How rethinking local people’s agency could help navigate Xochimilco’s troubled waters

Boundary object

Xochimilco, Mexico City is the last remnant of the complex lacustrine system of wetlands that was the basis for agriculture and livelihoods (the chinampa system) in pre-Columbian times. However, the water is no longer provided by natural springs, but is reliant on the discharge of treated wastewater from the neighboring, densely populated and impoverished borough of Iztapalapa (population of >1.3 million). The area is best known for its extensive canals – 170km of them – and the colourful gondola-like boats which tourists and residents use to travel around them.

Tourism, farming, informal settlers and wildlife all make different demands on the wetlands. The environmental and social changes taking place are causing problems and conflicts between different groups who value the area in different ways.

As part of the ‘Pathways’ Network project, we are investigating how the transformations taking place in the area could be more sustainable. Our project aims to open up the possibility for new kinds of agency within the socio-ecological system of Xochimilco.

To do this, we organised a ‘transformation lab’ (T-Lab) in Mexico City in March 2017, which brought together different people connected to Xochimilco. In the run-up to the T-Lab, we conducted interviews to explore how they understood the system in Xochimilco, and how they thought about their relationship to it and the problems in the area.

What’s the problem?

Xochimilco’s water quality is not good, not only because of the treated waste water supply, but also because of numerous illicit discharges of sewage into the wetland from the irregular and expanding urban settlements on the wetland fringe.

Water quality concerns have undermined fishing and agricultural livelihoods, and threaten the eco-tourism activities of the area. Although the canals and their ecosystem were declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, they remain severely affected by environmental degradation. Neither this international recognition, nor the attention of the city’s policy makers, have been enough to halt the environmental problems affecting the area and its people.

While there are numerous sustainability challenges associated with Xochimilco, our T-lab was focused on the issue of informal/irregular settlements and the urbanization of the historic wetlands.

Designing a T-Lab

We proposed the T-lab as a collaborative arena where participants could discover and mobilize agency to address urbanization.

The ‘Big Idea’ from which we built our methods was this: a person’s agency in a socio-ecological system (SES) is related to how they see or frame a system, their capacities, and their social network. The T-lab was not explicitly designed to achieve a particular pathway towards a specific desired outcome, but to open up the possibility for new kinds of agency, both individual and collective. The design left open the question of how that agency might manifest itself.

The goals/intentions that drive actions and agency in an SES shape the current system and the possible futures of that system. For this reason, we thought that inspiring changes in agency could bring about a change in the system itself.

Before the T-Lab took place, we interviewed each participant individually about their perspective of, role, and agency within the system. The interviews were vital for us to understand how they actually framed the system, their involvement/role in it, their relations within it, and their perspective on environmental degradation prior to the T-Lab. It was also important for each participant to reflect on the system and their agency within it before the T-Lab took place.

Group discussion outside in a circle
Group discussion at the T-Lab. Photo: Beatriz Ruizpalacios

The T-lab itself took place over 2 days. We strategically and purposefully included people with different, framings, roles and capacities. The aim was to create a space that we knew would include diversity and therefore the potential for inducing situations in which individuals’ framings would be challenged. The participants included residents from within Xochimilco, academics concerned with Xochimilco, people from Xochimilco or socially connected to it, NGOs, and one local government representative.

We also selected the group based on our perception that they would be collaborative rather than conflict-seeking. We hoped that, through a process of both individual and collective reflection, actors would be able to re-conceptualize and re-frame the changes going on in the city and ecology of the area, and produce novel pathways forward based on working together through shared capacities and skills.


The T-lab itself was roughly designed around three sub-objectives to affect agency: situating, motivating, and collective empowerment.


Avatar drawing of a fish
Avatar created by one of the participants. Photo: Beatriz Ruizpalacios

The first T-lab activity was to make ‘avatars’ to show the variety and strength of capacities among the participants. Each participant drew their avatar on a large sheet of paper and listed five ‘powers’ that their avatar had (eg the ability to listen well, ability to guide others, communication, and so on). The avatars were then hung on the wall and “watched over” the entire T-lab process.

The activity was useful because the avatars represented the participants without explicitly naming them. Each avatar might thus be more easily ‘manipulated’ into taking responsibility, embodying different roles, and building synergies with other avatars, than the ‘real’ person themselves.

Motivations and history

After drawing avatars, we facilitated a discussion to build group cohesion and set the T-lab on a trajectory of co-construction. We asked each person to say why they were motivated to participate in the T-lab and what their expectations were for it.

This conversation ended up being more important than we had imagined it would be, because of one of the participants’ innovation and insight into the problem. This participant, a young artist, had brought in old magazines about Xochimilco. These magazines dated back several decades and were focused on highlighting the problems in Xochimilco – the degradation, the urbanization, the plight of the chinamperos, etc. It was truly eye-opening for participants to realize that these problems aren’t going to go away – the same issues have persisted for decades.

To understand that those before them had faced the same issues, and tried to address them with the same solutions that they still currently consider, seemed to be a turning point for many of the participants. They understood that the problem must be addressed differently and that they must take new kinds of actions.  We often forget recent history if it is not within our lifetime.

Creating a ‘boundary object’

Following this discussion we created a boundary object that re-conceptualized/re-framed Xochimilco as islands of values rather than geographic representations.

First, we asked participants to construct (using materials such as modeling clay, natural items such as leaves and sticks, photos, etc) a map of the three things they value the most about Xochimilco. These were often presented as material things such as the chinampa, a specific tree, and the navigation of canals. Then we asked participants to describe the significance and the underlying value of these choices: why is the chinampa important beyond the fact that it is a chinampa? What does the chinampa provide beyond the fact that it is your livelihood?

Boundary object
Boundary object representing what is valued about Xochimilco. Photo: Beatriz Ruizpalacios

This process was difficult. It was very difficult to draw lines between material and immaterial values – people were confused about separating material values and immaterial values because they are so closely interlinked. It seemed, in fact, that the word ‘value’ itself was not entirely helpful but too ambiguous.

It was helpful to tell the group that we were reconceptualizing Xochimilco as islands of values instead of objects, so that even if these objects stay or go, the essence of Xochimilco remains – but there was still some confusion.  However, the activity actually did end with some very important immaterial values being shown: identity, livelihood self-sufficiency, and the aesthetic of the landscape.

Boundary object
Another boundary object. Photo: Beatriz Ruizpalacios

Building pathways together

This map-making was followed by a discussion of collective ‘pathway building’. How might we, as a group, develop and sustain the values of identity, livelihood self-sufficiency, and the esthetic of the landscape in new, cooperative ways?

The pathways themselves were not necessarily transformative, but we were more concerned with building a transformed sense of agency rather than transformative action pathways. The T-Lab closed with a conversation about something we perceived as critical: barriers.

What we learned from the process

Over the course of the first day, we realised that the most critical thing for us to facilitate was not continued conversation about ideas, collaboration, and specific pathways – but instead, to think about why things haven’t worked in the past. Why, despite the capacities and motivations that exist to address the problems in Xochimilco, do change initiatives so often fail?

Often we have ideas but when we begin to pursue them, there are barriers. The mechanisms at these barriers must be transformed for the system to transform. Our conversation around barriers seemed to open up new ways of thinking about an issue, as well as new arenas for agency. For example, the divide between residents who live within Xochimilco and those who are recent immigrants is partially responsible for the lack of community support, and low self-esteem contributes to lost motivation.

We believe that this collective experience of viewing an issue from a new angle contributed to forming the group’s collective agency and identity: agency based in shared recognition of the problem from a new, resonant perspective.

What happens next?

This was the first of two T-Labs that will take place in Mexico City as part of the ‘Pathways’ Network project – the second will be in 2019.

At the end of the first T-lab there seemed to be a general enthusiasm among the group members to continue working together and we have connected participants via a Facebook group.  The first T-lab built the foundation for the next T-Lab because we would like to put more responsibility on participants for leading the second T-Lab. In an attempt to make the T-Labs truly co-owned and produced, we are planning to base the second T-lab around participants’ suggestions.

The following were suggested:

  1. Make a problem tree, then generate concrete actions using our abilities/capacities. Then we could begin implementing these actions, document the process and “see what works” (i.e. reflexive governance…)
  2. One participant suggested that it could be helpful to write a document which would contain the philosophy of Xochimilco. This philosophy would act as a platform for sharing knowledge and a kind of agreement for what must be sustained in order to sustain that which is deeply valued about Xochimilco.

Find out more about the background to this project at the ‘Pathways’ Network project page.

Rebecca Shelton is a research assistant and doctoral student within the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, a team member of the ‘Pathways’ Network and a member of the North America Hub of the Pathways to Sustainability Global Consortium. She is interested in the cognitive and ecological barriers that stall or bar economic transitions in rural, primary sector economies such as agriculture and mining.