Weeks after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, the militant leftist leader angered international investors and Mexico’s business community by canceling an airport that was already about one-third complete. During his election campaign, López Abrador accused the project management of overspending and corruption. Then, in a post-election referendum initiated by López Obrador’s party, the public voted to repeal it (although critics claimed the results were unrepresentative, with only one in 90 Mexican voters casting a ballot).

What was left behind was an eerily empty landscape larger than Paris, surrounded by sprawling Mexico City. The president decreed that the city would build one of the world’s largest urban parks in this vast area, a project he called “the new Tenochtitlan.” To oversee what would later become known as the Ecological Park of Lake Teccoca (PELT), he appointed Iñaki Echeverría, a Mexican architect and landscape designer who had championed the restoration of the site for more than two decades.

The Echeverria Park vision is part of a wave of projects that have turned the traditional goal of ecosystem restoration on its head: returning ecosystems to the state they were in before humans damaged them. Instead of trying to turn back the clock, Echeverria is creating artificial wetlands that aim to change the future of the entire valley region, drawing lessons from both Tenochtitlan and modern Mexico City about how thriving cities can coexist with thriving ecosystems.

With a budget of $1 billion, Texcoco Park will repurpose the structural skeletons and concrete gorges left behind by the construction of the airport to create man-made lakes and habitats designed for visitors and an unprecedented mix of species. And Echeverria’s team hopes the park can also promote economic development by developing nurseries for native plants and reviving endangered cultural practices, including harvesting the spirulina algae. While the end result will bear little resemblance to Texcoco’s past, it may revive something more fundamental: the long dormant history of the Valley of Mexico building in step with natural systems.

However, today miles of Texcoco Park remain surrounded by a perimeter fence manned by uniformed security guards. As the project nears the end of López Obrador’s term in office in 2024 (he has pledged not to seek another), much remains off limits to the public and besieged by controversy. Plans to revive Lake Texcoco may yet disappear.

Lake Tescoco is making a comeback

The Valley of Mexico, flanked by mountain ranges and two volcanoes, has historically formed an “endarchean basin” where water cannot flow out but instead diffuses into the ground. As a result of this process, the salt is concentrated at the lowest point where Lake Texcoco is located – a plug in the valley bath. Throughout history, the mixed salt and fresh waters of the area have served as a petri dish for the evolution of unusual organisms, including an entire ecosystem of extinct fish species and the axolotl, an amphibian with the ability to regenerate limbs, named after one of the gods of Mexico.

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