More Bridges, Less Fences: Designing for the Transborder Pedestrian Experience

June 23rd, 2014

For those who have crossed the borderline, the pedestrian experience is not necessarily the most carefully designed. Crossing points are car-oriented even though the pedestrian flows are outstanding: 9 million pedestrians cross the Tijuana-San Diego every year; another 4.6 million cross the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso bridges; 2 million in McAllen-Reynosa; ~16 million pedestrians crossing annually through the three most important metropolitan border areas should not be undermined when it comes to inform infrastructure investments.

As these cities evolve their urban systems, pedestrian flows will become more important and demanding. Here is a simple, yet bold idea: What if border cities focus their investment in high quality and efficient public transit as a way to rethink crossing flows? If you would have more options to travel around these cities, it would definitely reduce the pressure on the existing car-oriented crossing checkpoints – and would allow other building typologies, programs and interactions to emerge.

If we prioritize efficiency and performance of our infrastructure networks, we could be designing more and more crossings that promote cultural and social exchange, with educational features that bring together the border communities. If safety is the current priority in the border communities, safety is in great part achieved by cultivating an educated and engaged community – our border neighborhoods need more ideas that address this aspiration.

As border cities continue to grow and decentralize, new communities will have to find new ways of interaction. Focusing on the improvement of the pedestrian experience across the border, here is a creative solution for future border communities: To the East of the US-MX border, in Brownsville-Matamoros, Andres Garza Villarreal (Virginia Tech) rethinks the role of crossing facilities through a new building typology that connects two new communities to the West of the city.

BLW: Why Brownsville-Matamoros?

Andres Garza Villarreal: I am from Monterrey, Mexico.  I have experienced the Matamoros-Brownsville international crossing bridge ever since I can remember.  My family would drive north to the United States (for occasional vacations at South Padre Island or shopping in the McAllen mall), and we would always have to wait in line for about an hour, before being able to cross –and the wait was anything but pleasant.  Wired-fences, policemen, traffic, exhaust fumes, security dogs, and multiple unwelcoming faces.  Why does it have to look –and feel- like a war zone? I constantly ask myself: why does it have to be this way?

I was inspired to create a new typology where border crossing can be beautiful and pedestrian, inviting and well designed.  A well-designed and pedestrian oriented border crossing building in this region has the power to help heal the damaged connotation of a river boundary that sometimes feels like a scar between two neighbor countries and represent the collective power of the people in the Rio Grande valley and the unlimited untapped potential for multi-national collaboration.

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BLW: Why a new community to the West of Brownsville-Matamoros?

AGV: The western face of Brownsville is where most of the factories and assembly plants are located.  There are around 147 manufacturing plants –including General Motors, BMW, Sony and Matsushita- that employ more than 42,000 workers.  The majority of them are Mexican who cross the border in the mornings towards Brownsville to work and then cross back again home to Matamoros where they live.

Additionally, the Rio Grande Valley has been a powerful agricultural and manufacturing hub for the eastern end of the Mexican-USA border.  Today, this place is connected and dynamic, with a NAFTA (which, this year celebrated its 20 year anniversary) – driven economy of 3 million people.  What it needs, though, is a dignified pedestrian crossing building with a holistic public transportation plan – something that could make wonders in a variety of levels and scales for this region.

A new community on the West of Brownsville-Matamoros could easily connect with existing TX281 and MX 2 highways and be a part of the western growth of both cities.  The time for investing in the US-MX border is great, but our opportunities even better.

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BLW: What are the innovative aspects about this design – from the urban realm to the building?

AGV: The building is innovative in several ways. Firstly, it prioritizes pedestrian users, is universally accessible and accommodates multiple programs that keep it active and inviting 24/7.  The program includes a large public space that cuts diagonally through the building.  This place serves as a public corridor where people can meander around both sides of the border without officially crossing to the other side.  Here, the building cover comes down and becomes thick –like the depth of the river- and becomes part of the celebration of this public space.

Secondly, the building, with a bridge-like structure, provides a dual condition pressed between the river plane and a great canopy.  The cantilevering top acts as a mirror to the River, which naturally behaves as the dividing line between the two neighbors, thus providing the intrinsic relationship of a River that separates and a cover that unifies not only a building (formally and programmatically) but two neighboring countries, its people and their place.  The sharp lights and strong shadows that the building engages through the reflections of the Rio Grande-Bravo and the cultural roof, conflates the sense of boundary from plan to a section, while providing a gateway that celebrates this meeting point between the US and Mexico.

Lastly, steel was not only used as the primary building material, but also for the perforated envelope which covers both sides of the building skeleton and the structure for the large canopy.  With the major trusses exposed, one can sense that they have crossed the political line over the river by the way the lateral support members change sides when the momentum shifts from one side of the truss to the other, purposely placed in the exact middle. With this, steel provides a sense of orientation for the person and organizes the building program as well.  The natural beauty of steel pieces, individually weak and obsolete but collectively powerful standing shoulder to shoulder, provide the reliable structural force for this building to exist.

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BLW: What is the social, economic and/or environmental role of this proposed design? How does this project helps to rethink the border cities in the 21st century?

AGV: If Americans and Mexicans currently live and work together why is it that our border cities are yet to behave in a consolidated, well-rounded and planned experience?  Each side is mutually dependent, and they both either grow and become prosperous together or slide into oblivion in a lasting and radical manner.

Our border cities are growing at accelerating rates.  The Rio Grande Valley is the third largest growing metropolis in the United States. What used to be suburban is now quickly becoming urban and the migration of people toward city centers has been unprecedented.  Cities and their population will not stop growing, and we cannot control that, but we can contribute to the framework of efficient and sustainable cities while making places that are culturally rich and memorable. This project offers a new interface to the crossing experience by prioritizing the pedestrian users while providing a platform for cultural exchange and harmony.

I like to imagine the border as a necklace and these border crossing buildings as  potential pearls along the actual border line.  Acting as “magnets”, they could quickly become catalysts for community and indispensable beacons of mutual collaboration.  With people engaged in and around the building and by designing wide and engaging sidewalks and green spaces, we can turn these streets into safe and active zones.  If done correctly, we will have a new agenda for comprehensively rebuilding the human experience in these parts of the border-line that have suffered the most from the ravages of suburbia and political backlash.

If more projects like this could be recreated and built along the border between sister-cities integrating other important programs like: security, tourism, manufacturing, health care, among others, we could shift the borderland from being the forgotten backyard to the celebration point of its people and its place. If architecture and urban design could focus on the cultural importance of communities and polish a now deteriorated jewel –like the Rio Grande/Bravo- we can create a new “home” for the people where they can find an unimaginable feeling of freedom, a possibility of happiness and a sense of belonging.

The future can now reconnect with the past to create that dwelling place I call a hopeful present.  Well –and beautifully- designed border-crossing buildings are gifts to the coming generations –who, otherwise, have been left saddled by us with little more than extravagant incompetence. Our ideal border-crossing experience is not utopian, nor is it a fantasy or impossibility.  A well designed border-crossing building may be an appreciable asset, but beautiful and inviting urban design represents a foundational act, an act of civilization.  By creating these places we create ourselves.

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ANDRES GARZA VILLARREAL, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, is a recent graduate from Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies.


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