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A Northern Periphery: Landscape and Urbanism in Chihuahua

September 16th, 2013

Gabriel Diaz-Montemayor is the author of “A Northern Periphery” published in AULA 6, Architecture and Urbanism in Las Americas, University of Houston in 2012.

BLW: What is the focus of your research in the border region?

I am interested in the hybrid alienated urban landscapes of northern Mexico, far away from the economic center of the country and very close to the USA. I am also interested in this region because of its matching with North American deserts and arid territories. I also operate in the South West of the USA where I am additionally interested in the way typical American urban and suburban form is adapted by Mexican and other Latin American immigrant populations and historical inheritance. There are 3 main concepts or layers which determine the landscape of the border region: nature, economy, and culture. If you consider these 3 concepts as basins of different size and location, then, when speaking of the border region I refer to a contractible and expandable territory and not to a predefined and fixed width or line in the landscape.

BLW: What are the main challenges about border cities?

GDM: In the matters of the city and landscape it is finding, accepting, and operating a sustainable local urban identity. This is related to the fact that most of the people -including citizenry, the capital, and government- of the area have a conflictive or inexistent –in conscious practice- relationship with local nature. For a majority, the desert is equal to nothing. If there is no value given to the land then you cannot expect people to care for it. Add to this a cultural indeterminacy where it is not clear how Mexican you are or how American you should be or want to be. The geographical proximity of the USA to Mexico, and vice versa, has shaped a bipolar culture.

The renowned cultural landscapes author John Brinckerhoff Jackson wrote an article in 1951 called “Chihuahua as We Might Have Been”. In it, he describes emptiness as the most striking feature of the Chihuahuan landscape. Maybe the emptiness he identified as an American traveler from New Mexico into the immediate south is that condition that continues to pervade in the large region of northern central Mexico.

BLW: What is the potential of housing and landscape to rethink the way border cities would develop in the future?

GDM: In both subjects, housing and landscape, it is not even a latent potential but an urgent condition. The urban housing development model embraced by the Mexican government and the capital for 2 sexennial periods (2000 to 2012) plus the effects of NAFTA in changing the ejido laws of the country (deregulating public-private ownership of these agricultural land grants so these could be sold back to private hands) and the weakening of Mexican agricultural population by unfair (different subsidies in different countries within the same agreement) and unequal (different levels of access to technology and infrastructure) competition in the North American market have been disastrous to large social, low income, groups. The result of this was once again increased migration from rural areas to urban areas, and until recently, an increased immigration from Mexico into the USA.

In order to provide with housing for these people social interest housing, as it is euphemistically called, sprouted out in large widened peripheries where subdivisions for the labor force lay marooned far away from work, play, and service centers. Millions of units were built and now hundreds of thousands are abandoned. The quality of life in these areas is despicable. Often, these subdivisions are built in unsuitable land for continued and safe human inhabitation, within floodplains, with minimal infrastructure connecting to the core of the city, in unstable impervious soils, all together making up the reason why this is cheap land. These would-be communities lack every land use other than the housing itself, elementary level schools (often underserved), small, fragmented and barren parks, and beer depots/convenience stores. This urbanism is irresponsible and unjust. The latest events caused by tropical storms in central Mexico and northern Mexico have proven, once again, that this model is unsustainable, not to mention the ever expanding search for water for urban areas sucking it away from agricultural/natural areas.

Given the fact that economic and population growth is decreasing or just plain flat these large open vacant spaces separating thousands of families from the city will remain like that for decades or forever. This is both a problem and an opportunity to revalue the landscape and find a way to construct a stronger identity. There is a way to stop thinking of these voids as vacant speculative land. If natural systems existing everywhere in these peripheries were to be activated and therefore acquire a social value for the isolated communities, then, what used to be nothing could become a valuable resource. The hurdle is that no one in sitting their properties wants to let go the potential income from developing land. Unfortunately it may take more time, years, to realize that these empty lands will not transform into the desired kind of capital for the elites, governments, and local population (waiting for when the supermarket comes closer, or the cinema, or medical services). Hopefully, the development model in Mexico can transform from a centrifugal to a centripetal model with a capacity to add and respond to multiple centers of gravity. It seems that currently, at least politically, there is recognition of the value of the large urban infill capacities found in Mexican cities. Ironically, the relocation of the desire for profit from the periphery back to the city center and inner concentric rings might be the opportunity for smart infrastructural investment in the fringes which will slowly but surely transform the subdivisions and absorbed rural colonies to communities/villages with specific identities.

BLW: How does your work today informs decision making processes, influences projects or contributes to reimagine the future of border cities?

GDM: My work informs and has an impact through: practice, teaching, and research.

In the case of practice, my partners at LABOR Studio (www.laborstudio.org) and I did a study in 2009 for the urban edges of the City of Chihuahua, Mexico, part of the urban development plan vision 2040. The main concepts have to do with density (the proportion between building footprint and property area) and infrastructure with a capacity to trigger the landscape, i.e. water harvesting/management for plant community growth along dry rivers or arroyos, permeable pavement, tactical locations for public spaces, or donations, in points where the connection between the city and the surrounding landscape can be achieved. Unfortunately I have not seen these design guidelines being implemented for a good reason: there have been very few peripheral developments since the recession hit in 2008-09, and for a bad reason: the local administration might not be willing to implement what their own planning documents and institutes have determined via professional and citizen consultation (in theory all of these plans are subject to evaluation and feedback from the local population) in fear of facing disapproval from powerful local developers. These pre-recession ideas were largely conceived in a top-down trajectory; nowadays a bottom-up operational adaptation is required, the main concepts remaining for the most part the same. We have also done a couple of large master plans in the city of Chihuahua where concepts related to density, urban edges, and landscape infrastructure are incorporated. Both of these are currently but slowly being implemented.

In the case of teaching, I have done a number of design studios in northern Mexican cities which deal with these topics. When we were working with the urban edge design guidelines for Chihuahua we also coordinated a multiple institution design studio. Woodbury University San Diego, Arizona State University, and the local Superior Institute for Architecture and Design of Chihuahua (ISAD) worked separately with the same topic. These studios are a win-win set up. Students benefit from knowing other critical realities happening in other places of the immediate world while they are rewarded with their work being influential for the conceptual development of real ordinances and a real audience. All the while the projects, clients, and stakeholders benefit from quasi-utopian visions which always push the concepts farther away from the limitations of practice. I have had similar studios in the border cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona. In this case, the student projects done in the Mexican side (a city draining into the USA) became case studies within a research/professional report provided to the city dealing with alternatives for sustainable water management intended to integrate infrastructure with public space while minimizing the risk of flooding in the lower parts of the basin.

Both practice and teaching construct research. Continuous investigations advance the concepts through theoretical and practical exploration, so that these can be explored with deeper capacities and new targets for innovation. Practice, teaching, and research do not compose a linear process, quite the contrary; it is of a cyclical nature. Of course dissemination is fundamental. These studios, concepts, and projects have been published in venues such as Landscape Architecture Magazine, Domus Mexico, Archipills, and Aula, and have been presented in multiple academic meetings such as CELA (Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture), and professional meetings such as the ASLA national convention. I have also had the opportunity to lecture and teach in various Mexican and American universities.

BLW: What is your vision for the border region for 2050? 2100?

GDM: Taking into consideration the current trends I think what we are going to be looking through the decades leading to 2050 are decreasing growth rates for population and urbanization. It is yet to be seen if the “border industrialization program” (import oriented assembly industries and services) and its derivatives will continue to be profitable, or, if there will be a more localized (in the case of towns right on the border) or south-focused (in the case of towns farther away from the border but within its basins or areas of influence) form of economic activity. Through these years and decades there will be more and stronger storm events, drought (more drained and over exploited aquifers), and rising temperatures which will repeatedly reveal the urgency to engage in an integral and harmonious relationship with the capacities of the vital, physical, natural space occupied by cities. This is going to be the opportunity for a polycentric urban structure articulated by a multi-scalar landscape along with more compact and dense form, one which incorporates various forms of infrastructure to harvest from urban nature.


GABRIEL DÍAZ MONTEMAYOR, ASLA, is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas Austin. Also an architect, he keeps a small professional practice in the border state of Chihuahua, Mexico, where he has collaborated with private developers, planning institutes, state and municipal governments in multiple projects focusing on public space. An important part of his creative research includes the articulation of design studios and workshops with institutions on both sides of the border region. He has done studio and graduate theses explorations in the cities of Chihuahua, Hermosillo, (both) Nogales, and Monterrey.

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