GaWC Research Bulletin 315

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Journal of Place Management and Development, 2 (1), (2009), 33-40.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Santa Fe: A 'Global Enclave' in Mexico City

M. Pérez Negrete*


Purpose – In response to increased interurban competition in contemporary globalization, cities are employing marketing strategies to differentiate and identify themselves from each other. The creation and development of strategic places is nowadays guided by marketing strategies that brand places in order to promote them at an international scale. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the application of a global branding practice to a place in Mexico City. This has been used as an instrument of urban planning to achieve a new image; as a nodal point to articulate the country and the city to the global economy.

Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on the results of anthropological research and consequently it is written from ethnographic accounts. It reflects the point of view of different groups such as government, planners, workers, and residents and describes how globalization discourse has been materialized and what kind of social practices emerge from it.

Findings – Although Santa Fe has been built to create the image of a global place articulated to the world economy, the paper demonstrates how the new urban model intensifies social contrasts and exacerbates social inequalities between elites and marginalized groups. The findings evaluate to what extent place branding, as a pragmatic activity, leaves aside complex social forces that are shaping the urban context.

Originality/value – The paper offers the opportunity to evaluate what constitutes a trend in urban planning in world cities with unequal socioeconomic structures; as well as providing a close overview that questions the consequences generated by the implementation of homogeneous urban planning patterns that seem to be applied to very different cities as a way of positioning places which are in global competition.

Keywords: Brand image, cities, urban areas, marketing strategy, Mexico


In response to increased interurban competition in contemporary globalization, cities are employing marketing strategies to differentiate and identify themselves from each other. The creation and development of strategic places is nowadays guided by marketing strategies that brand places in order to promote them at an international scale. Consequently, branding practices are increasingly considered as tools for urban planning and management (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005). In doing so, governments can take advantage of different potentialities to make cities more competitive. By operating certain attributes, urban models could be known and recognized globally as tourist destinations, as sustainable, financial, or global spaces or as “model cities” – a concept that guarantees international legitimacy, as can be seen in the case of Curitiba, Brazil, and Singapore (Moura and Sanchez, 2005).

In this paper, I shall refer to a place in Mexico City that was built to create a new image of an urban place, as a nodal point to articulate the country and the city to the global economy. This is the case of Santa Fe, a site now integrated with the metropolitan area, which provides evidence of how a place has been branded as part of a marketing strategy to promote Mexico City as a global city (Pérez Negrete, 2007, 2008).

Santa Fe was created with the planners intending to transform the appearance of the old industrial city, which was agglomerated, polluted and had obsolete factories. Instead, they tried to create a site that reflects globalization ideals in a mixed use domain: a high-tech site intensive in knowledge transfer; advanced producer services; and well-provided with major corporate complexes, luxury and gated residential communities, shopping malls, private clubs, expensive restaurants, upscale hotel chains, and prestigious schools. In short, the main concern was to construct a place within the city as a symbol of a new Mexico strategically positioned in the world economy.

In this sense, the purpose of this paper will be to focus upon two sets of objectives: one seeks to analyze the application of global branding practices to a place in Mexico City as an instrument of urban planning to achieve a new country's image; the other is to illustrate the consequences of this attempt for Mexican society. In doing so, I will provide an account based on ethnographic research into how different social classes live, interact, perceive, and signify their positions in a promoted space. The aim is to question the consequences generated by the implementation of homogeneous urban planning patterns which seem to be applied to very different cities as a way to position places which are in global competition.

The next section provides a close look at the story of Santa Fe's inception. The main purpose is to illustrate the image-building process held from the beginning – when it was conceived as an ideal project to transform Mexico's status in the global market – to its actual materialization. The following section focuses on the consequences of this attempt among Mexican society. Central issues will be analyzed by addressing the following questions: what is the impact of this kind of site for social relations, especially in highly stratified urban societies? How do different social classes live and interact in these enclaves? What kind of urban transformations take place in the used and occupied space? What new daily practices appear? How does a project with global standards materialize in a local society? And what is the impact of urban design and global architectural conventions through everyday practices?

The Image-Building Process

According to Kavaratzis and Ashworth (2005) there is no single accepted definition of place branding. However, there is a general agreement that this is a process by which places acquire a new identity by adding measurable economic, social and cultural value. As Anholt points out:

What is meant by branding a place is, at least in principle, quite simple. A place-branding strategy is a plan for defining the most realistic, most competitive and most compelling strategic vision for the country, region or city (Anholt, 2003, p. 14).

An important feature of the place branding process is that it combines on the one hand, the aspiration of the city authorities (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005), and on the other, the involvement of private initiatives in urban management activities. I will contextualize in this essay the case of Santa Fe as a result of a marketing exercise practiced by city administrators who tried to stimulate a new role for the city as a way to overcome the negative effects caused by the deindustrialization process (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005). This new role was imbued with an entrepreneurial vision:

Entrepreneurialism captures the sense in which cities are being run in a more businesslike manner, and the practices that have seen local government imbued with characteristics once distinctive to businesses – risk-taking, inventiveness, promotion and profit motivation [ ... ] The use of marketing was only a natural consequence of such entrepreneurial governance” (Kavaratzis, 2008, p. 32).

To understand how the image-building process of Santa Fe operates, it is first necessary to provide a background to the place where it was built. This place, located to the west of Mexico City, was established during the 1980s on land where sand mining previously occurred and where later, the two most important open-air rubbish dumps in Mexico City were established. At the time of Santa Fe's construction, beggars and scavengers still lived there subsisting on garbage collection.

Therefore, Santa Fe was built on land degraded and polluted by mining and garbage activities and moreover, was surrounded by impoverished communities. The transformation from undervalued ground into prestigious and expensive private property has required changes in the land values held by government authorities, in accordance with private initiatives. In many cases, illegal and irregular practices aimed at maximizing profits transform natural protected areas into residential or corporate uses.

This was no easy task. The planners' intention was to transform a devastated area located in the city periphery into an intensive hi-tech area. The transformation of Santa Fe into a global and prestigious space has been created with a symbolic elaboration that associates global values with status symbols. In this sense, urban planners and real estate companies have employed marketing strategies, intending to brand Santa Fe as a global place located in Mexico City. In so doing, global values such as competition, individuality, privacy and internationality were incorporated into the construction of the image. Therefore, the use of these elements was complemented by a recognition of local and desirable needs – such as being a retreat from the central city, security, a healthy environment, comfort and greenery – which in the metropolitan area were recognized as status symbols. All these concepts were employed to symbolize Mexico's integration with the global economy and to reflect and imagine a new social order based on values that motivated its design.

Starting with the construction of a prestigious private university (Universidad Iberoamericana) followed by the biggest shopping mall in Latin America (Centro Santa Fe), during the 1980s and 1990s, marketing policies and advertising activities were directed towards attracting important global investors. The most difficult task for urban planners was to convince great transnational companies that Santa Fe would in a few years become the most well-equipped area in Mexico. This was especially complicated by the fact that at that time there was a significant community of garbage collection workers who lived in low-cost housing provided by the government years before.

In a few years, major transnational investors such as Hewlett Packard, Paramount Pictures, Mercedes Benz, the Ford Motor Company, Daimler Chrysler, and so on, established themselves in Santa Fe. The fact that globally important companies established their main offices and corporate centers in this place constituted an important precedent that motivated other companies to move to the zone. Now, the possibility of living, working or shopping in Santa Fe has become a global symbol that confers status on Mexican society.

As a result, Santa Fe's inception was embedded to achieve a new development model through the image of a place in the city that represents an open market economy. The new model reflects through architecture and urban design the image of a market economy-oriented place with appropriate infrastructure to compete for investment at a global scale. The existence of Santa Fe represents a new development model with state intervention strongly supported by private investment. At the same time, planners and ideologists supported the idea that its creation would produce additional benefits for the rest of the city by stimulating resources to revitalize other strategic places such as parks, museums, a zoo, and entertainment venues.

Twenty years have passed since the first building was constructed; nevertheless the development has not completed its expansive capacity. A stroll around this site marks a substantial difference from the traditional spaces in the city to a place that symbolizes the doorway to a global age. A first glance transports the visitor immediately to some American city or some other city located in the so-called “First World”. Or at least, this is the perception people share by observing avant-garde architectonic styles and postmodern designs. However, a more detailed inspection reveals advanced security technologies in all private properties, which coexist with street vendors, beggars at traffic lights, sidewalk food vendors and all type of informal activities typical of Mexico City. These kinds of irregularities had never been considered in the initial project. So, if the planners' intention was to create a space in the city that reflects Mexico's integration with the global economy, have they succeed in creating such an image? If these expectations have not been reached, what are the social dynamics that interpose the project?

In order to pursue these questions I will explore in the next section, interclass actors' perceptions of how they use, occupy, work, live, or interact in this specific space of the city.


A central question is to what extent this new urban model is ultimately capable of transforming income distribution among workers, as was imagined by planners, or whether this global enclave, far from solving economic problems, feeds the expansion of low income staff, accentuating social distance and contributing to marked separation between social classes. The continuous presence of an informal labor force, ambulant vendors, and a vast supply of cheap and powerless workers in the zone contributes to perpetuate highly polarized conditions in the city. That is to say, the great majority of low-income urban inhabitants, those who were considered to be the direct beneficiaries of the project by the creation of new work, have not experienced social mobility as had been expected. What has happened was exactly the opposite: their presence in the zone maintains and exaggerates the social contrast, reinforcing prevailing social stratification systems without any qualitative improvement.

Santa Fe represents a new way of organizing urban space that breaks with traditional urban organization in Mexico City in a wide range of aspects. This organization is expressed through urban design, architectural conventions, between public and private spheres, but most importantly, is reflected through new social practices and interclass relations. In what follows, I will mention the main points of rupture.

Inverting Perceptions of the Nature of Public and Private Spheres by Eliminating the Traditional Street System (Holston, 1989)

The street system has defined the structure of cities throughout history. The street is not only a motion or traffic element, but is also a key element which defines the structure of private spaces. The street edge with continuous building facades is a complex element that gives form and continuity to private spaces. But mainly, it magnifies public places such as parks, churches, sidewalks, atriums, or other places of public use from private domains. Most importantly, in the street system, public spaces are sites where coexistence and social interaction between different classes takes place, and where encounters among people are possible and desirable. Nonetheless, in Santa Fe architectural organization and urban design eliminate the role of public places as social arenas and their potential for enabling contact among different groups. In so far as Santa Fe is not suitable for pedestrian circulation, the use of motorized vehicles is enhanced as a generalized way of access. The absence of public places of encounter and other important points of sociality reinforce the importance of private spaces. Here, the monumental character of private design leaves the public with remaining space which is of a merely functional nature. As a result, private values dominate public ones, revealing a different type of urban order as a concretization of prevailing economic and political trends.

Through the Image that Each Architectonic Building (Re)signifies

An ethnographic account offers the opportunity to observe how globalization values are reflected in each architectural avant-garde complex. That is to say, the image that reflects each building finds a parallelism with globalization values that are promoted and gradually legitimized at a personal scale. Globalization means in the cultural context the enhancement of values such as internationalization, individuality, privacy, efficiency, competition, and so on, which operate as important referents to evaluate people's behavior in society. These individual values are translated to architectural representations: each building is designed to express its monumental character, thereby aiming to compete with other buildings around it. The buildings' facades are key elements that symbolize social standing, prestige, individualism, competition. On the contrary, interiors are private, comfortable, clean and secure, trying to encourage social interaction.

Breaking with Traditional Urban Organization through the Internal Operation of Each Building

Architectonic complexes are turned inward, like inner cells concentrated on their internal management. They are away from the street, as if the building does not care about what happens outside. What matters is what happens inside, because what happens outside could be irrelevant for their internal operation; thus, ideas about the inverted values between the public and the private spaces are reinforced. That is to say, interiors try to reproduce the public use of social life by discriminating against the lower classes through exclusion control access devices that promote a more homogenous environment. Access to private spaces is beyond control, so it guarantees coexistence among selected people.

Through the Way Interclass Relations Take Place Inside these Architectural Complexes

An approach to social dynamics inside the architectonic complexes reveals that the high income lifestyles of those who live or are employed there reinforce the traditional dependence on hired maintenance staff or low-wage workers. The concentration of upper-middle class and upper class people who live or work in these buildings raises the demand for maintenance, cleaning, delivery and other low wage workers.

This mutual dependence now takes a new form. As mentioned above, all architectural complexes are provided with strict security control access systems and armed guards. Such systems of surveillance intimidate workers on their daily routines as they must go through several inspections, such as reviewing their personal belongings and being exposed to exhausting inquiries. Besides, this behavior, which confirms that each and every member of the working poor is under suspicion, the increased dependence on working people changes its character. In Mexico, traditional relations between employee/employer have been distinguished through the years by a mix of paternalistic, protective, personalized patronage and trust links. But what happens now in this new urban organization, is that most low income workers are sub-contracted directly by a third company, transforming employee/employer links into a more depersonalized and distant relationship. That is to say, the consequences of this transformation are expressed in new practices that gradually establish a more profound separation between the employee and the employer, where the worker is marked as suspicious unless they go through security controls to demonstrate the opposite. This practice accentuates the perception of the “other”, as culturally and socially different, maintaining social distance in the face of every day physical proximity. The increasingly frequent intermediation of subcontracting and management enterprises incorporates a new ingredient to employee/employer relations, where a third actor mediates, operating strictly under enterprise criteria.


In this paper, I have illustrated how the emergence of a global enclave aimed at differentiating and promoting a competitive insertion of the city in the world market has materialized in a local society. As I have posited, the development of Santa Fe responds to the construction of a place branding practice intended to add value to a site, providing it with competitive advantage over other parts of the city. A main concern was to question, through a case study, to what extent homogeneous patterns of urban planning, that seem to be applied to very different cities, are shaped in urban contexts with highly polarized social and economic structures. To what extent are dominant actors' visions of the world imposed in the processes of space production?

What can be drawn from this is that before the advent of globalization, the Mexico City metropolitan area was shaped as a result of common negotiations between government and society, in which local actors were crucial to the authorities' decisions. Santa Fe's inception marked a watershed in this process. The social production of space yielded its place to the global production of space in order to promote a good business climate.

Can a place be transformed by a powerful image-building process as a managerial tool? To what extent does place branding, as a pragmatic activity, leave aside complex social forces that are shaping the urban context? Analysis of global values incorporated into this context provides an interesting glimpse of the process by which projects are localized. To promote Mexico City in the global context, it was necessary to create a place that reflects, both imaginarily and physically, a global place well-positioned among global cities. Santa Fe was an instrument to serve this purpose.

We have seen that from its initial stages – even when the project was just in the minds of planners – it was important to construct a perception to shape the place and its future. Externally, Santa Fe was exhibited as a showcase to attract foreign direct investment; internally, it was molded to represent in national society an avant-garde place that symbolizes progress and the development of the city. In this internal process, global concepts were associated with local values to confer status and prestige on the zone.

As these concepts are representations of an idealized world, there is a gap between what is desirable and what is real. As Holston (1989) pointed out when he referred to Brasilia, a fundamental part of the failure or success of a master plan lies between its utopia and its reality. In this sense, the internal conditions of the local society are essential in this process. On the one hand, the study of Santa Fe has offered the opportunity to evaluate the extent to which the values promoted and portrayed by the upper and middle classes reinforce class separation and social distance. As I have illustrated from my approach to social dynamics through the overall zone and inside each and every part of it, systematic social exclusion was practiced in daily routines to guarantee the fulfillment of the advertised concepts. As the new urban model has materialized, prevailing social inequalities in the city have intensified and the traditional social contrasts exacerbated. In other words, the resulting spatial organization of urban space launched at Santa Fe represents another way to reproduce and inscribe social inequalities and the continuation of a highly segregated city.

On the other hand, the study of Santa Fe could tell us something more about spatial organization. It reveals the nature of the ruling political regime as well as the ideals of those who take decisions for the city. In this process, the political authorities, as well as the social actors occupying privileged positions in spatial production, disclose how they relate to society and how they expect to direct social transformation. As a result, the street design, the architectural conventions and the nature of public and private spheres reflect how governmental planning intends to promote spaces for the use of middle and upper transnational and local classes, excluding the working poor from these comforts. Spatial organization reveals as well how such planning has been strongly supported by the participation of the private sector enhancing their interests and their desires in the making of a part of the city.

The consequences of this attempt reflect through social practices private interest over public requirements. In the Mexican case, increased practices of social exclusion support the monumental character of places like Santa Fe. This reinforces prevailing conditions of social stratification instead of providing qualitative improvements in the majority interest. Surprisingly, this constitutes a trend in urban planning in democratic world cities with unequal economic structures.


Anholt, S. (2003), “Branding places and nations”, in Clifton, R. and Simmoons, J. (Eds), Brands and Branding, Profile Books, London, pp. 213-26.

Holston, J. (1989), Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Kavaratzis, M. (2008), “From city marketing to city branding: an interdisciplinary analysis with reference to Amsterdam, Budapest and Athens”, doctoral thesis, University of Groningen, Groningen, available at: (accessed December 20).

Kavaratzis, M. and Ashworth, G.J. (2005), “Place branding: an effective assertion of identity or a transitory marketing trick?”, Tijdschrift Voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, Vol. 96 No. 5, pp. 506-14.

Moura, R. and Sanchez, F. (2005), “Ciudades-modelo: estrategias convergentes para su difusión internacional”, Revista Eure, Vol. XXXI No. 939, pp. 21-34.

Pérez Negrete, M. (2007), “Santa Fe: ciudad, espacio y globalización”, unpublished dissertation, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.

Pérez Negrete, M. (2008), La Ciudad de México en la Red Mundial. Articulación al Sistema y Procesos de Diferenciación Socio-espacial, Universidad Iberoamericana, México.



*Margarita Pérez Negrete, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, Mexico, Email:


Edited and posted on the web on 10th August 2009

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Journal of Place Management and Development, 2 (1), (2009), 33-40