In Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande separates the United States, left, from Mexico, right. In Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande separates the United States, left, from Mexico, right. Ken Lund, CC BY-SA

Alternative vision to Trump’s border wall

Make the Rio Grande grand again by making it the core of a binational park

The United States and Mexico have shared their current international border for nearly 170 years. Today they cooperate at multiple levels on issues that affect the border region, although you would not know it from the divisive rhetoric that we hear in both countries.

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President Donald Trump’s focus on building a border wall threatens to undermine many binational initiatives, as well as our shared natural environment.

As a scholar focusing on urban planning and design in the border region, I have worked with communities in both countries to restore deteriorated urban and natural environments. I see great potential for green infrastructure – projects that use live natural systems to deliver benefits to people and the local environment.

This approach can help mitigate air and water pollution, restore soils and habitats and regenerate plant, animal and human communities.

I also see an opportunity for Mexico and the United States to work together on a much larger scale. Rather than spending billions of dollars on a border wall, here is an alternative vision: regenerating the Rio Grande, which forms more than half of the border, to form the core of a binational park that showcases our spectacular shared landscape.

Today the river’s volume is decreasing, thanks to climate change and water diversions for agriculture and municipal uses. It is polluted with fertilizers and sewage, and has lost at least seven native fish species. Restoring it would produce immense benefits for wildlife, agriculture, recreation and communities on both sides.

Mexico and the United States have signed numerous agreements regulating the border, starting with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. In 1944 they created the International Boundary and Water Commission to manage water supplies, water quality and flood control in the border region.

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Environmental issues that affect communities on the border include raw sewage dumping, agro-chemical pollution and flooding. Loss of riparian habitat – the lush green zones along river banks – has reduced shade and natural cooling in the river’s urban stretches.

Recognizing these issues, the United States and Mexico established the Border Environment Cooperation Commission in a side pact to the North American Free Trade Agreement. This organization funds environmental programs proposed by local communities and governments within a 400-kilometer-wide strip along the border.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Border 2020 program also provides grants focused on environmental issues in the United States and Mexico.

I have coordinated applied collaborative design studios in which students work with local and state planning authorities to address problems such as flooding and lack of accessible, high-quality public space. These projects seek to improve urban infrastructure systems in ways that increase ecosystem services, such as improving water quality.

For example, as part of the Border 2012 (precedent to Border 2020) program, the EPA provided funding for a pilot program to build flood-prevention detention ponds in Nogales, Mexico, a sister city with Nogales, Arizona. City leaders wanted to assess whether the ponds could also serve as public space amenities.

Working with students from Arizona State University, my colleague Francisco Lara Valencia and I produced a report for local planning authorities. In it we proposed creating a network of connected green spaces to absorb stormwater and provide park lands, bringing nature into the city. By doing so, EPA and Mexican authorities could have a positive environmental impact on both cities.

I also worked with students at the University of Texas at Austin to create a green corridor master plan for the city of Hermosillo, Sonora, in 2015. Green corridors typically run along natural or artificial waterways to soak up stormwater and provide places to play. The city is now launching a strategic plan that incorporates these concepts.

In 2015-2016 at UT Austin, we developed an urban planning and design strategy for border towns in the state of Tamaulipas that are expected to be impacted by oil and gas production resulting from recent energy reforms in Mexico. Our case study city is Ciudad Miguel Alemán, a border sister city with Roma, Texas, separated only by the width of the Rio Grande.

The plan and designs propose to leverage construction of infrastructure for oil and gas production fields to include detention and filtration ponds and green corridors, which will serve as high-quality public spaces and mitigate flood risks. It also calls for creating natural preserves and recreation areas on the Mexican side of the river, mirroring existing areas on the American side.

A green vision for the border region would expand this sister-city-specific approach into a large-scale urban ecology and planning effort. This initiative could integrate streets, parks, industries, towns, cities, creeks and other tributaries, agriculture and fracking fields throughout the Rio Grande’s entire 182,000-square-mile watershed.

One possible starting point would be to restore riparian zones along the river through the binational metropolis of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, redesigning the existing channel. Recreating natural habitat on both sides of the river would cool and clean the air and provide attractive public spaces.

But why stop there? As the Rio Grande advances to the Gulf of Mexico it cuts through incredibly valuable, beautiful and remote landscapes, including Big Bend National Park in Texas and the Cañon de Santa Elena, Ocampo, and Maderas del Carmen reserves in Mexico.

Traveling its length could become a trip comparable to hiking the Appalachian Trail, with opportunities to see recovering natural areas and wildlife and learn from two of the world’s richest cultures.

Together these areas form a vast, potentially binational natural park which could be managed cooperatively, much like Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S.-Canadian border. In fact, advocates on both sides of the border have been pursuing this vision for more than 80 years.

When Texas officials proposed creating Big Bend National Park in the 1930s they envisioned an international park. In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Mexican president Manuel Ávila Camacho, “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend [establishment of Big Bend National Park] will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.”

Discussions lapsed in the 1950s then resumed in the 1980s at the grassroots level, but were drowned out by debates over border security and immigration after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

It is not clear whether Congress will provide the US $1.6 billion that President Trump has requested for work on a border wall. In any case, building a wall on a wide, inhabited river corridor with flood risks is a dubious goal. As experts have pointed out, it is more effective to police the border with technology and human power than to build a barrier.

In fact, restoring river habitat could improve border security by fostering higher and more constant water flow. Making the Rio Grande healthier would also benefit farmers and energy producers on both sides of the border.

The ConversationIn his 1951 essay “Chihuahua as We Might Have Been,” American cultural landscape scholar J.B. Jackson wrote that “rivers are meant to bring men together, not to keep them apart,” and that the border imposes an artificial division on a region that humans accepted as one unified entity for hundreds of years – the Spanish Southwest.

This vast shared watershed should remind us that we are fragile in isolation, but powerful when we come together.

Gabriel Diaz Montemayor is assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • alance

    The urgent demand for labor during World War II led to creation of the Bracero Program in August 1942. Its main impact was to provide a large, dependent agricultural labor force and it was eliminated under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. FDR created the Bracero Program and LBJ killed it to make the labor unions happy.

    • drg68

      The creation of a guest worker program would solve quite a bit of the problems. Create a type of renewable visa where that would allow someone (no spouse or kids) to work in the US for up to a year. They would need to pay for taxes (plus maybe an extra withholding) and they would only be allowed to collect their refund after leaving the country. Holders of these visas would not be allowed to apply for residency, but after a certain number of years and other conditions, they could apply for other forms of visas that do have that possibility.

      The system that is in place creates incentives for people to work in the US illegally instead of going through the convoluted legal immigration process. It also encourages people to bring their families and start new ones while they’re here. Prior to all the fences, checkpoints, etc, people followed the work and went home to their families when there was a lull or when the work was completed. There were problems with the Bracero program, but they were minor compared to what happened after it was eliminated.

  • Make an offer. In exchange for the Mexican Government getting out of the USA; its Consulates and all of its Institutos, Organizations, Associations, Chambers, Clubs, etc. (including those that were, if not invented by the MxGovernment, previously American), the US will build no Wall (around and sealing in the MxConsulates).

  • DeplorableVI

    We share a wet border with Russia and don’t have near the trouble we have with Mexico. Now I read Canada is upset with all the border jumpers who can’t get welfare in the US anymore so North they went. The border wall is a must. We must have a wall that’s strong and tall. When Mexico becomes a failed narco state like Venezuela Trump will be loved and admired.

    • Alex Double

      Total crap!

    • gypsyken

      Calling Venezuela a “narco state” displays your ignorance. I doubt that you’ve ever visited the country, as I have. Ever since Hugo Chavez initiated the socialist Bolivarian Revolution, the U.S. has sought to return the country to the control of the oligarchs who ruled it before he was elected by the Venezuelan people, and it’s still trying to do that.

      • DeplorableVI

        Ex bus driver Maduro saw what happened to Hussian and Kadafi. Maduro knows his disgruntled, hungry passengers will drag his lifeless body through the streets soon.

        • Let us pray so.

        • gypsyken

          The information I have is that the Chavistas who support the Venezuelan government outnumber the right-wing protesters, despite their being supported by the U.S. government. See Abby Martin’s The Empire Files on YouTube. The failure of the protesters to achieve the U.S. goal of overturning a democratically-elected government is probably why the orange-headed fascist monster who occupies the White House has threatened to take military action against the Venezuelan government. That would be consistent with the long history of the U.S. in overturning Latin American governments it did not like, because they were not advantageous to U.S. corporations, but it would not be accepted by other Latin American governments..

    • Gregory Custer

      You sir are very poorly informed. Have you heard of tunnels? Drones? 31-foot tall ladders? Catapults? There ain’t no wall high enough. This is a US public health issue; Mexico needs to be our CLOSEST ally for so many reasons. Walls accomplish nothing.

      • Joshua Rodriguez

        100% Agree

      • DeplorableVI

        We can pay for the wall with a Salad Tax charged to liberals who insist Mexicans work our poisoned fields cheaply.

      • Tell that to the Israelis. They’ve proven that walls work swell. Bet your home has walls too, eh?

        • ben

          every culture has a right to self determination. even white judeo christian europeans & all the other cultures who assimilated in the US. borders language culture. trump 2020. civic nationalism

      • drg68

        Smugglers even operate their own submarine fleet to bring in tons of illegal drugs. Like you mentioned, a wall is nothing to a culture with hundreds of years of underground mining experience. A truck load of fertilizer, diesel fuel, and a way to detonate it are cheap compared to a “big beautiful wall” as well.

        México could just say “screw all of this nonsense. We’re tired of dying because of the gringos’ drug habits” and not even try to combat the cartels. They could tell the narcos that they can operate in the open (even legally) as long as they stop the killing in México. Then they could let as many Central Americans cross as they want as long as they continue on to a US border crossing to apply for refugee status. The US doesn’t need either of those two situations or the possibility of a left-wing Chavez type government as a neighbor. Trump’s BS is increasing the chance of that happening.

        • ben

          if you want your degenerates you can keep your degenerates. tunnels can be plugged up

  • JUNE

    2-

    THE CHURCHES MADE YOUR LIVES ITS WEAK A COPY AND DOES NOT WORK. JEWISH JESUS SYNAGOGUE WHERE GOD CAN COME IN AND HELP. GOD FIRST RELIGION IS JEWISH ALL JEWISH PROPHETS SENT.

    URGENT:

    MY NAME IS DONNA I WENT TO ALL THE SHULS AND JEWISH NEIGHBORHOODS IN 2008 TO RESEARCH WHAT IS GOING ON I WAS TOLD TOO. I MET ABE WEISS SHOWING A PROPERTY. THEN I STARTED SEEING SIGNS WITH JEWISH AND WORKED EVER SINCE. ABE WEISS I EMAILED HIM 1000 EMAILS TO TELL HIM WHAT IS GOING ON HE KNOWS I AM REAL. ABE WEISS HE DIDN’T WANT TO HELP ME SO I DID IT MYSELF. ABE WEISS WEIPROPERTIES@YAHOO.COM HE IS IN MONSEY AND HAS FAMILY IN ISRAEL. I OPENED EVERYTHING JEWISH FROM A TO Z AND A SYSTEM TAUGHT VERY DIFFICULT TO BREAK THROUGH AND I DID. I STARTED IN BROOKLYN IN 2008 FIELD WORK THEN LOWER EAST SIDE THEN ELLIS ISLAND THEN IN 2010 DAILY ON THE COMPUTER TO RESTRUCTURE ISRAEL. LOG INTO FACEBOOK TYPE DON PALMS TO READ MORE.OR http://WWW.GODVERSESTHELORD.COM I HAVE BEEN SABOTAGED CHEATED BY ISRAEL AND WASHINGTON SO NOBODY WOULD KNOW ME ON THE COMPUTER WHERE MY WORK INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE JEWS AND JEWISH NEWS. I EMAILED CIA AND FBI TO HELP ME. ALL MY WORK IS DOCUMENTED ON MY COMPUTER SINCE 2008 AND TO ABE WEISS COMPUTER FOR EVIDENCE TO INVESTIGATE. I WRITE ON MY FACEBOOK DAILY TO CONTROL THE SITUATION AND TELL THE PUBLIC. FACEBOOK LOG IN DON PALMS OR DON SKYLAR

  • gypsyken

    To a person exercising rational, critical thinking, this proposal makes infinitely more sense than building a wall. But supporters of the orange-headed racist, fascist monster who occupies the White House will reject it as promoting peace, rather than the war that they favor.

    • “orange-headed racist, fascist monster.”

      My, my, how you do go on.

      • gypsyken

        According to the monster, some “fine people” were among those chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville.

        • ben

          no. that was a seperate group. i too do not want to see our history pr culture dismantled. btw the boys w/the torches may have ben misguided but they have a point. whites especially males, have been demonized by media hollywood academia. they are told they dont exist. i do not want to be replaced either. im jewish, i dont want another islamic/3rd world europe. this extreme group was not welcome @ the prayer rally. no ken there are no nazis. there are only several bloggers. yes, many visable jews do feed the anti semite monster. they will never learn. the left eats its own.

        • ben

          no. the fine folks were protesting the monuments. some of the boys w/the torches were paid. some were misguided. the organizer of the march kessler, was a obama occupy wll street person. hmmm, kind of suspect. there are no nazis, take a pill & relax. OR you can move to mekico! ole!

  • TioDon

    “….thanks to climate change”. Nope, anyone who believes in (didn’t it used to be called Global Warming?) climate change is a fraud. A 6th grader know better

  • How on earth a “green corridor” will keep illegals out of the U.S. is a mystery to me. A green corridor would be nice, but it has nothing to do with the need for better border security, i.e. more wall.

    • Agreed.

    • drg68

      Did you read the article or just jump in to the comments? Apparently you missed this part: “In fact, restoring river habitat could improve border security by fostering higher and more constant water flow.”

      A wall isn’t going to help border security any more than the hundreds of miles of existing fencing that was started by the Clinton administration. The reasons why there aren’t any fencing along the Rio Grande and why Trump’s wall would be a big waste of money are outlined here: https://www.cato.org/blog/border-wall-impractical-expensive-ineffective-plan Not to mention that the Border Patrol doesn’t want a wall because it would severely hamper their situational awareness when operating near the border.

      Despite the rhetoric, most of the smuggling of goods and people occur through existing ports of entry which a wall isn’t going to stop. It would be a big, expensive failure just like China’s Great Wall was. That money would be better spent elsewhere instead of funneling it into the pockets of Trump cronies.

  • jwd

    As long as Mexico’s failed culture seeks to exploit its neighbor by sending illegals to earn money for its failed country, a wall is needed! The problem is not the “wall”, not the ridicules fairy tail solutions suggested by the “snowflake” that wrote this article. The problem is the failed culture, government or what ever you wish to call the powers that control Mexico! Many of the Mexicans are desperate people trying to help themselves! I don’t blame them for wanting to get to the USA, but I don’t want them there!

    • Mexicans are citizens of Mexico and should be in Mexico working to make their country great again, not here denormalizing our domesitic labor market and birthing second generational U.S. citizens who fuel street gang membership (and who have an allegiance to Mexico but are too scared to return there to live) that clog up our judicial system and make our neighborhoods unsafe. Build the wall, man it, deport the illegal aliens, normalize the U.S. domestic labor market once more, and make Mexicans make Mexico great again.

  • ben

    mexico is america’s bitch. enough. let them solve their problems. the gangs are being deported.

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