TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
In one of the world’s largest and most environmentally-challenged metropolises, the proprietors of an alternative, boutique bed & breakfast have put local environmental concerns far ahead of personal profits.
Wealth or poverty, taxis or tequila, there are few things you can’t find in great abundance in a city as immense as the sprawling Mexican capital. Water, however, isn’t one of them. While this megapolis might have begun as an island on a giant lake (Lake Texcoco), several centuries of draining to prevent flooding has created what is now one of the country’s most arid regions. And the city is slowly sinking, as groundwater under the clay foundation is depleted much faster than it is added.
Most hotels in the city seem oblivious to the situation, or to the effect tourism and hotel stays have on a problem that can only get worse. But the owners of El Patio 77, a richly decorated, boutique bed & breakfast founded in a stately 19th century architectural gem, have made it a priority to adapt to local environmental conditions and be as sustainable as finances allow. With a rainwater collection and treatment facility installed in its basement, where used bathwater is also added and filtered, the hotel has halved its consumption of the city’s water supply. And that’s only half the story.
Diego Le Provost (Age: 34. Born: Renne, France) opened El Patio77 in 2010 with his Mexican partner Alan. I spoke to him about the El Patio project, his new Latin homeland, and about being green in Mexico.
“It’s not profitable at all…but it’s something we had to do.” – Diego
Green Times: Why a B&B in Mexico City?
Diego: I have always travelled a lot since I was little. I was always the one who was planning trips and where we would stay. So the tourism sector has always been something that appealed to me…..and so when it came time to choosing a direction in life, I thought it would have to be something to do with tourism, and operating a B&B seemed to match the life I wanted. I thought, in Mexico there aren’t many, it could be a good business to be in – in fact, it’s not a good business to be in, but at least it’s a enjoyable business! After two and a half years, it’s not very profitable, and it doesn’t allow you to just pick up and go on vacation when you want. But it’s something I enjoy a lot more than when I was earning a lot of money working for a French company, where I wasn’t happy.
Where did the idea for treating and recycling water come from?
There’s a very serious water crisis here. Before they were saying that in 5 years, Mexico City would disappear…water is being brought here from many parts of the country. They’re building a mega water treatment plant now with the objective to treat and recycle 70% of water, but today only 5% of the water used in the city is treated and recycled….Mexico City is a tropical country and in the rainy season, huge amounts of water fall but absolutely none of it collected. So conscious that water is going to be a major problem soon, we thought we had to do something.
Was it something difficult to do?
Here there aren’t any policies to help you, no economic incentives. We contacted the national water body, but nobody in government could inform us about anything, how to filter water, nothing. After a long search, we found an association that informed us about how we could go about doing it. We had to break a lot of walls, buy copper pipes, install a second network of pipes throughout the hotel because the recycled water for toilets is never mixed with water that is consumed. We also had to install a large cistern in the basement to hold the water.
Does it save the hotel money?
No! (laughter) It’s not profitable at all…compared to the solar panels, after 2 years it’s paid for itself, but with water being so cheap, it’s not profitable. The hotel pays 200 pesos a month (for water) – it’s nothing… about 15 euros. Water in this country is practically free, so people don’t realize how valuable water is. The day water becomes much more scarce, or when it becomes much more expensive, maybe, but at the moment, it’s not saving us money but it’s something we had to do.
During the dry season, we keep treating bathwater and when it doesn’t cover our needs, we switch to the city’s water supply. To give you an indication, between September and now (July), which is the driest period of the year (October to June is the dry season), we’ve had to switch to the city water supply during the month of May only. The rest of the year we’ve only used treated water for toilets and the garden.
Have you always been an environmentalist at heart?
The environment is always something that I paid attention to, but even more in Mexico, where very little is done compared to most European countries….
Aside from water treatment and recycling, what else makes El Patio 77 green?
We have 2 solar panels installed on the roof that heat all the water in the house….there’s a backup gas boiler in case so 24 hour hot water is guaranteed, but there’s almost zero gas consumption. And with this there’s a considerable saving. We don’t have the money yet to invest in solar panels to run the electricity but all the light bulbs in the hotel are LED (they consume 2 watts) including the ones in the courtyard that have to be lit all night, and all the lights in the corridors have motion sensors. Organic food is served….Alan is managing a project of ours: the first organic market in Mexico City (Mercado El Cien), every Sunday now, up from every 15 days before. It’s in the Colonia Roma, selling organic and locally grown food from around Mexico City. We can’t rely on it for everything that is eaten because we consume a lot of fruit….we buy from around the corner, too, but it’s difficult to find anything organic there. Oh, and the tea and coffee served is organic too.
Is it true you can’t take a shower that’s more than 5 minutes long, flush toilet paper or use your own shampoo and soap?
It’s not an obligation. We explain to our guests that Mexico City is facing a serious water crisis and we recommend taking a short shower. But we don’t in any way restrict showers…And as for our biodegradable shampoo, it’s the same. We recommend they use our biodegradable shampoo and body wash because it helps our filters work better. But if they have a special product or if they want to use their own, we don’t prevent them in the least. And the toilet paper, that’s how it’s done in most places in Latin America because the pipes are smaller I suppose. And in the same way, we make recommendations but we don’t watch what people are doing!
The vast majority understand and they even like it. Many (although not the majority) come to our B&B because it’s green. Others, because they’re not used to it or because they don’t care, take three showers a day, leave the lights on all day, use their own shampoo, and so on.
Is El Patio77 a laid back kind of place?
Well, I was surprised in the beginning, but a lot of guests show up for breakfast barefoot…it goes to show you how comfortable guests feel here…
And are most of your guests environmentally conscious too?
Our main source of clients aren’t environmentally conscious. Maybe 20-30% of our clients come for our environmental credentials, but most have no idea. We tell them about our project and how things work, but many just come because the house is beautiful. The house is a jewel, from the 19th century. It’s a Porfirian house, from the time of Porfirio Diaz, with lotsof wood and four meter-high ceilings. Here you’re in another world, in another era with an old house blessed with a beautiful courtyard with trees. We’re offering something that’s different from the mass tourism of Cancun and the coasts. And whereas on average foreign visitors to the city stay 1 to 2 nights, here people stay 4 nights on average, . So our client is different, they want to get to know the city better.
Where do your guests come from?
Most clients are American and Canadian, because with the common time zone it’s easier for them to come here for a few days. We also get some Europeans and a growing number of Latin Americans, from Brazil and Chile….
Do you like living in Mexico City?
I arrived here by chance. I came here to do 6 month internship, and I never planned to stay here…but here you don’t feel like you’re in a gigantic city. It’s a low-rise city. I get around by bike. The climate is incredible. The nightlife is fun, and the cultural life is very diverse. And I’m excited about the changes that I’ve seen in this city in the past 10 years: rights for minorities, like the one I belong to, women’s rights, the greening of the city….and that’s why I decided to set up this B&B. There are things here that drive me mad, but I feel the same way about things in France, and I think it’s the same for any expatriate.
Is the city becoming greener?
It’s true that there’s Eco-bici (the bike-sharing system) and now they’re going to triple the number of bicycles and stations. They’re also introducing electric taxis, and they want to turn an old refinery into a park. There are more and more pedestrianzed streets, and cleaner fuels and new buses.The problem in Mexico is that most electricity is produced with fossil-fuels, and very little is renewable energy. There also isn’t a real campaign to make citizens more conscious of environmental problems. In the recent presidential election, sustainbility was an issue, but nobody said anything ground breaking because it really isn’t on most people’s radar.
Doesn’t the city have a lot of problems like corruption and violence?
Corruption is endemic everywhere in the country…and violence, obviously it exists, but it doesn’t affect us. And theft against tourists is much less common here than in other cities. I’m much more worried about being robbed when I go home to Paris. This city’s reputation is terrible, but the people are so wonderful, so helpful and welcoming. I walk around at night, and nothing’s ever happened me. The city has it defects of course, but after 10 years here, I’m not planning to return to Paris any time soon.
What does the future hold for El Patio77?
Well, Alan’s bought a plot of land on the coast, so who knows, maybe a sister hotel on a Mexican beach….