Park Diplomacy Across the U.S.–Mexico Border

This article is also available in Spanish

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

By Jane Margolies

Zacate Creek, which feeds 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 one half in the United States and the other in Mexico.

But the cities remain entwined. The port there is a major trade route and crossing point between the countries. Families have members on both sides, with some who live in Nuevo Laredo working or attending school in Laredo. And, of course, ecological systems know no international boundaries. Biodiverse creeks feed into the Rio Grande, and the region is an important migratory route for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Plans are now underway for a binational park that would reunite the cities along a 6.3-mile stretch of the river. As envisioned, the park would span 1,000 acres across both sides of the waterway. A multidisciplinary team led by the San Antonio-based Overland Partners and the Laredo firm Able City, and including OLIN, Arup, LAN Hydrology, and Crane Engineering, is working with U.S. and Mexican officials to design the park to celebrate the shared culture of the two cities, 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, a founding principal of Overland.

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

This is not the only park project on the U.S.–Mexico border. There is a move to expand Friendship Park between San Diego and Tijuana so that people can do more than touch fingers through a fence. Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, an expert on the border region and an associate professor of landscape architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has taught design studios with the goal of providing green public space along the river while improving water quality and addressing flooding (see “Floods That Know No Bounds,” LAM, November 2019). And, of course, the idea of a binational park dates back at least to the 1930s when one was proposed for the Big Bend region, giving rise to Big Bend National Park in Texas and adjacent protected land in Mexico.

The park for Los Dos Laredos is still in the conceptual stage, but the plan would include a natural area for the northern section of the site. In the middle section, amphitheater-style seating would flank the river so spectators on both sides could, say, watch a concert performed on a barge. The southern portion of the park will have soccer fields, playgrounds, and other recreational offerings. There is even talk of adding a pedestrian deck to a traffic bridge that spans the river, with the idea that it could connect parkland 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 challenging, however, given the current condition of the river and the complexities of a binational effort. Sewage flows into the Rio Grande from the Mexican side, although Nuevo Laredo recently committed funding to address the problem. The U.S. bank was stripped of native species to facilitate surveillance by border control, and this has contributed to runoff and the buildup of sediment in the waterway. Invasive species such as carrizo cane have taken over, hindering visibility.

Although restoring the river is meant to be central to the project, design solutions will have to allow access for border-patrol purposes. Susan Weiler, FASLA, a partner at OLIN, says she believes security, beauty, ecological restoration, and public use can all be achieved. “Security is important, and we need to be able to help provide that, as well as a clear and healthy pathway for the river,” she says.

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

Design details—plus costs, funding, and a timeline—have yet to be worked out, but participants are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on all, particularly given the bipartisan support for the project. In early May, the cities sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., to present the park proposal and got an enthusiastic response from federal officials and congressional leaders. “The process of doing this park,” Archer says, “the friendships built, the diplomacy, may be as big a legacy as the park itself.”

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