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Urban Island

In 2008, Isla Urbana founders Renata Fenton and Enrique Lomnitz became interested in rethinking design as a tool for identifying and solving major societal issues. Founders had grown up in Mexico City, where they were exposed to the challenges and possibilities inherent in working with issues of urban scarcities.

Fenton and Lomnitz began a project focusing on sustainable dwellings and conducted in-depth research on marginalized areas in order to observe the resources available to its inhabitants. They were curious as to how low-income citizens—who were unable to get a mortgage and did not have access to stable incomes—were capable of maintaining a home in these neighbourhoods.1 This idea that the seemingly impossible could be made possible has become the philosophy at the centre of all the Isla Urbana’s projects.

People who live at the margins of Mexico City are often forced to operate in informal markets where they are unable to generate savings and can barely earn enough to cover their daily expenses. In studying these communities, Fenton and Lomnitz observed that any and all savings these citizens earned were used to buy building materials that were then stacked and stored until construction of a new house could begin. These communities had developed a financial strategy that focused on the linear improvement of their basic needs. These communities also practiced a sustainable approach to water consumption, which was circular rather than linear. In these neighbourhoods, water is recycled and reused as much as possible to combat the scarcity of water in many parts of Mexico City.

Fotografía: cortesía Isla Urbana
Fotografía: cortesía Isla Urbana

Mexico City’s water system is broken and has been evaluated as one of the most wasteful in the world. Rainwater, which falls in abundance in the rainy season, floods the city and escapes without consideration for how it might help with the City’s water scarcity issues. Only 11% of rainfall is contained in the aquifer, while 34% is lost to urban runoff in drainage.2 Another 35% of drinkable water is lost to pipe leaks and to illegal water intake by luxury conglomerates whose consumption-level data is unavailable.3 Water is unevenly distributed between Mexico’s citizens and the sources that provide it are currently being overexploited.

To re-formulate our approach to the issue of access to water, Fenton and Lomnitz used a process similar to the one they had observed in the citizens’ linear construction process. The project started with a small system of rainwater harvesting and evaluated its pros and cons. Willing participants volunteered their homes to prototype these collection systems and to promote sustainable communities. This exercise of inclusive and participatory design was shaped by questions and observation of flaws in order to adapt it accordingly; the result was a successful capture of rainwater to supply domestic use for a full eight months of the year.

Fotografía: cortesía Isla Urbana
Fotografía: cortesía Isla Urbana

Since the start of 2018, Isla Urbana has installed 4,600 systems in the city, with an estimated 35,000 beneficiaries and 368 million liters of collected rainwater—equivalent to 46,000 truckloads (each of an 8,000-liter capacity)—per year. However, the real achievement that emerged through this harvest was the inclusion of regular citizens in the design process, their empowerment through inclusion in the development of water cycles and their transition from simply dependency to complete agency. Isla Urbana’s goal is to implement a more artistic dimension to the design of their water collection system, under the philosophy that both art and water are basic human needs that have the capacity to improve the lives of citizens.4

Project name Isla Urbana
Period 2009
Author Carlos Moscoso, Enrique Lomnitz, Renata Fenton, David Vargas, Hiram García
Contributor CDMX
Contributor 100 Resilient cities, Harp Helú Foundation
Location Av. División del Norte 2745 Int-2, Col. Barrio San Lucas, Del. Coyoacán, 04030, CDMX
  1. Enrique Lomnitz, “Urban Island”, filmed May 2016 at TEDxCalzadaDeLosHéroes, Mexico City. video, 20:25,
  2. “A general vision of water in Mexico” Fondo para la Comunicación y la Educación Ambiental, A.C.,
  3. Alejandro de Coss, “El futuro del agua en la Ciudad de México: ¿una catástrofe irreversible?”, Nexos, Noviembre 2016,
  4. Lomnitz, op.cit.