Periphery Systems in Mexico City

March 7, 2017

by Tiffany Henschel


This single pipe feeds water from a reservoir above down to thousands of residents via gravity.

This single pipe feeds water from a reservoir above down to thousands of residents via gravity.


I never studied abroad, let alone traveled south of Baja California, Mexico, so my seven-week field engagement in Mexico City at first felt a little daunting. Once I immersed myself into the bustling metropolis of 21-million people, that nervous feeling subsided and I was immediately drawn to the systems and infrastructure unique to Mexico City—more specifically, the city’s water systems.

MDP Field students and faculty traveled to Mexico City to work with UNICEF Mexico City’s innovation team. Our goal was to incorporate design thinking and research into the unimaginably complex issue of undocumented migrant children traveling through Mexico to the United States. Students were also tasked with developing our own research interests and come up with a plan for field engagement and design during an upcoming second, five-week long trip.

My personal research took me on an exploration of water systems in Mexico City. While water was already subject of my interest, I was hooked by the fact  that the city is built atop an artificially-drained lakebed and is sinking each year at an incredibly visible rate. I documented several aspects of water infrastructure and subsidence in Mexico City.

I visited Bordearte, a collective of artists and creatives living in and around the Gabriel Hernandez neighborhood, situated on a steep hill on the periphery of Mexico City. The members of Bordearte collaborate with residents through several channels, strengthening their community from within. They produce a magazine illustrating their culture and lifestyle on the border of Mexico City (hence the name, Border Art). They also host workshops and local events—from small concerts to educational workshops for children. They took us on a tour of their neighborhood, where I noticed their unique water distribution system. The water is pumped through a single pipe to the base of the hill, where it is funneled uphill via two large pumping systems in the neighborhood, which are only on for a fraction of the day. Once the water reaches a reservoir at the top of the hill, a single 6-inch pipe delivers water to thousands of residents using gravity alone. Thousands of people essentially “share” this water pressure that occurs through gravity, creating a system in and of itself. What’s interesting to me is how these residents collaborate on a local level, creating their own systems and approaches to solve common issues in ways that are unique to them, in contrast to what the government provides. Specifically, I am interested in certain types of “informal” existing systems: infrastructure and education.

Personal research interests and field engagements were only part of our initial trip. Our UNICEF engagement introduced us to the subject of child immigration through two avenues. First, we visited two homes in Mexico City that provide residential support for immigrant minors seeking asylum or who have been detained by police. We also took a weekend trip to the small town of San Francisco Tetlanohcan, two hours south of Mexico City, to meet with the Popular Assembly of Migrant Families, whose members are all touched in some way personally by migration. In preparation for our visits, we each quickly prototyped an “icebreaker” tool in order to initiate conversations with those we might meet. Knowing that I would meet people of all different ages, and unsure if they would be able to read and/or write, the design challenge became what to make that would incorporate as many of those factors into it as possible. I also asked myself, what do I as a designer want to learn through these conversations? Using a four-sided die, markers and a dry-erase board, I created an icebreaker game that used language and writing minimally, called Playing Favorites. Depending on what color the die landed on, there was a matching marker corresponding to it, each with a different label: pasatiempos (hobbies), comida/bebida (food/drink), mascota/animal (pet/animal), and instrumento/musica (instrument/music). Using the dry erase board, I would ask the person to draw their favorite thing in that category. By utilizing drawing, my hope was to break the language and literacy barrier and find out who these people were by designing something that spoke to their hobbies and interests instead of focusing on immigration itself. This collaborative approach to conversation outputs different information than what would have come out of, say, a more traditional, interview-style approach.

I’ll spend five more weeks in Mexico City this semester, and much of that time will be spent collaborating with my new friends in the Gabriel Hernandez neighborhood. I hope to learn more about their informal systems and culture by designing objects that facilitate conversation around their unique infrastructure.


This staircase is indicative of the steep landscape of this neighborhood.

This staircase is indicative of the steep landscape of this neighborhood.



Tiffany Henschel is a designer and photographer in the Media Design Practices MFA program at Art Center College of Design. Her interests pertain to sustainability and the environment, the potential of distributed networks and local collaboration, and the possibilities of change on a micro-scale. You can visit to see her MDP graduate projects in more detail.