Blurring the Edge in a Border City

At the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting in Phoenix, a group of landscape architects, urban designers, and architects discussed their nearly decade-long effort to plan and design a new future for Chihuahua, a Mexican city found in the the greater border region between Mexico and the U.S. Paula Aguirre, former planning director for the city and now an urban designer at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, said the goal was to “soften the lines between ecology and society” and increase access to nature at the urban edge. The idea: “to make urbanization more ecologically friendly.”

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at Arizona State University, said the attempt to integrate nature into Chihuahua by better highlighting the city’s natural resources, including its rivers, is an effort to “address the void” in Mexican sprawl, which increasingly is the same void found in the U.S. As an example, he pointed to Phoenix, which at more than 500 square miles, may make it one of the world’s least sustainable cities. Unfortunately, more cities in the southwest may be becoming like Phoenix.

According to Aguirre, Chihuahua is part of a rich ecological region, a desert that is nestled between the Sacramento and Chuviscar Rivers, two tributaries of the Rio Grande. However, within the city of more than 800,000 nature is almost absent, perhaps because the desert itself is viewed as having so little value. “The cultural landscape of the desert is just about zero.” Beyond treating the desert like it doesn’t exist, Chihuahua has also “dominated or colonized its waterways,” channelizing more than 40 percent of its rivers. Even beautiful rivers views along byways aren’t treated as a resource, an amenity.

At the same time, subsidized, nearly-public housing is far flung, reaching into the outskirts of Chihuahua. Policies support the plopping down of banks of homes at the edges, where the homes line up in neat rows. These “scattered, isolated subdivisions,” said Montemayor, continually push out the edges of the city. Yet, whether rich or poor, many of these communities are increasingly gated. “There’s a gate for every lifestyle, whether for traditional or contemporary housing.” The gates are a response to a fear of violence.

Even with the challenges, these designers are creating forward-thinking plans and designs, some of which are even becoming reality. Working with a team of professors and students from Harvard Graduate School of Design, Aguirre said a new set of parks around underutilized reservoirs are actually happening. “The parks restore corridors along the reservoir.” Some mid and high-end developers are also now “reconciling the edge” with nature, breaking down the high walls that line communities at the outskirts of the city.

Rodrigo Seanez, who works for landscape architecture firm LABOR Studio, also explained how Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is coming to Chihuahua in an effort to better connect schools, public spaces, and jobs. Transit-oriented development, Chihuahua-style, will also include bicycle lanes, though BRT will remain the backbone of the new development patterns they are hoping for.

For landscape architect Montemayor, even letting some of those far-flung, financially-unsustainable subdivisions in Chihuahua, Phoenix, and other sprawled-out cities in the southwest return to desert habitat may be a way to blur the edge.

Image credit: LABOR Studio

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