Park Diplomacy across the US-Mexico border

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In Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, “two countries, two cities, one culture, one river, one park”.

By Jane Margolies

Zacate Creek, which flows into the Rio Grande, creates an arroyo with a natural waterfall. Photo by Overland Partners.

Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, Mexico—known colloquially as Los Dos Laredos—were a single city divided by the Rio Grande River until 1848, when a treaty established the international border in the river, leaving half in the United States. and the other in Mexico.

But the cities remain linked. The port is a major trade route and a crossing point between countries. The families have members on both sides, with some living in Nuevo Laredo working or attending school in Laredo. And, of course, ecological systems know no international boundaries. Streams rich in biodiversity feed the Rio Grande and the area is an important migratory route for birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

Plans are now underway for a bi-national park that would unite towns along a 6.3-mile stretch of the river. As planned, the park would span 1,000 acres on both sides of the waterway. A multidisciplinary team led by the San Antonio-based company Terrestrial partners and the firm Laredo able city, and including OLIN, Arup, LAN Hydrology and Crane Engineering are working with US and Mexican officials to design the park to celebrate the two cities’ shared culture, encourage tourism and improve the health of the river, which is heavily polluted and prone to flooding. “Two countries, two cities, one culture, one river, one park,” says Rick Archer, one of Overland’s founders.

Planning team members gather at the site of a water plant in Laredo, Texas. Photo by the Rio Grande International Study Center.

This isn’t the only park project on the US-Mexico border. There’s a movement to expand Friendship Park between San Diego and Tijuana so people can do more than touch their fingers through a fence. Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, ASLA, specialist in the border region and lecturer in landscape architecture at the University Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, taught design studios with the goal of providing green public spaces along the river while improving water quality and fighting flooding (see ” Floods That Know No Bounds”, LAM, November 2019). And, of course, the idea of ​​a binational park dates back to at least the 1930s when one was proposed for the Big Bend area, giving rise to Big Bend National Park in Texas and adjacent protected lands in Mexico.

Los Dos Laredos Park is still in the conceptual stage, but the plan would include a natural area for the northern part of the site. In the central section, amphitheater-style seating would flank the river so that spectators on both sides could, for example, watch a concert performed on a barge. The southern part of the park will include football pitches, playgrounds and other recreational offerings. There is even talk of adding a pedestrian bridge to a road bridge that spans the river, with the idea that it could connect a park on both sides and one day be the setting for family reunions, weddings and quinceañeras.

The park will occupy both sides of a 6.3-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. Image by Overland Partners/OLIN.

Getting to that point remains difficult, however, given the current state of the river and the complexity of a binational effort. Sewage drains into the Rio Grande on the Mexican side, although Nuevo Laredo recently committed funds to address the issue. The American shore was stripped of native species to facilitate border control surveillance, which contributed to runoff and sediment buildup in the waterway. Invasive species such as the carrizo cane have taken over, hampering visibility.

Although the restoration of the river is supposed to be at the heart of the project, the design solutions will have to allow access for border patrol purposes. Susan Weiler, FASLA, Partner at OLIN, says she believes safety, beauty, ecological restoration and public use can all be achieved. “Safety is important, and we need to be able to help provide that, as well as a clear, healthy path for the river,” she says.

At various locations along the river, the lack of vegetation contributes to runoff and the accumulation of sediment in the water. Photo by Overland Partners.

Design details, along with costs, funding and a timeline, have yet to be worked out, but participants are hopeful an agreement can be reached on the whole, especially given the bipartisan backing for the project. In early May, the cities sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., to present the park proposal and received an enthusiastic response from federal officials and congressional leaders. “The process of creating this park,” says Archer, “the friendships built, the diplomacy, can be as important a legacy as the park itself.”

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