Urban And Territorial Integrated Development Strategy For The Southeast Region In Mexico - Regional Corridor Tren Maya

The present strategy of collaboration defines the framework of technical collaboration between the National Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) and the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) for the Integral Territorial and Urban Development for the Southeast Region of Mexico - Regional Corridor Tren Maya -

The formulation of this strategy is covered within the Framework Collaboration Agreement (2014-2019) between the Government of Mexico, the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) through the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (AMEXCID)[1]. FONATUR expressed its interest in establishing a collaboration scheme with UN-Habitat through an official letter DG/RJP/052/2019. FONATUR also requested the preparation of a technical-financial proposal to develop an intervention strategy within the framework of the integral development project of the southeastern region of Mexico, Tren Maya.

During 2018 and 2019[2], FONATUR and UN-Habitat have held several working meetings to identify the approach of the collaboration. Through this document, UN-Habitat presents a working strategy from the territorial planning perspective in order to define and design a regional development corridor to respond, from a logic of integral regional development of the southeastern region, following the request of FONATUR.

Central Issue addressed:

The generation of this project proposal is based on normative evidence of the work of UN-Habitat in Mexico and other countries worldwide, which shows that there is a direct correlation between urbanization and development.

Likewise, it is based on the existing data and studies for the southeast region of Mexico, through which it is possible to notice the lag of this region and the existence of inequality and marginalization conditions with respect to the rest of the country.

Against that background, the purpose of this project is to generate a territorial strategy, provide inputs and develop plans and programs that will transmit the benefits of a strategically organized, well-planned urbanization - which includes the sustainability principles of the global agendas-, instigate local development and combat the  current backwardness within the entire region.

Correlations between urbanization and development

In 1950, only 29 % of the global population lived in urban areas. In 1990, the global urban population reached 42.5 %, and in 2009 it stayed at 50 % until reaching 55 % in 2015. It is estimated that by 2020, the global urban population will have reached 56.2 % of the total world population; 60 % in 2030 and 70 % in 2050.[3]

Mexico has been predominantly urban since 1960. Today, 77 % of its population is concentrated in urban centers and this concentration rate tends to be constantly increasing. The urbanization process in Mexico means that the number of its cities will increase - from 384 in 2010 to 961 in 2030- where 83.2 % of Mexican population will be concentrated. This accelerating urbanization phenomenon presents an opportunity in terms of urban prosperity for Mexican inhabitants

UN-Habitat has identified that the countries with the highest income per capita are those with the largest urban population. Likewise, countries with low incomes are among the least urbanized a worldwide. On average, globally, high-income countries (41,539.85 GDP per capita) are the most urbanized (81.53 %) and those with low income (745.94 GDP per capita) are among the least urbanized (32.44 %).


Table 1. Economic growth and urbanization: regions and countries selected between 1960 and 2017.



GDP per capita (USD)

Urban population

(% out of total)

High income



Middle income



Low income



Source: UN Habitat and World Bank 2017.

 Mexico is not an exception when it comes to this correlation. For example, Mexico City and Nuevo León State, where urbanization rates are greater than 95 %, are among the first three entities showing the highest GDP per capita at national level. In contrast, Chiapas and Oaxaca, where urbanization rate is the lowest in the country at less than 50%, are two states showing the lowest income per capita.

Graph 1. Urban population and GDP per capita. GDP 2017, Urban population 2015.[4]

**Please see graph 1 in Document Uploads Section**

Source:   UN-Habitat own elaboration based on data from INEGI. Gross domestic product by federal state, INEGI, base 2013 and Intercensal Survey, INEGI 2015.

Graph 2. Relation between urban population and child mortality.

**Please see graph 2 in Document Uploads Section**

Source: Urban population, UN-Habitat own calculations based on information from the intercensal survey INEGI 2015; infant mortality, CONAPO 2016.

Urbanization frequently comes with development and prosperity, and this positive relationship is evident in Mexico when analyzing multiple indicators.  

As illustrated by the following graphs, in the five states forming the southeastern region of Mexico - Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas - the average urbanization rate is 64.4 %, which is about 13 % less than the national average rate. These 5 states show higher rates of illiteracy, infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, incomes below the poverty line and marginalization. Similarly, in these states, indicators such as coverage of basic services, level of education, access to higher education, average household income, or the human development index, among others, show a decrease in accordance with the lower urban population rate.

Graph 3. Urban population and access to piped water.

**Please see graph 3 in Document Uploads Section**

Source: Urban population, UN-Habitat own calculations based on information from the INEGI intercensal survey 2015; piped water availability, tabulated from the INEGI intercensal survey of 2015.

Graph 4. Urban population and average level of education.

**Please see graph 4 in Document Uploads Section**

Source: Urban population, UN-Habitat own calculations based on information from the INEGI intercensal survey 2015; average level of education, tabulated from the INEGI intercensal survey of 2015.


Graph 5. Urban population and marginalization index.**Please see graph 5 in Document Uploads Section**

Source: Urban population, UN-Habitat own calculations based on information from the INEGI intercensal survey 2015; marginalization level and index CONAPO 2015.

Graph 6. Urban population and average household income.

**Please see graph 6 in Document Uploads Section**

Source: Urban population, UN-Habitat own calculations based on information from the INEGI intercensal survey 2015; average household income, INEGI national survey on household income and expenditure 2016.


The urban regional corridor of prosperity

The findings derived from the measurement of the City Prosperity Index (CPI) in 305 Mexican municipalities support the relationship between the lowest urbanization and the reduced development and prosperity observed in the southeast of Mexico.

 As indicated in Map 1, the regions or states with the highest degree of urbanization, particularly in the central-western region of the country, have the highest prosperity rates and the best development conditions. Meanwhile, most states in the southeast, where the urbanization rate is lower than the national average, tend to disappear from the prosperity map because their levels are below the national average. As a result, there is a corridor of prosperity located in the central zone of the country, where the urbanization rate is higher than the average of that of the southern states.

 Considering the current conditions and historical economic and social exclusion within the southeastern states, it is recommendable to emulate the conditions of prosperity already existing in the center of the country within this part of the territory. Developing an urban regional corridor to extend prosperity to the southeast will improve the welfare of the total population. This corridor will expand rights and opportunities to a historically underprivileged region, providing a unique opportunity to reverse the unequal development accumulated in many years.


Map 1. Municipalities of Mexico with values above the national average of the CPI.

**Please see Map 1 in Document Uploads Section**

 Source: UN-Habitat 2018.

The varied data presented shows that the southeast region, although having significant historic, cultural and environmental assests and being one of Mexico´s main touristic destinations, is lagging in terms of socioeconomic develoment.  

In the absence of clear regional planning and properly organized human settlements, this region has been historically marginalized and consumed by high rates of poverty and lack of opportunities for the inhabitants.

This indicates that well-managed urbanization, with transparency, responsibility and planning, works as a strategy to increase well-being and quality of life. This is a fundamental premise of the integral development strategy for the southeast region of the country.

 The integrated development of the southeast region of Mexico represents a long-range national strategy. Its purpose is to contribute to improve the living conditions of the entire population, create shared prosperity in the region while preserving the environment, tangible and intangible cultural heritage and historical identity.

Under this logic, UN-HABITAT will provide substantive technical support to FONATUR in defining the parameters and strategies necessary to develop a comprehensive development proposal for the southeast region within Mexico.

This strategy will contribute to trigger positive results in terms of welfare, development and opportunities for this region to reduce inequalities and improve the quality of life, under the fundamental premise of preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the region.

In this sense, this strategy is based on:

·    Creating a regional corridor based on a territorial planning and urban development scheme, in which the Tren Maya infrastructure will be the articulating element.

·    Redefining the regional city system.

·    Rethinking and consolidating the comparative advantages of the micro-regions.

·    Determining the intermediary roles of some cities to articulate urban and rural areas.

·   Avoiding generating inequalities in the territory.

·   Creating protection strategies for tangible and intangible heritage.

It is expected that this collaboration provides an opportunity to reimagine the 1,525 km of railroad tracks through the Tren Maya project as an opportunity to generate and implement strategies that will enhance the different territories and urban centers of the region.

In this context, the following main results expected at the end of the implementation of the project will contribute to the long-term achievement to create shared prosperity in the region:

·    The southeast region will have a shared vision generated from local needs and in consensus with multiple actors, which is aligned with the principles of the 2030 agenda and the New Urban Agenda. This translates into a clear and solid narrative that contributes to position, before public opinion, the notion and implications of a new planning approach that will contribute to improve prosperity in this region of ??the country. 

·   The southeast region will have a well-articulated coordination structure and a territorial planning strategy that considers vocations and comparative advantages of local communities for the integration of a regional city system properly hierarchized that redefines the role of cities and urban centers and the linkages between urban and rural areas, while preserving tangible and intangible heritage, in which the Tren Maya plays the role of articulating element.

·   The municipalities of the region will have strategic instruments or orientations for the preparation of their urban development programs and/or the partial plans for the areas of influence of the Tren Maya stations, consistent with the vision and the regional planning structure.

·   The southeast development strategy will have a clear evaluation of expected impacts and a proposal for the consolidation of a regional monitoring mechanism. This mechanism will enable the evaluation of the actions carried out for the construction of the railway infrastructure and the territorial planning at regional and local level; and the development of preventive or corrective actions in order to achieve the expected results in the prosperity of the region.

To achieve these expected results, UN-Habitat will develop 6 strategic components that have been articulated through 6 deliverables with the following specific objectives:

1. Narrative of the project: from the object (Train) to the concept (Integral development of the southeast region of Mexico).

·     Build a narrative based on evidence and technical inputs; generate a structured vision from a participatory process to mainstream local needs for an integrated development of the region. 

2.     Land management mechanisms.

·    Propose inter-institutional coordination and citizen participation schemes for the management of the project, as well as identify the legal and urban planning instruments necessary for its implementation.


3.   Ex ante evaluation of the impacts generated by the integral development strategy of the southeastern region.

·  Establish an ex ante evaluation system in spatial, socioeconomic and environmental terms, that allows estimations of how the strategy of integral development of the southeast and its territorial interventions will impact the social, economic and environmental conditions of the whole region and specific areas of development.

4.  Territorial structure plan of the southeast region (regional corridor) from the perspective of reorganization and articulation of several micro-regions and city centers.

·    Elaborate a Land Management integral Plan at regional scale for the southeast that allows to create a new strategy of regional development.

5.  Urban planning and operational instruments for the municipalities where the Tren Maya stations will be located.

·    Promote the sustainable development of the human settlements that exist or can be created in the influence areas of the Tren Maya stations, through the creation of Integrated Urban Operations (OUI) that will implement at local scale the territorial vision oriented to the prosperity of southeastern region of Mexico and the territorial planning at regional scale. 

6. Monitoring mechanism to supervise the process and evaluate the results (Regional Observatory).

·   Propose an institutional mechanism to create the Observatory of Regional Prosperity of the southeastern region of Mexico, which allows FONATUR to monitor and evaluate the impacts generated by the integral development strategy of the region benefitting the population and the territory.

The deliverables are interrelated to each other, in such a way that each one sustains the other, and all contribute to the consolidation of the narrative and the design of a successful and functional strategy. The aim is to generate a virtuous circle where the deliverables reinforce and articulate one another to ensure the sustainability of the project with clear benefits for the local population.

For the construction of proposals, UN-Habitat will use the findings from the CPI study of305 municipalities of the country. This will be complemented with some other territorial studies on the southeast of Mexico to identify the comparative advantages of the region.

Likewise, it is relevant to point out that the project considers addressing in a transversal way two important characteristic aspects of the region that condition territorial responses:

•      Biodiversity and natural environment,

•      Cultural heritage

Although the mandate of UN-Habitat is not focused on these issues, its relevance in the territory is significant, through the sphere of urban and territorial planning and within the framework of the above-mentioned deliverables. Strategies will be considered to integrate these elements in the project in a way that guarantees an integral development.

It is relevant to point out that alliances can be established between FONATUR and other expert actors (such as UNEP and UNESCO) on specific topics that are outside of the sphere of expertise and mandate of UN-Habitat.

Biodiversity and natural environment conservation

Within the framework of this project, UN-Habitat recognizes the importance of adopting a transversal approach of environmental sustainability that allows guaranteeing the prosperous development of the region, in alignment with the principles of the 2030 Agenda and the NUA.

The southeastern region of Mexico is one of the areas of greater natural importance of the country, specifically the Calakmul biosphere reserve which is part of the UNESCOs world heritage list. In this sense, the protection and conservation of biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem services, and sustainably managing living natural resources are fundamental throughout the project lifecycle.

UN-Habitat has highlighted in several of its projects that an efficient, well-planned and well-managed territorial planning scheme that provides specific interventions of urban acupuncture has positive effects on reducing environmental exploitation to ecosystems and natural resources. While this finding may seem counterintuitive,  the final political document of the Habitat III Conference "The New Urban Agenda" recognizes that “there is a need to take advantage of the opportunities presented by urbanization as an engine of sustained and inclusive economic growth, […] environmental protection.”[5] The same document notes that "by readdressing the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed and managed, the New Urban Agenda will help to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions; reduce inequalities; promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in order to fully harness their vital contribution to sustainable development; improve human health and wellbeing; foster resilience; and protect the environment.” [6]

The signatory countries of the New Urban Agenda recognize that “strengthening urban governance, with sound institutions and mechanisms that empower and include urban stakeholders, as well as appropriate checks and balances, providing predictability and coherence in urban development plans enable social inclusion, sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and environmental protection”.[7] 

Under this logic, UN-Habitat has advised a significant number of countries implementing regional and urban development, mechanisms to contain predatory practices of environmental protection zones, which is the case with the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, that is threatened by exploitation and illegal logging. A notable case is the intervention of UN-Habitat in the Amazon Rainforest within the State of Pará, Brazil, where the creation of a local system of cities and urban centers was proposed to create a belt of responsible protection and governance that would prevent or limit incessant deforestation in the region.

On this basis, territorial and urban planning instruments developed in components 4 and 5 of the project will be the main instruments to guide the establishment of human settlements and economic activities in the region, with a sustainable approach that guarantees an adequate balance between, environment conservation, economic growth and social wellbeing. Also, as part of these instruments, strategies will be implemented as mechanisms to contain predatory practices in environmentally protected areas. Such strategies will be directed at avoiding the potential loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, overexploitation of water resources, and inefficient practices in land management.  

Cultural Heritage

The southeast region of Mexico, together with Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, is recognized as the site where the Mayan culture developed. From the year 600 AD, the great Mayan cities reached their apogee in the region as characterized by the construction of important structures with unique architectural typologies. These cities formed a complex system of settlements with different hierarchy distributed throughout the territory and linked to a socio-political system and a cosmovision of the world and nature. That heritage (tangible and intangible) has prevailed through conditioning and characterization of the region till today.

Today, the region is protected by the National Institute of Anthropology of History (INAH), responsible for the preservation of historical heritage in Mexico, according to the Federal Law of Archaeological, Artistic and Historical Zones and Monuments.

30 archaeological zones open to the public and two Historic Monuments Zones are located within the areas of influence of the “Tren Maya” project. Within these 30 archaeological zones, three are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Palenque, Chichén Itzá and Calakmul (this one as a mixed heritage for its natural and cultural components). However, according to INAH, a vast number of unexplored areas continue to be explored through constant archaeological work.

On this basis, one of the fundamental premises of the project is to recognize the value of tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the southeastern region of Mexico and its importance for current and future generations aiming to ensure its protection during and beyond the project activities.

In this sense, within the framework of the project, UN-Habitat will develop strategies from a territorial perspective to promote historical and cultural continuity and heritage preservation. Some of the activities considered are:

•     Identify and document the historical and cultural significance of archaeological zones, buildings and other objects and cultural manifestations in the region to establish goals for their conservation.


•     Promote the recognition of heritage sites and highlight their value as an essential part of local culture and cosmovision, guaranteeing that the territorial and urban planning programs contemplate protection and preservation areas to avoid negative influences of urbanization that may affect them, as well as strategic projects to promote their conservation.

[1] Reference is made to the meetings held between October and November 2018 with the transition team of FONATUR, appointed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Also, refers to meetings held with the same team formally formulated and in duties, as of December 1, 2019. 

[2] UN-Habitat, Timeline on urban population growth, 2015.

[3] UN-Habitat, 2015.

[4] Campeche and Tabasco were excluded from the graph as they have very high GDP capita due to oil-related economic activities.

[5] New Urban Agenda, paragraph 4.

[6] New Urban Agenda, paragraph 5.

[7] New Urban Agenda, paragraph 15.

Region: South America
Theme: Information and communication technology (ICT), Urban development and management, Advanced technical and managerial training
Project Timeline
End Date: 20th May 2023
Start Date: 1st June 2019
Budget Utilisation
Budget: $5,500,000
Expenditure: $2,097,000
Outputs / Results

The corridor of prosperity has reconsidered vocations and comparative advantages of the region.

The regional corridor has contributed to the reduction of inequalities in the region and has consolidated a State vision of a united Mexico.