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Fluid borders: U-M students explore transnational waters, interconnected lives on Mexican border

By Nardy Baeza Bickel

In El Paso-Juárez area, people’s lives transcend national borders. This image shows workers waiting to cross back over the border into Mexico after completing their work days on the US side of the border. Photo by Shane Donnelly.
Read in Spanish On one side of the Río Grande river, residents have access to one of the most advanced water purifying systems in North America that feeds the booming economy of El Paso, Texas. On the other side of the river, residents of Juárez, Mexico, have sporadic access to drinkable water and many live in constant peril that their houses—built during the furiously fast development brought to the region by international trade agreements—will be washed away. This spring, a group of 12 graduate students from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning traveled to the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region to study the water issues affecting the area, where some 2.7 million survive off the Rio Grande River and Paso del Norte Watershed. Many fear agriculture, industry and people are sucking the water dry, and solutions tend to be complicated by as the waters reach the river -and become international waters- and the river itself marks the border between the US and Mexico. “In Juárez, there’s massive amounts of environmental and soci
This spring, a group of 12 graduate students from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning traveled to the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region to study water issues in the politically charged context of the U.S.-Mexico border marked by the Río Grande River. Photo by Shane Donnelly.

This spring, a group of 12 graduate students from the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning traveled to the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region to study water issues in the politically charged context of the U.S.-Mexico border marked by the Río Grande River. Photo by Shane Donnelly.

al injustices where people don’t have running water. They don’t have safe water and they’re also living in vulnerable conditions due to rapid and uncontrolled urbanization,” said Kathy Velikov, associate professor of architecture. “I wanted students to start to recognize that there is this asymmetrical infrastructural development in the ways that, for example, water rights and the rights to water were being manifest on the two sides of the border, but also how the control of the water has become part of the urbanism, of the architecture of the city through the dams that partition the water.” After spending time in Ann Arbor studying the area and mapping its waters and urban infrastructure, the students traveled to El Paso-Juárez to document the sites and the living conditions of those living on both sides of the border. In El Paso, the team worked with Ersela Kripa and Stephen Mueller of the Texas Tech School of Architecture in El Paso. In Juárez, students visited the city and its markets and spent time in the floodplains and other areas to gain a real sense of the challenges those communities face. With professor Alfredo Granados-Olivas of Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, the group traveled to relevant areas they wouldn’t have accessed otherwise, allowing them to get an even deeper understanding of the issues and communities involved. “It was really good to experience Juárez, not only the neighborhoods that are in trouble but the main square full of vendors, how colorful it is,” Velikov said. “We were able to see the city in a much more expanded way through some of its culture but also the very real urban problems they’re facing.” Back in Ann Arbor, they developed their vision of what a common “water institute” would look like. At a recent presentation, students showed a variety of designs that included: landscape designs for rehabilitating the ecology of the Rio Grande; a research institute that engaged a former toxic copper smelting site; a wastewater reclamation project; a community water emergency network; a “water parliament” for binational water negotiation; and a new public space that also cleaned the waters of one of the irrigation canals of Juarez. 
Shane Donnelly, U-M graduate student in architecture and urban design, said something that caught his attention while studying the region was that until recently, people on both sides could easily cross the river and participate in a community that transcends borders. "Currently, the border is very contentious," he said. "There is a lot of oversight. People have to jump through hoops to get to the American side and that's a fairly recent development. People are on one side, while their aunts and uncles are on the other. This is difficult as citizens on either side of the border share this burden. "My proposed project looks at embracing this shared community and subverts the border by envisioning a floating urban territory that removes itself from the physical territory of both nations—instead, making its own. His project was inspired by the "third nation" concept developed by Michael Dear, who has written at length on issues facing the border region, said Donnelly, pointing at a drawing that shows a platform-like structure where people on both sides of the border are free to come and go, with community spaces are open to all. The platform provides a space for families to be reunited and includes an "institute of rights" where people come to learn what rights they have as border citizens and how resources in the area are controlled. It reaches far into the U.S. side of the valley, touching down on points of importance in the area such as the University of Texas-El Paso. "This area is culturally, historically and geographically unique, and people who live in this area feel as though they are more connected to one another than they feel to their host countries, thus the idea of a 'third nation,'" Donnelly said. "This project embodies this idea and proposes it as a physical territory." Taubman graduate student Sneha Reddy had a very different approach. She said the contentions around water reminded her of similar problems between two different states in her native Bangalore, India. "We have to share our water with another state and it's been a fight for three decades: Who gets more water? It's the same kind of issues but here is a larger scale because it's two countries," she said. Because she wanted to propose practical solutions that might help alleviate water shortages, Reddy focused her project on colonias, informal settlements from the 1960s and '70s that developed as industrialization of Juárez increased. The colonias lack reliable water sources and sanitation services, and were built on arroyos (gullies), putting them in the path of destruction. "There's a lot of water. Mountain water would flow in but nobody is using it. It was a challenge for me to look at how, as an architect, we could address this issue," she said. Reddy proposed using materials readily available in the area to slow down, but not stop, the flow of water so it can be gathered and utilized by the community. She envisioned a water retaining pool and a community center. "It is their water, they should be empowered to use it," she said. Velikov said the students' diverse take on the project was exactly what she was hoping for. "It is called a wicked problem, a problem that's probably not solved by design but that design can address," she said. "This isn't about easy answers. There's a lot of complexities and contingencies involved." "Transnational Ecologies of the Rio Grande" is part of the initiative "Two Sides of the Border: Reimagining the Region" by Tatiana Bilbao, an architect in Mexico City who teaches at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Yale and Columbia universities. The students' work will be part of an exhibit at Yale University's School of Architecture in November. Other schools of architecture involved are: Universidad de México, Universidad Iberoamericana, University of Cincinnati, Cooper Union, Cornell University, University of California-Berkeley, Texas Tech University-El Paso, University of Texas, University of Washington, Yale and Columbia.

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