The Border Upstream
The Border Upstream: The Parral Riverfront Park Project
The idea of a shared vision for cities within the border region based in ecological features becomes stronger when projects like this Riverfront Park are developed – even if these ideas start only as an academic exercise. Cities must rethink their urbanization and growth patterns to better integrate their watershed systems since access and management of water will become one of the main challenges in the 21st Century. The constant call “we are all connected” is becoming more obvious when the behavior and practices of one city affects another within the same ecosystem. Remedy versus anticipation is defining development patterns globally. Can we think this way in the US-MX border region as well?
The following featured project analyses and addresses the impact of hydrological systems in the city of Parral and its potential integration through a public space driven proposal. Adriana Ramos Hinojos (Arizona State University) provides both insights and reflections about the need for projects of this scale that go beyond engineering solutions and integrate urban and ecological solutions with a more comprehensive approach while offering expanded benefits to the community.
The Borderless Workshop: Why Parral?
Adriana Ramos Hinojos: Hidalgo del Parral is a city located South of the State of Chihuahua, Mexico (pop. ~100,000) and founded in 1631. Parral (short) became an important center for silver extraction, agriculture and the cattle industry in the mountainous region of the Nueva Vizcaya during the Spanish Colony. Today its future regarding mining is practically disappearing, however it still keeps its original urban fabric of narrow streets so peculiar to the mining towns. As a colonial town, the beauty of the colorful houses with central courtyards distinguishes Parral, as well as its traditional use of public spaces by people walking and sitting in the central plaza and sidewalks. The Prieta Mine as an iconic element on the top of a mountain that can be seen from the city and continues to be reminder of the origins of the City.
Parral is also strongly defined by its River that crosses the city from West to East, nowadays functioning as well as a busy avenue. Since its origin, the city has witnessed the power of watercourses, and it has faced the effects of its intermittent River. Flooding is not a new event; it has been a constant one as well as drought. Another constant is the narrow or minimal planning and projects to address the contrast of abundance and scarcity. Flood events occur annually during rain season mostly during late summer (August and late July) causing significant damages to the City, and repeated public investment is needed to repair the same damages every year.
Some of the problems the city is currently experiencing relate to water management and lack of public space. The State government has invested in some projects to address imminent needs such as the Wastewater Treatment Plant (2004-2010), the new Water Purification plant, the wall expansion at the Parral Dam (2010-present) to increase its capacity, the open spaces and pedestrian paths along the river in Downtown Area, and the new Sports Facility located two miles away from the city’s entrance. Even though these efforts the Western part of the city, where the 20% of the population lives under high marginality indexes, the area has a tremendous potential to address water quality, ecosystems conservation and public space issues. Interventions in Parral will not only create a positive impact in the City downstream, but also in the communities and ecosystems along the river all the way to the Rio Grande-Bravo.
BLW: Why the Parral River?
ARH: The role of water in this century is by far one of the most critical issues Parral is facing. Increasing distress is expected for the population living in this arid border region due to the lack of comprehensive responses to challenges such as drought, water quality, and pollution caused by agriculture, industry, and waste water. Cities in this context are facing desertification, degradation of the land, erosion, overexploited and contaminated aquifers among much more others challenges.
Parral has experienced in the decades, especially the last years, severe drought as well as extraordinarily heavy rains. All the rain expected for one season precipitates in a short period of time generating floods where urbanization has occupied land area from both streams and the River systems.
Nevertheless, fortunately there are some areas completely or partially untouched. There is an opportunity along the River to create exceptional public spaces and programs that can be integrated with ecology. Bringing people and connecting them with the main natural system of their City will create new experiences and memories around it; a new urban imaginary will provide a better future for the conservation and recovery of the riparian corridor. The City needs to understand the importance of flooding as part of the river’s cycle and to transform the spectacle of water in an attractive event. This understanding will contribute to the ecological education of the community rather than be only perceived as a yearly catastrophe.
The possibility of recovering the riparian corridor through urban space not only will bring new opportunities for the City, but will also address the regional context. Parral River is part of the Conchos basin that belongs to the Rio Bravo-Grande Basin. It is crucial to work on projects upstream and downstream to address better ecological conditions at the larger watershed scale. It is critical to understand the features of this territory and its different ecologies (mountain, valley, desert) in order to develop a new way of dwelling it. With this broader understanding of the territory we can look towards the future with more comprehensive knowledge of natural resources as well as their limitations, and therefore propose strategies to address current and future challenges such as flooding, water quality and supply, among others.
BLW: What are the innovative aspects about this design – from policy making to urban form?
Rethinking the public infrastructure solutions towards the way the City is collecting the precious liquid might not seem as innovative for other cities, but for Parral it is. The project proves that we can do more than building expensive dams and channels made out of concrete. There is not enough awareness about the advantages that harvesting rainwater can provide even with modest infrastructure investments.
The Parral Riverfront Park is a continuous 5-kilometer linear park that connects the West end of the City the new residential development ~2km to the West. The park ranges from 100-600 meters of width providing various scales of open spaces, and contributes with 13 hectares of public space, 10 kilometers of pedestrian pathways, and 4 kilometers of bike paths. It also integrates opportunities for cultural amenities and real estate development such as a 1500-people outdoor auditorium, ~50,000m2 of new retail and 100,000m2 of residential use. In addition to the public space and program features, the Riverfront Park provides capacity to collect and store 60,000 m3 of water.
Another important aspect of the project is the understanding of the ecological performance of water, soil and vegetation that can contribute to improve water and soil quality along the River. The use of endemic vegetation that provides shade will enable the growth of important microorganisms responsible for decomposing the vegetation’s debris, providing nutrients to the soil and creating more opportunities for more vegetation to grow. This point is very critical for fighting erosion, developing ideal conditions for moisture in the surface and feeding the overexploited aquifer.
Parral City’s history has shown that abundance is deceptive when drought hits again and again. This project is calling for new ways of managing water from the ecological point of view to the prevention of future floods. One can prevent the other, and they should interact with each other in order to restore balance while promoting awareness about the conservation of natural hydrology. This endeavor may be more effective by integrating cultural programs such as a Water Museum and Botanical Garden where the community can learn about these issues as well as the impact of reclaiming natural systems has.
BLW: What is the social, economic and/or environmental role of this proposed design?
ARH: In terms of the environmental role the main purpose of this project is to acknowledge the need to have a better understanding of the role of cities in ecology. Cities are not isolated from nature, and they must be part of it in a more sensible way. They are part of natural systems interconnected with other cities, environments, geographies. Cities are just one small element that has a significant impact in the entire system. If only one city or town upstream is managing the wrong way their water, it will affect the cities and/or environment downstream. Everything is connected and each part of the structure has a responsibility on the larger picture. This leads to the social role: the project is located in a part of the city that is partially isolated from downtown or the eastern side where most of the social and public activities happen. The site is also home of some communities facing levels of poverty. These neighborhoods need better quality of open spaces and better connections with the rest of the City and to the River.
The project proposes a network of public spaces along the riparian corridor that both improve the ecology and connect the neighborhoods with pedestrian paths and bike lanes along the water containing ponds. The program also brings an outdoor auditorium, a water museum, a botanical garden, a water treatment plant and sports and playgrounds facilities. It also incorporates along the river drive residential and retail use in empty and under-used plots. The new activities will stimulate the community into new practices and habits by providing more opportunities to exercise more and get involved in the water and ecosystem conservation programs. With these new opportunities, hopefully people will learn and reflect about water in many different and more profound ways than they currently do.
BLW: How does this project help to rethink border region cities in 21st century?
ARH: The border has many limits shaped by different aspects and it is as complex as the issues related to it. Probably, one of the most critical factors today is the one that pertains to ecology. The Rio Bravo-Grande is one of multiple elements that creates the border. It is a dynamic line that contracts and expands by its flows. It is part of a larger system of streams, aquifers, cities, towns and ecosystems, extending inland, into Mexico and the United States, but departing from the political boundary.
Hidalgo del Parral is not a border city per se, but it is part of the Rio Bravo-Grande Basin, therefore the border region. This project explores an integral plan and designs for the urban stretch of the Parral River delivering a new understanding of water. By using integrated public open space infrastructure the plan aims to educate about the ecological importance of the region’s geography. The project envisions the River as a strong driver in reshaping the urban structure and processes, and demonstrates how it can be done by activating natural systems and local ecologies.
This project can be placed in any other city along the border region that shares the same issues that Parral is facing. If the approach of this project is recreated along the rivers and streams of the Bravo-Grande Basin cities could have a more a positive impact addressing the challenges that many of the border region currently experience: polluted water, overexploited aquifers, poor water management, lack of understanding about the desert’s ecological importance, among others.
We need to re-conceptualize the border, expand the political line, and rethink our territory as the ecology and geography is demanding us to.
ADRIANA RAMOS HINOJOS is a graduate from the Urban Design Master’s Program at Arizona State University (2014). “The Border Upstream: The Case of the Parral River”, featured above, is her independent culminating project. Adriana is originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, and her experience includes working on open space, residential, commercial and mixed-use projects in the State of Chihuahua. She is co-founder of LaBor Studio, an architecture, urban design and landscape practice, and currently lives in Austin, Texas.