Times report about the quake. The commenter was Jonathan Katz, who was a reporter in Port-au-Prince when the 2010 Haitian earthquake hit, and who stayed on to report the cholera outbreak. He also wrote a superb book about the disasters and our response, which only made them worse.

Katz suggested that the government: “… gradually move Mexico City to somewhere else in Mexico. Mexico City sits on a dried lake bed, terrible seismically because it amplifies earth movements. Buildings also settle (in some cases by a whole story) and it’s in a basin that traps air pollution. Plan a new city on a ridge (good bedrock, fresh breezes) not too far away, and gradually move government offices there. The rest of the city will follow, especially if new building in the old Mexico City is forbidden by zoning.

“Costa Rica did something like this after Cartago was largely destroyed by an earthquake. The capital is now San Jose.”

That’s not the only example Katz could have cited. The capital of colonial Guatemala, now known as Antigua, suffered repeated earthquakes until the capital was moved to what is now Guatemala City. Brazil moved its capital in the early 1960s from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia simply to move both population and national attention away from the coast and into the country’s vast interior. For that matter, Washington, D.C. was a politically chosen capital for the U.S., as was Ottawa.

So Katz’s idea isn’t entirely farfetched. Granted, 21.3 million Mexico City residents aren’t likely to pack up their belongings and move next week. But that population has grown sevenfold since the 1950s because the city was where the money and jobs were. Move the money and jobs elsewhere, and the people will follow.

Megathrust quakes and tsunamis

Those of us on the coasts of North America might start seriously thinking about relocation as well — especially here in British Columbia. We have focused most of our population in the southwest corner of the province. That’s like most of the population of California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington state choosing to live in San Diego. Our choice has put us at risk of earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and floods.

We might therefore begin to think where to house ourselves (and likely millions of refugees from the south) in places that would be somewhat safer and more sustainable.

It wouldn’t be easy. Geologically, our whole province is a multi-vehicle crash site of ancient island chains piled up against the Rocky Mountains. We’ll always have earthquakes, large and small.

But we might find some good sites in the Cariboo or Chilcotin. By “mining” our existing coastal cities, we could build new cities relatively cheaply before the coasts go under water. Dams on the Fraser, Skeena and other rivers could preserve glacier meltwater otherwise lost to the rising sea. Genetic engineering could help develop new forests resistant to drought, fire, and beetles.

It may seem like a bizarre proposal, but history and prehistory are full of civilizations that stayed put and disappeared, like the Mound Builders of the American Middle West. Over 3,000 years ago, a flourishing civilization in the eastern Mediterranean collapsed under the impact of climate change and invasions.

Other societies moved and changed. The Maya recurrently abandoned their great cities (and their overlords) and went back to small-village farming when serious drought ruined the corn harvests. In New Mexico, the “great house” civilization of the Anasazi deserted its old sites in an 11th-century drought and built a new society — after a dark age of violence and starvation.

We know why those civilizations changed or died, but if we think we’re somehow smarter than they were, we’re the greater fools. We should try to learn from their fate, and act accordingly. Whatever the short-term cost, we might just manage to survive the worst time in humanity’s 300,000-year history. That time has already begun.

Crawford Kilian is a native of New York City who was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City. He served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965 and became a naturalized Canadian in 1973. Kilian has published 21 books, both fiction and non-fiction. He is a contributing editor of The Tyee, where this post was originally published.


  1. user-6933415 | | #1

    I absolutely agree
    I absolutely agree with this! I know that many locations of cities were once necessary for one reason or another but now there is no reason to continue to rebuild cities in terrible places. For example New Orleans is below sea level, it is only a matter of time before it floods again.

  2. JC72 | | #2

    @ Jonni.
    I second that. There's no logical reason to try to preserve the status quo.

    Much of New Orleans was swamp which, in the 1960's, was drained and levied off in order to provide room for the city to grow but tbh it started almost one hundred years earlier. A truly dumb idea, but people don't pay attention when the taxpayer at large pays the bill. Same goes for the Federal Flood Insurance scheme.

  3. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #3

    New Orleans
    Great city. I have some unused land in Maine. Maybe we could at least relocate NO's food and music up here.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Stephen Sheehy
    My first reaction to your suggestion was to enter a competition -- promoting northern Vermont, of course, over Maine -- because I want to be able to buy oyster po' boys whenever I want. But then I realized that I'd also have to put up with all the drunk tourists on Bourbon Street...

  5. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #5

    Sleepy pueblo of just three million ?
    Although Mexico's rapid expansion goes on unabated, I'm have a really hard time thinking of any city of 3 million as a "...sleepy pueblo...".

    Three million people is roughly the population of Vermont, New Hampshire & Maine combined!

    I s'pose living in NYC or Los Angeles tends to blow your perspective on this sort of thing! :-)

  6. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #6

    Lets move to the Moon... (Alice)
    The west coast is going to float away to the pacific or be blown by volcanoes, the mountain region is prone to fires, avalanches and earthquakes, and adding salt to a wound, the Wyoming caldera is going to blow-up any day and take-out half of North America.The midwest has tornadoes, hail storms, floods and fracking earthquakes. The golf coast and east coast has hurricanes and will be flooded by raising seas.
    Have I cover everyone? FEMA will have a very busy century or two, if we make it that far...

  7. Expert Member

    Sleepy Pueblo
    I think I'll use that as my stage name if I become a rapper.

  8. rockies63 | | #8

    A couple of years ago I was watching the news as a woman in her 50's was being pulled from the flooded wreckage of her home (which was built in a flood plane). she looked up to the heavens and said "Why did God do this to me?"

    God didn't. You built your home in a flood plane. It flooded.

    The people of New Orleans moved back in. The people of Galveston will move back in. So will the people of Key West. The people of Mexico city wouldn't leave it even if a bright new shiny city suddenly sprang up over night just 10 miles away.

    "This is our home. I'm staying".

    The irony is that as building scientists learn more and more about how to keep buildings from collapsing and geologists discover new fault lines under your feet the average person makes no attempt to prepare themselves for a disaster. Everyone knows a major earthquake is overdue for the west coast of North America but nobody gets prepared. .

    Are you prepared? if not, why would all those people move if you know the danger and still don't do anything?

  9. JC72 | | #9

    Part of the problem is the moral hazard create by gov't which encourages people to continue making reckless decisions. Live in a flood plain? Not a problem, just buy federally subsidized flood insurance. Thankfully private insurance has been pricing in increased risk in some states along the east coast (Florida primarily).

    To this day I'm amazed that insurers continue cover people in areas subject to mud slides, wild fires.

  10. rockies63 | | #10

    In a quickly mentioned and then never repeated news story after hurricane Harvey it was reported that many thousands of people canceled their flood insurance (or let it lapse) because the last hurricane to hit the area was 16 years ago and “Their fear of it happening again had lessened”.

    In another news story several years ago about fires racing through the canyons of Southern California a reporter asked a firefighter “how do you decide which homes to save and which to let burn”? The firefighter responded “If we pull into the driveway and see a roof with cedar shakes we just turn around and leave”.

    Governments and insurance companies are only half the problem. The other half are the builders and the homeowners. If you don’t insist on fire proof materials on your home then the builders will use whatever exterior finishes they want. It’s not that hard to reduce the risk of wildfire destroying your home.

    Also from Southern California there was a news story about a wildfire that had raced up the side of a canyon and burnt to the ground every single house on both sides of a winding road – all except one. The news crew knocked on the door of this lone surviving house and to their surprise the homeowner answered. They asked him “How did your home survive when every one of your neighbors homes was destroyed?”

    He said “I built mine with stucco walls, they used wood siding. They had cedar shake roofs, I had clay tile. They had wide overhangs, I had none.” He knew what to do, and his home survived.

    People are now paying the price for the building decisions they made years ago, and the worst is certainly not over.

  11. exeric | | #11

    @ Scott, gross generalization
    Yes Scott, everyone who lives in fire country is stupid, reckless, and dependent on government to bail them out.

    I really do not think the timing of this article is an innocent act. It shows a heartless lack of empathy for (in my case) neighbors and relatives that have never had a significant fire event in their city for as long as recorded history has existed for that city. This is a fact. Yet the first time it happens many here are quick to blame the victims. As a matter of fact shake roofs have been outlawed throughout California for decades as a known fire hazard. Perhaps you know that Scott. Perhaps you don't. But the fact that you still include that in your rant as how irresponsible people here are says a about you and your lack of empathy.

    There are known cases where people have ample evidence that they shouldn't build in certain places. The fires that are occurring in California, and the intensity of them, are not such events. Santa Rosa, a city of over 100,000, to my knowledge has never had a conflagration like what occurred, nor do I think any citizen of that town had reason to doubt that the local fire department couldn't handle any fire eventuality. Yet this article implies, before the fire is completely quenched, that cities should just move if a bad thing happens to them.

    I blame Green Building Advisor for it's editorial policy in the very poor timing of this article. You should have known that there are individuals among the readers who would be quick to connect the recent fire to the events happening in the article that ARE foreseeable. We all know there are people with little empathy living, working, (and reading) among us, many of whom are now blaming the completely innocent victims of the recent fire. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

    I have a theory why people blame victims before they know the facts. It just is easier to do that than realizing in some ways that life is unpredictable and you can die at any moment even having made the right decisions on where to build using all the prior knowledge available.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Response to Eric Habegger
    I don't see any evidence in Crawford Kilian's article of the lack of empathy you decry. Kilian wrote, "Having grown up in Mexico City, ... I’ve taken its latest earthquake very personally." I believe him.

    Perhaps you are thinking not of Kilian's article, but of a different one -- one written by me ("What’s Wrong, and What’s Right, With Residential Building in Texas"). Here's what I wrote in that article: "In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, designers and builders are engaged in a soul-searching exercise. The construction community is asking a variety of questions about residential development in flood-prone regions and the wisdom of using government funds to rebuild homes in flooded areas."

    Each disaster is different. Our response to the earthquake in Mexico City is of course going to be different from our response to a hurricane in Houston or a fire in Santa Rosa. But I believe there is room to discuss the issues raised by Kilian, and the issues raised by my article about Texas flooding, without losing our empathy.

    You wrote, "I blame Green Building Advisor for ... the very poor timing of this article." Your objection resembles that of White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who reprimanded Americans who called for better gun control legislation after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, saying that "now is not the time." She said, "There's a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country."

    Others, of course, disagree, noting, "If not now, when?"

  13. exeric | | #13

    Martin, I think you are very off base here and I think you personally bear some responsibility for attitudes that persist on this forum and allow to promulgate here. I was not thinking of the article you mentioned. I was thinking of the article long before in about the problems in Flint Michigan with lead in the water. In that case there was a clear case of negligence by public officials in Flint and at the top administrative levels in Michigan itself. It had to do with city officials not introducing anticorrosion chemicals when the water supply was switched to the Flint River. This is very standard practice to avoid lead leaching out of lead pipes into the water. It is practiced throughout the USA where there are multitudes of legacy lead pipes in cities throughout the country. It was denied by city officials and the city attempted to cover up their mistake rather than admit it and quickly remedy it by applying the correct anti corrosion chemicals.

    Several commenters, one of whom I believe posted on this article about moving cities, that the people of flint collectively were responsible for the problem of lead poisoning in their city. The comments persisted by this person that it wasn't the city officials responsibility. I finally had to tell it like it was. Flint is a largely poor African American community and the attitude of this commenter was racist.

    From that moment you refused to take my side and admit this was racist. But what is racism? At its base racism is lack of empathy for others. Maybe that person wasn't classically racist in other parts of his life. How would I know. But the lack of empathy from that individual both then and now is remarkable.

    Martin, you encourage that lack of empathy in your editorial policy. Maybe you think you are a good person by being a former peace corps volunteer and encouraging it in family members. However the editorial policy you take is exactly the opposite of what the peace corps represents. I just think you use that for cover for a very white bread attitude about things.

    And you are doing it again here. You are trying to confuse the issue of location of housing in KNOWN problematic areas to location of housing where the problem is unknown. After your takedown of me instead of the person defending the officials of Flint I just think that instead you allow your predudices to take over. But you do it in a way that is quite sneaky and promulgates the worst instincts in your readers. You are not nearly the good person you would like your readers to believe.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Eric Habegger
    It should go without saying, but evidently it's necessary to repeat a basic fact: GBA does not endorse the opinions expressed by everyone who comments on this site. Just because you read something that's been posted by a GBA reader, doesn't mean that our editorial board endorses the opinion.

    You are evidently upset by comments posted on two blogs: the one on this page, and an earlier blog about the situation in Flint, Michigan (this one, apparently: Piping as Poison).

    I went back and looked at the comments posted on that page. I never commented there, so you have no idea what my position is on the matters discussed there. The opinions expressed on that page are the responsibility of the people who posted them.

    I'm sorry to hear that you are disappointed in GBA's editorial policy. Our guest bloggers (including Crawford Kilian) express a variety of viewpoints, and not every blog expresses a consistent philosophy. GBA is OK with that. We don't mind hearing a variety of opinions -- as long as comments remain pertinent to the issues being discussed, and don't involve personal attacks that disparage the character or motivation of authors or other GBA readers.

  15. exeric | | #15

    I should have made

    I should have made it more clear. You temporarily banned me from commenting after I responded that some comments about the culpability of the residents of Flint were racist comments. You don't see the contradiction do you. A few commenters, very few, can malign whole populations in this country and yet other commenters are not allowed to defend those populations for fear of being banned. So basically uncivil and unfair comments can be made about people, in this case Californian's who suffered unprecedented fires, when those populations are most suffering. I would say one shouldn't fear being banned for defending those populations, kapisch? Heaven forbid that you would see that your policy on banning shows a lack of empathy in editorial policy and promotes very biased views in your readers. My own conclusion is in the affirmative when those readers see which people are the ones that get banned.

  16. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Eric Habegger
    As long as you stick to the issues being discussed, and you refrain from speculating on the moral character of other GBA readers, you are free to post. If your comments include disparaging remarks about the character of other people posting comments, you would be violating our policy.

    We're happy to hear your viewpoints on policy. But no one wants to hear one GBA reader attacking the moral character or motives of another GBA reader.

    This policy applies to all GBA readers, whether left wing or right wing.

  17. Brad_S | | #17

    Population migration
    Moving Mexico City is just population migration. But it's migration 20th century style. If one suggests using technology to genetically engineer forests one must not isolate that particular technology from all other contemporaneous technologies and how those technologies will impact culture. For fun, say it's possible to genetically engineer a forest in 2050, what other technologies will exist at that time? An obvious one, advanced robotics. We should have robot cars by the late 2020s. I'd expect we'll have robot construction crews sometime in the 2030s. Thus, transportation and building labor costs should be pretty low. How will low transportation and building costs impact culture? I'd suggest looking at the culture of wealthy people today who can afford private jets and multiple mansions. They tend to migrate quite a bit. For them, homes are essentially disposable objects. Buy one here, sell one there, it doesn't really matter.

    Looking further back than the Aztecs humans were migrating foragers for the bulk of our 350K years on this planet (if the latest H. sapiens origin dates are accurate.) Sedentarism is recent history.

    Thus, I don't think we need to worry about moving our cities right now because populations enabled by low transportation and building costs will probably result in mass migration. People won't accumulate in abnormally fertile geography, they'll forage and migrate. By the time oceans rise robots will have already demolished those cities in favor of a more mobile society. Human populations will follow the migration routes of Canadian snow geese; north for the summer, south for the winter.

    I don't expect my house to survive beyond 20 years. At some point it will get demolished by a robotic demolition crew and rebuilt with pre-fab composite SIPs manufactured somewhere in the Midwest by robotic factories powered by wind turbines (if wind remains the least expensive source of electricity at that point in time. It might be Arizona if solar beats wind on cost by then. Doesn't matter, the robots will work wherever electricity is cheap.) At that point my house will be more like a hotel room; robot servants will vacuum the floors and clean the windows. People will stop living in homes and start living in hotel rooms with servants. They'll lose attachment to a specific location and the migration DNA will kick in.

    Rather than tell people WHERE they should live in 2050, I'm curious to find out HOW they will choose to live. I very much doubt our current sedentary lifeways will persist for the rest of the century, it will just be too easy to travel and live.

  18. exeric | | #18

    All I can say is that when editorial policy aids the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted then my personal limit of tolerance ends. Bullying definitely goes on at GBA but it mostly hides under the surface until people are really vulnerable. Then the lure of blaming victims becomes just too strong for some. You say no one wants to see people questioning the virtue of fellow commenters. Sometimes that's what it comes down to keep any society civil. There needs to be a critical feedback loop so that negative behavior and mob rule gets corrected.

    If you can't see that I hope your paid advertisers do and that they will see negative opinions and stereotypes are allowed to thrive here under that policy. Unless this changes I will communicate with advertisers here directly and bring their attention to it in the hope that they will stop advertising.

  19. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #19

    User -69etc,
    That sounds like the utopian future we were promised in the 1960's, when the problem we were told would be what to do with all the leisure time we would have once all tasks has been automated. Now most economists worry that redundant workers will have no source of either wealth or useful occupation.

    Unless civil society somehow manages to quickly reinvent itself, a much more likely future is that the fruits of automation will be kept by a small segment of the population. The rest will have lost all economic leverage and see their lifestyles decline.

    Either way, we aren't yet in a world entirely divorced for the limits of geography. There are still good reasons for the concentration of populations in places like the West Coast. Moving people inland to areas less prone to disasters still needs to take into account the economic realities that situated cities in the first place. The port of Vancouver and those in Puget Sound can't connect with others on the Pacific Rim if, as suggested, everyone moves to the Chilcotin.

  20. rockies63 | | #20

    A reply
    My Habegger, you are half right. I have no empathy for people who do not take the time to access the dangers to their homes, possessions or their lives, study methods of safeguarding themselves and then actually go out and do something about that danger. However, I have great empathy for the people who have lost their homes, possessions and lives in Houston, Key West, Puerto Rico and Northern California.

    Not everyone has the time or resources to build a totally earthquake proof, flood proof or fireproof home but for God's sake do go out and discover what you can improve to ensure your survival. If you live in a hurricane zone there is a strong possibility that your home might be washed away. Learn how to safeguard yourself and prepare as best you can, even if it’s just buying water proof containers to store your family photos.

    So what if there hasn’t been a major wildfire in your area within living memory. Have other areas with similar climate or topography to yours burned? Study what happened and prepare. Can you prevent your home from being destroyed? Maybe not, but you can go out and buy fire proof containers for your valuables. You’ll surely have more to go forward with than the clothes on your back.

    It’s terrible that so much was lost, but individuals must take responsibility for their own education and survival in the event of a natural disaster. Most people, for some stupid reason, simply will not prepare for a potential disaster. They just won’t. I’ve never understood that.

  21. Brad_S | | #21

    "Unless civil society somehow
    "Unless civil society somehow manages to quickly reinvent itself, a much more likely future is that the fruits of automation will be kept by a small segment of the population."

    Do you have a closet full of clothing? If so, that's because automatic sewing machines and diesel ships make it happen. Ex-pat Americans move into amazing 18th/19th century European buildings then complain there aren't any closets.

    Just like cars and shopping malls changed American culture, new technology like robotic construction will change American culture.

    The climate change impacts on Vancouver BC discussed in this article are multiple decades away. Especially if contemporized with genetically engineered forests. If that's the far future this article is asking us to anticipate by moving cities then I think it misses a larger picture that might be informed by examining the cultural changes we've seen post-WW2.

    Do this. Travel back in time to 1990 and tell your banker your job is running a web site blog/forum. Bet you get a funny look rather than a loan. Many jobs that exist today will not exist in 20 years. Many jobs that will exist in 20 years do not exist today.

  22. B_Carr | | #22

    Mass population move and centers
    The only region that Armando missed in his post above was the Southwest. Places like Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada don’t really experience any large-scale natural disasters. Their one issue is they are largely lacking in one major resource – water. I’ve often thought that if we, as a country, wanted to unify behind the ideal of creating a long-term solution to housing for the county as a whole, moving everyone to places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Utah and New Mexico would secure our prosperity from a housing standpoint. We could put all that money that we normally spend on flood/fire insurance, and rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters, towards super-scale water infrastructure projects that brought water from water-dense portions of the country to the safer (but water-deficient) locations in the country where we’d live.

    This huge utopian (dystopian?) vision has one major flaw, however. It assumes that nobody has a preference for where they live, and would happily move to a massive, mega-city where they would have to likely live in a smaller space on the 120th floor of a high-rise building, sit amongst thousands of other strangers in a tight space as they travel within that mega-city, and likely travel a large distance to experience any sort of natural environment or aloneness. There are, of course, design solutions to many, but not all, of these issues. But therein lies the reason why we continue to rebuild in places that aren’t really the best to live. We have grown accustomed to a way of living that we are comfortable with and would much rather face the risk to our lives (and associated higher cost) than be forced to live an alternative (and more uniform) way. The land of the free …

  23. Expert Member
    RICHARD EVANS | | #23

    Fascinating and timely article
    Lots of interesting take-aways from this timely article. Loved the reference to Guatemala and the Minoans?

    This idea that we may have to move our cities has a kind of post-apocalyptic darkness to it. I worry about rising sea levels and how coastal cities around the world will either have to adapt, relocate, or die. I can only presume that climate change will result in a slow but unprecedented migration of civilization to higher ground. Conflict will almost certainly ensue as land rights are disputed. Some people are already speculating that earth itself will need to be abandoned in thousands of years in favor of other planets.

    Some places, like Mexico City, may need to be moved. But many places still have a chance so long as we can take climate change seriously.

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