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"Tenochtitlan: A Precedent Sustainable City"This paper explores the ancient agricultural city of Tenochtitlan.




    A Precedent Sustainable City

    Laura Wake-Ramos

    The Pennsylvania State University

    ANTH 422

    December 10th, 2013


    LAW 2


    Urban agriculture is a recent concept, which refers to the activities linked

    to food production in cities. Although the movement of urban agriculture

    today is a revolution compared to modern sustainable city urbanisms, the

    concepts and technologies are not new alternatives in the Valley of Mexico.

    The knowledge is ancient, with its origins rooted in the most important site of

    Mesoamerica, Tenochtitlan, a megacity that had been historically sustained by

    intensive agricultural systems (Losada, et al, 2000).

    It is hope that this paper shed a light on the opportunities to learn

    sustainable agricultural strategies from the ancient Aztec city, Tenochtitlan.


    The worlds population is rapidly becoming more urbanized (Horrigan,

    2002). In 1975, about one-third of the world's people lived in cities; by 2030, that

    figure is expected to rise to over 60% (Horrigan, 2002). Studies have shown that

    when people move from rural to urban areas, they characteristically increase

    their food consumption (Horrigan, 2002). Both population growth and

    urbanization indicates consequences for the environment and the social order

    that it upholds (Horrigan, 2002). Thus, the combination of more people, with

    greater consumption per capita is currently creating a threat for future scarcity

    in vital resources (Horrigan, 2002).


    LAW 3

    Sustainable development was first defined in 1987 by the Brundtland

    Commission, solicited by the United Nations: Sustainable development is

    development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the

    ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Alberola, 2009). The main

    factor of sustainability is flexibility, which is the adaptive capacity of agriculture

    to adapt to future changes (Alberola, 2009). Todays industrial agriculture is

    considered unsustainable because it is similarly eroding natural resources faster

    than the environment can regenerate them, as well as it depends heavily on

    resources that are nonrenewable (e.g., fossil fuels and fossil aquifers) (Horrigan,

    2002). Sustainable development recognizes that natural resources are infinite,

    acknowledges limits on economic growth, and encourages equity in resource

    allocation (Horrigan, 2002).

    Many large civilizations have risen on the strengths of their agriculture, and

    subsequently collapsed because their farming methods had eroded the natural

    resource base (Horrigan, 2002). Sustainable agriculture is not a new invention,

    as can be drawn from the inspirations and methods of the most advanced

    ecological science from ancient agrarian cultures, such as Tenochtitlan

    (Vallianatos, 2012).


    Tenochtitlan lies under the heart of modern Mexico City, which used to be

    a vast marshlands of Lake Texcoco before evolving into the Aztec capital


    LAW 4

    (Calnek, 1972). The urban center was an island city, built on artificial housing

    platforms called chinampas made of alternating layers of lake mud and thick

    mats of decaying vegetation (Calnek, 1972). By the fourteenth century,

    chinampas were the basis for the growth of several independent tribe-ruled

    island states, such as Xochimilco, Chalco, Mixquic, and Cuitlahuac located near

    the lakes southern shores (Werner, 1992). The Aztecs of the Tenochtitlan island-

    state slowly conquered each of these independent tribes into their island

    colonies (Werner. 1992). In the fifteenth century, the Aztec king Montezuma I

    and his hydraulic engineer Nezahualcoyotl employed 20,000 men to build a ten-

    mile dike, called the San Lazaro Dike, dividing Lake Texcoco to control flooding,

    and the waters salinity for farming (See Appendix 2).

    By the time the Spaniards arrived in 1520, between 160,000 and 200,000

    Aztecs inhabited (Calnek, 1972) the 12-15 km2 urban center of Tenochtitlan

    (Sanders, 1988) (See Appendix 1). With a calculated population density of

    12,000-17,000 per km2 (33,333-34,782 per mi2), this surprisingly surpasses the most

    dense cities in the United States, such as Los Angeles (6,999.3 per mi2), and New

    York City (5,318.9 per mi2) (See Appendix 3).

    The center of the city was the center of administrative facilities. Mexica

    kings lived in huge palaces with additional private quarters for the ruler himself,

    his multiple wives and children. Other rooms were to accommodate servants,

    council chambers, workshops for royal craftspeople, storage facilities for royal

    tax and tribute items, offices, libraries for scribes, pleasure gardens, and even


    LAW 5

    zoos and aviaries (Sanders, 1988). The class of bureaucratic specialists,

    including administrators, tax receivers, judges, police, [and] professional

    warriors also resided in the center city (Sanders, 1988). In addition to

    administrative officials, the city had religious functions whose facilities were

    concentrated in an enormous complex of specialized structures (Sanders, 1988).

    Tenochtitlan was divided into approximately 100 wards, each of which was a

    unit of craft specialization, such as featherworkers, goldsmiths, sculptors, and

    masons (Sanders, 1988). The city hosted a huge central market, and a great

    number of neighborhood food markets every day. Thousands of buyers and

    sellers, as many as 60,000, flocked to the great market each day (Sanders,

    1988). In respect to the numbers of such people, the biggest function of

    Tenochtitlan was clearly government (Sanders, 1988).

    The layout of the urban chinampa districts consist of regular alternation of

    street and canals at right angles to the east-west axis of the city (Calnek, 1972).

    Residential sites flanked both sides of each north-south street, and chinampas

    were located on both sides. Each residential site was rectangular in shape, and

    resulted in a mirror image pattern within each segment marked off by two

    streets or canals (Calnek, 1972). Each residential site cultivated its own

    chinampa, which could maintain from 2 or 3 individuals, to a maximum of 25 or

    30 related members (Calnek, 1972). However, a general range appears to have

    been 10 to 15 individuals of all ages per site (Calnek, 1972). The majority of the

    chinampa sites vary from about 100 to 400 m2 in total extent, while the larger lots


    LAW 6

    were around 850 m2 (Calnek, 1972). These larger chinampa holdings would

    normally have provided no more than 15% of family subsistence incomes

    (Calnek, 1972). Therefore, the native Aztecs prized their personal, local

    chinampas as a source of fresh vegetables rather than a major source of family

    income (Calnek, 1972).


    Chinampa agriculture technology was the most advanced and efficient

    self-sustaining agricultural system which fed the central valley (Werner, 1992).

    Chinamperos, chinampa farmers, had perfected the system into a way of living.

    Based on the productivity of modern chinampa communities, 1 hectare could

    support a subsistence ration for 15 to 20 individuals in Tenochtitlan.

    Approximately 500 m2 (193 mi2) would be necessary to support the average

    Aztec individual (Calnek, 1972). At the height of the Aztec empire, 20,000

    hectares (45,000 acres) of space was dedicated to these raised farmlands

    (Werner, 1992).

    The chinampas low profile above water, long, narrow layout between

    canals, and layering of specific soil types reduced the constant need for

    irrigation (Werner, 1992). The grounds capillary action supplied sufficient

    amounts of canal water to the roots of crops on top (Werner, 1992).

    Nevertheless, the work was labor intensive. Chinamperos spent their day

    fertilizing, transplanting, and tending plant nurseries (Werner, 1992).


    LAW 7

    The success of the chinampas productivity can be attributed to the

    chinamperos knowledge and management of biodiversity (Gomez-Pompa,

    1991). Once a newly constructed chinampa was raised to its proper height,

    fast-growing willows called ahuejotes were planted at the banks edges to

    control erosion, provide shade and firewood, and impede the flow of crop-

    damaging pests (Werner, 1992). The most common fertilizer was the compost

    human waste and aquatic plants from the canals (Werner, 1992). When maize

    was cultivated, ground hugging crops like beans and squash were planted

    between the rows (Werner, 1992). This intercropping of sorts kept the soil

    nutrients in balance. The root action of these bushier plants returned minerals to

    the earth consumed by the more demanding maize crop (Werner, 1992).

    Another fascinating innovation was the use of seed germination beds and

    seedling nurseries (Werner, 1992). Chinamperos could concentrate care and

    attention on crops at their most delicate stage. The b