TIJUANA, Mexico — The question of whether Tijuana has sufficient green spaces was dramatically emphasized recently when Baja California’s governor vowed to seize one of Tijuana’s private golf courses.
Baja California Gov. Jaime Bonilla proposed in April to convert the Tijuana Country Club and golf course into a public recreational space for sports and culture for children, arguing the 120-acre property belongs in the hands of the people, as one of the border city’s few green areas.
“With the growth of Tijuana — it’s the most densely populated city in the country — it doesn’t have lungs, and young people in the neighborhoods don’t have anywhere to play. There are no green spaces,” said Bonilla.
Bonilla’s plan has sparked a court fight, and some legal experts are dubious the property seizure will come to fruition. Because he announced the plan just days before official campaign season kicked off, some wondered whether it was mostly a publicity stunt.
In any case, the proposal highlighted a problem for the rapidly growing border city. The total amount of green space in Tijuana is not enough to meet the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization for sustainable, healthy cities, according to Patricia Peterson Villalobos, the city’s secretary of Urban and Environmental Development.
In its publication of Health Indicators for Sustainable Cities, the WHO recommends 9 square meters of green area per resident; Tijuana has only 2 square meters of public recreational area, Peterson Villalobos said. That number goes up to 4 when considering green spaces maintained by private and public universities, and private sports facilities such as those on the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) campus, she added.
According to the investigative newspaper Zeta, Villalobos also recently publicly acknowledged that 50 percent of the city’s parks “still lack maintenance and some equipment.” The city of almost 2 million people has a budget of just 150 million pesos — or $7.5 million — to put toward equipment, landscaping and other maintenance for its 209 parks.
Tijuana does have some nice outdoor spaces, though.
Parque Morelos, a 1,045-acre ecological reserve in the central eastern area of the city, features a zoo. On a recent morning, Marcela Gonzalez, 44, pushed an empty stroller as her son darted alongside the park’s large lake.
“We come as often as we can to walk the park and get some exercise, and we do enjoy it very much,” she said.
Claudio Ramon Alfaro, 71, said he has been coming to Parque Teniente Guerrero for decades, since it reopened after being temporarily closed in the late 1990s because of crime.
“I think they have enough space here in Tijuana. There are a lot of parks and green places if you know the city well,” said Alfaro, who enjoys the musicians that come to play in the middle of the day. “I come here just to relax and take a break, and relax my eyes. It’s a very safe and tranquil place, especially since the police put in the cameras.”
But Jesus Aguilera, 31, who was playing chess at tables nearby, lamented the lack of parks.
“There are a lot of people who live in Tijuana and every single day more and more people are arriving,” he said. “For everyone to have enough room to go to breathe in some fresh air and relax, something has to be done.”
Under the state government (and Bonilla’s) plan, the exclusive Tijuana Country Club — known locally as Club Campestre Tijuana — and its attached 18-hole golf course would be seized and turned into a 120-acre public park. Bonilla, of the ruling political party Morena, has proposed to convert the exclusive club into a recreational space for children, arguing that it is one of the few green areas in Tijuana that can be redeveloped for that purpose.
The legal battle is already underway to expropriate the property, located in a relatively affluent part of Tijuana. The club and those supporting it have filed legal complaints against the state’s plan.
“There are people who have lived in Tijuana for 40 years and they don’t know the [Tijuana] Country Club; they can’t even gain access to the parking lot,” Bonilla said.
A spokesman for Club Campestre said the plan to seize it “stinks of political revenge between two politicians.” Other legal experts have said the state is unlikely to win its case in court.
Adolfo Solis, a lawyer for members of the club, said the expropriation would set a dangerous precedent.
“Any opponent, any journalist or any official, any group that is not aligned with the government, could simply have their property removed,” said Solis.
The modern version of the sports and social club opened in 1979, and now features a spa, massage area, a salon, and a children’s entertainment area for child care, according to its website. The private club has about 800 members, which includes the business and political elite of the city. (Bonilla contends those are its only members.) Membership costs about $300 to $500 a month, but to join, one has to pay a $70,000 to $90,000 initiation fee, according to Solis.
For months prior to publication of the expropriation decree in the government’s official newspaper on April 13, Bonilla had threatened the action during his daily, live Facebook transmissions. He accused the organization of not paying property taxes and not paying for services such as water.
Club Campestre is a favorite haunt of former Tijuana mayor Arturo González Cruz, who was the former president of the club for two terms. González Cruz was involved in a major political squabble last year with the governor. Even though González Cruz and Bonilla are part of the same political party, the two became public enemies last year, partially fighting over whether or not González Cruz would be endorsed to run to succeed Bonilla as governor.
Some observers question whether the action was politically motivated because of that political beef. Business leaders have expressed concern that the expropriation decree will deter private investment and hurt the state’s ability to grow its manufacturing industry.
Some residents argue the city should take better care of the public properties it already manages. In the Lomas Taurinas neighborhood of northern Tijuana, some complain they’ve lost access to Pasteje Park because hundreds of families are building a squatters’ settlement there.
Marcelo Alvarez, 34, is among hundreds of people building private residential structures — shacks made out of spare wood, sheet metal and other discarded materials — inside the Pasteje Park. Alvarez said he and his neighbors decided to build homes there because they had run out of options and did not want to live on the streets.
“Look at us, do we look like people who are sitting around waiting for the government to do something for us?” Alvarez asked, as he drove a long spade into the ground to create a foot-wide hole for drainage outside the 4-by-4-foot shack he made from discarded plywood. “Mexicans don’t have the luxury of sitting around with our arms crossed waiting for the government to send us a check or rent relief. It’ll never come.”
Alvarez said he supports Bonilla’s decision to try to seize Club Campestre.
“For hundreds of years, our government has done nothing but taken from the people,” said Alvarez. “At least he’s trying to give us something back.”
Tijuana City Councilman Arnulfo Guerrero Leon has proposed an alternative solution to seizing private lands. His proposal to buy 100 acres in the southern portion of the city off Boulevard 2000, near Cuervo de los Venados, and construct a man-made forest is being considered by the planning commission.
“Tijuana requires a forest, a sufficiently large and open space that includes protected natural areas, green areas, wildlife, vegetation and natural landscapes for the preservation of regional ecosystems, which also contributes to the health and well-being of the city’s inhabitants by preventing diseases associated with environmental pollution,” he said.