Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Architect Teddy Cruz and political scientist Fonna Forman want to turn the line between the U.S. and Mexico into a site for creative problem solving.
Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.
The U.S.-Mexico border has been long been portrayed as a source of threat and instability in political rhetoric. And that characterization has been particularly potent in this election, helping to pave Donald Trump’s path to victory.
But not everyone sees it that way.
Architect Teddy Cruz and political scientist Fonna Forman, who head the University of California San Diego Cross-Border Initiative, have spent years observing how cities along the border grow and develop. Their take: These seams between places are where different ideas and practices can cross-pollinate, yielding fresh solutions to decades-old urban problems. Using what they’ve learned, they’ve designed research-based urban intervention projects, civic engagement projects, and art installations to highlight the dynamism of the border at which they live.
CityLab caught up with Forman and Cruz, who run Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman, an architectural practice/urban think tank in San Diego, for a conversation.
How do you view the U.S.-Mexico border in the context of your work?
Forman: The physical barrier is one way to understand the divide that exists, somewhat arbitrarily, between the two countries. But it’s important to know that the border is reproduced in multiple ways—physically, socially, and psychologically—in other parts of both countries. The border has always been a way of reinforcing antagonism that doesn’t always exist. In many ways, it’s artificial. But it has been hardened into norm—into attitudes that really belie the reality of life for many of us who live in this region.
Cruz: Obviously, the drama of that physical barricade is undeniable. But we’ve been trying to understand the idea of urban conflicts [at borders] that are reproduced in cities. [When we talk about borders,] we’re not just talking about administrative boundaries that define territories. In Southern California, which is one of the epicenters of sprawl, for example, the city has become an archipelago of environments that do not relate to each other—atomized and fragmented territories. That physical fragmentation reflects the fragmentation of institutions, resources, and knowledge.
Forman: We’re interested in understanding the porosity of these borders. We’ve been tracking the various flows that move back and forth—environmental flows, economic flows, cultural flows—between Tijuana and San Diego. We’re trying to understand what we share despite the physical boundary that exists between us.
Cruz: In the current political discourse, the U.S.-Mexico border is a site of criminalization. But we have been trying to elevate it as a site of creativity.
So, you’re saying that the U.S.-Mexico border is a symbol for other real or imagined borders that divide us in urban spaces. What, in particular, is interesting about the section that lies between San Diego and Tijuana?
Forman: One thing that’s unique is it’s the largest binational metropolitan region in the world. We have more daily border crossings than any other checkpoint in the world. There’s a lot of movement here.
Cruz: This is also one of the most uneven spaces. We see urban sprawl in [San Diego] being so close to dense, informal shantytowns [in Tijuana]. These are two very different ideas of suburbia. And even though the two cities have similar populations, San Diego has grown six times larger than Tijuana—imagine. This is an incredible environment to question unsustainable patterns of urban sprawl, and also to question the marginalization of people in slums.
Forman: Another distinctive characteristic of this region is that the municipalities and planning departments in San Diego and Tijuana have never collaborated regardless of all the potential for improving life, regionally. One example: The two cities share a watershed but have never come together to think of water management as a regional problem.
Over the years, we’ve been interested in identifying and resuscitating points of contact that exist between the two. We’re working on two scales. At the bottom-up scale, we’re translating what we see as clever, alternative forms of urbanization happening in marginalized communities on both sides of this border to the policymakers. On the other, we’re trying to mobilize top-down institutions to invest resources in these grassroots innovations. We see ourselves as mediators, translating knowledge and capacity across spheres.
What kinds of alternative forms of urbanization do you see cropping up?
Cruz: From south to north, you have immigrants coming in who give us the DNA for more inclusive, equitable urban organization. One part of our research has been on the impact of immigrants on the suburbs in San Diego. By building a granny flat to support extended family or running a business out of their garage, these immigrants can transform very large and at times monocultural suburban environments into more dense, complex ones.
From north to south, you get the waste materials from San Diego that help grow the informal settlements in Tijuana. These environments display second-hand urbanization. People in shantytowns use recycled garage doors, for example, to build their homes. Elements of one city are brought to the other to produce new narratives. The other part is that Tijuana has become a place for companies to set up factories and take advantage of cheap labor. We have tried to figure out what the role of these factories or maquiladoras can be in growth of the slums around them.
Could you talk about some interventions you have been working on that leverage these observations?
Forman: One thing that we’ve committed to is creating corridors of knowledge exchange. We’ve developed a model called the University of California San Diego community stations, which are collaborative infrastructural projects in marginalized neighborhoods that become spaces for the production of knowledge. The university and nonprofits are working to create literate populations who can advocate for their own interests.
This is really inspired by examples of equitable urbanization interventions in Latin American cities like Medellín and Bogotá, Colombia that have used civic participation as a tool to create more equitable cities.
Cruz: We have to elevate the idea that not only private developers will develop the city. The city needs to be co-developed with communities.
One of the projects we’re doing is rethinking affordable housing. Housing has been understood just as an amount of units. But we haven’t thought about how to relate those units to a robust framework of support systems with public space, and designed with social, economic, and cultural practices in mind.
A project that we’re known for is Living Rooms at the Border, with nonprofit Casa Familiar, for which we recently won a grant from Our Place Foundation. Along with housing, we’ve included collective spaces—kitchens, community gardens, churches, spaces for arts and culture, and places where undertake entrepreneurial projects.
This project has taken a long time. It’s taken a while to design the economic model for it. It’s not the typical developer dream, as you can imagine.
The other environment we work with is an informal settlement in Tijuana that crashes against the border wall: the Los Laureles Canyon. Around 85,000 people live in it, and a lot of the waste from that canyon is seeping into the estuary that is on the U.S. side. In our intervention—a cross-border community project—we’re designing a skateboard park that can act as a water management facility and also a space for education. The idea is that these urban systems have to be a lot more hybridized.
Forman: What we’re trying to do with many of our interventions is to erase the border—foster “unwalling activities” that allow people to see each other. We're working with artists and cultural producers and policymakers to think about this.
Teddy and I have been working closely with the former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, and the nonprofit he established after leaving office called Corpovisionarios, which consults with municipalities on how to reconnect citizens with one another and how to rebuild public trust between civil society and institutions of power. He was really fascinated to work with us in San Diego and Tijuana because we’re operating with very different conceptions of citizenship in this part of the world. Here, it’s tightly aligned with national identity. He was interested in working with us to open up a more cultural, expansive idea of citizenship.
We developed a survey that we administered on both sides of the border with the help of a Ford Foundation grant. The preliminary results really demonstrate the fact that there is a regional sensibility where we live that is often below the radar of policymakers.
Cruz: Now what we’re doing is packaging those results and create a public document that can be used by institutions.
What bearing, if any, do you think the next president’s border wall and other policies have for your region and your work?
Forman: The hardening of the border walls and the increasing of surveillance since 9/11 has created obstacles for many people living in this region—binational individuals who are moving back and forth across this barrier daily. We feel the fallout of federal policy—formal and informal—regarding our borders very acutely. The rhetoric that’s been spilling out of this election cycle affects people in this region in very profound ways.
Cruz: As we become more isolationist in the next four years, we can look to places like Medellín and Bogotá, where local institutions have come together to change social norms. They’ve figured out how to to rebuild trust among people and with institutions. If the conversation in the next four years is building a stronger border wall, we now need to ask how we are going to create openings in that wall.
The border, then, becomes a laboratory for really amplifying empathy because precisely in divided communities like this one, the future depends legitimizing and understanding the coexistence. The future of San Diego depends on the future of Tijuana—on shared solutions to climate change and social and economic equity.