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Tijuana's Advocate for Change Brings Hope to a Restive City

Border: Civic planning chief aims to transform sprawling metropolis with modest initial projects followed by greater ones.


TIJUANA — Carlos Graizbord used to shield his eyes when he drove by the dusty squatter settlements clinging precariously to the hillsides of this border city.

The dirt roads, the makeshift homes pieced together out of tires and plywood, the chaotic jumble of neighborhoods that sprouted of their own accord--all of it was too much.

It wasn't just the immense poverty that depressed him. It was that fixing the untamed colonias was up to him. As the new director of Tijuana's Institute for Municipal Planning, Graizbord had to find a way to bring order to one of North America's most unruly cities.

Three years later, the illegal shantytowns are still there, but the determined planning director no longer averts his gaze. His short tenure so far has given him hope that transforming this sprawling metropolis--in ways both small and large--is indeed possible.

"There is no bigger challenge," he said. "Maybe Calcutta. But I do believe that if we persist with our effort, we can change the city, slowly."

For evidence, he looks to Avenida Revolucion, the mostly seedy downtown strip of bars and clubs that is slowly taking on the appearance of a pleasant pedestrian promenade.

After the city began planting rows of neatly trimmed shrubs, widening the sidewalks and installing benches, the local merchants began cleaning up the facades of their shops.

Next, Graizbord dreams of rehabilitating the Alamar River, a polluted waterway that cuts through the northeast of the city, into a vibrant 7-mile greenbelt with gardens, recreation and housing. And he hopes to make the poor colonias that have cropped up all over the city into orderly villages with paved roads, running water and community centers.

It's a lot to expect in a place where a third of the city lacks basic services like sewage lines, where half the new homes go up unapproved, where officials worry about running out of water in three years.

But Graizbord, a Harvard-educated urban planner who has worked for the cities of Riverside and San Diego, said he now believes that small initial achievements can be followed by greater ones.

"I'm not quixotic and naive," he insisted. "This is extremely complicated and difficult, but it's possible."

Tijuana officials and urban planners on both sides of the border praise Graizbord for bringing badly needed optimism and vision to a restive city.

But high hopes alone cannot overcome unpredictable politics, a sluggish bureaucracy and a sheer lack of money.

The planning institute gets by on a $1-million annual budget, just enough to pay the salaries of its 40 architects, engineers and urban planners.

More often than not, Graizbord has to try to raise money from the private sector to bring his plans to fruition, such as a statue commemorating local teachers.

He's also managed to launch the streetscape project along Avenida Revolucion and add traffic improvements to a busy intersection.

"We don't know when he will be able to realize his dreams for the city," said Jose Luis Castro, director of the urban planning department at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. "I think the attitude of Carlos is a good one. There has to be optimism about bettering the city."


Tijuana began as an arid border outpost in 1889, but only truly began to grow after World War II. The city's population has about doubled every decade since then, fueled by migrants seeking work in the United States or in the city's foreign-owned maquiladora manufacturing plants.

Tijuana is now a city of more than 1.2 million--the exact figure is difficult to ascertain because of the number of illegal settlements and migrants passing through. With growth at twice the national average, the city population is projected to reach 2.5 million by 2020.

For the first time, city officials are trying to figure out how to manage that growth.

"Planning is a concept that in Mexico and Tijuana has not been very present," said Tijuana Mayor Jesus Gonzalez.

Three years ago, the City Council established the Institute for Municipal Planning as a quasi-independent agency, designed to free planning from the wild swings of Mexican politics.

Graizbord, 58, was chosen as its first director.

A native of Guadalajara, he studied architecture at the National University in Mexico City, and then urban and regional planning at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. He was doing long-range planing for the city of San Diego when the job opened up in Tijuana.

"I do love difficult things," he said.

Every day he makes the commute from his manicured San Diego neighborhood of Scripps Ranch to the sparse two-story offices of the institute, located on a frenetic Tijuana avenue. (He said he has remained in San Diego because his wife works there.)

Graizbord's shirt pocket is always stuffed with half a dozen pens and pencils, which he frequently yanks out to illustrate an idea for visitors.

His wife, Carmen, says ruefully that he regularly springs out of bed at 6 a.m. on the weekends and rushes to the computer to e-mail his staff a new idea.

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