Cleveland’s enviable geography as a water abundant place in the Great Lakes basin is on my mind as I’m driven from Tijuana’s center to its sprawling suburban area east of the city at the border between the U.S. and Baja California, Mexico.
Armando Ramos, a landscape designer who dabbles in development and environmental activism, is leading me on a quick tour of the semi-arid hills that are quickly filling up.
I’m here on a three-week residency with my wife, Corrie Slawson, a visual artist, and our son, Ira. We were invited to share ideas between Cleveland and Tijuana, hosted by the artist-run project space TJinChina, and to make work that reflects the cultures of both places.
Ramos points to the hills between the city and the ocean where angular, whitewashed adobe homes cling in a giant subdivision called Sante Fe.
“Five hundred thousand people living without one park,” he says. He adds that the community in 2012 was to have 9.6 acre Parque Cascadas. "It would have been the third most important park in the city based on its size and location."
Suburban sprawl came south of the border in the 1990s, but has fallen on hard times (some suburbs are reportedly semi-abandoned and have been taken over by nefarious characters. Their distance and lack of transit connectivity to the city or job centers made them vulnerable when the Recession hit).
Tijuana is in the desert southwest, but unlike cities of the southwestern U.S., it is a hyperkinetic place of 1.7 million inhabitants, with an estimated half a million more undocumented residents, many deportees from the U.S. Like Cleveland, Tijuana’s urban core has its share of vacant properties, an estimated 40,000.
While Tijuana is relatively dense for a city built in the post-War, there is little access to nature in the city. Tijuana has only 0.28 square meters of green space per person, Ramos says. By contrast, 20 minutes across the border, a resident of San Diego enjoys an average of 40 square meters of green space. The ‘green’ standard for cities is Portland, Oregon which has 360 sq. m of green space per person.
The problem is more than elbow room to escape the crush of traffic and concrete.
“The World Health Organization says we need ten (mature) trees to produce 360 liters of oxygen for each person,” says Ramos who heads a citizens brigade fighting for more green space and trees. “We get a great deal, almost 70 percent, of our oxygen from the ocean.”
Ramos’ grandfather formed the Associacion de los Descendentes de los Defensores de Baja California in 1911 A.C. "in honor of the heroic defense of the State of Baja California residents who died in combat in 1911 fighting against mercenaries and ex-militaries from the U.S. service."
In 1985, the group was on the losing end of a fight to preserve 468 acres of open space in the middle of the city as a nature preserve. The president at the time decreed this area to become a state park, he reports. A former governor and mayor solicited the federal government which owned the land to hand it to the state, and then enlisted the private sector in a campaign to develop it in 1997.
Ramos drives me across the valley on a new highway built over the lost preserve that leads to Tecate. For ten minutes his arm scans the horizon dotted with shopping centers and faceless manufacturing boxes below green capped mountains where ant-like suburban settlements are on the march up. He slowly repeats what sounds like a mantra, ‘this was all the nature preserve.‘
His dream of a central park for Tijuana was parceled off with the aid of industrialists who saw the valley as the next place to move their factories, warehouses, shopping malls and three private communities, he says. One titan of industry promised to replace the huge preserve with 100 city parks, but not one has been created, says Ramos, who has started lobbying elected officials to set aside funding for a massive tree planting program that would fill in the valley with shrubs and hardy desert plants.
“We want to have a campaign where each person can purchase a tree. We need to plant about 10 trees per person” to get to the safe levels of oxygen they need.
Tijuana’s air pollution problems are linked to its neighbor in the north, he says, with air stream currents pushing tons of smog and particulates from L.A. and San Diego here. Just as Tijuana and San Diego are a metropolitan region, they also share an airshed and ecosystem—similar flora, fauna and the Tijuana River starting north of the border. Together they will need to address clean air and water as a region, Ramos says.
“We’re in a bi-national ecosphere. Chula Vista in San Diego has an amazing water conservation program. They’re 20 years ahead of us. But, Tijuana did it (establishing a culture) with the arts and with local food. With money and structure, we can do it with trees.”
Sharing Ramos’ enthusiasm for restoring nature to the city is Rene Peralta, Director of Woodbury University in San Diego’s Graduate School of Architecture, Landscape + Urbanism. I meet Peralta in a coffee shop in Tijuana, his hometown where he recently led a student project that investigates the ‘greening’ of the Alamar River, an urban tributary of the Tijuana River.
The city plans to bury the Alamar in concrete. Peralta’s class introduced an alternative vision that would keep parts of the river corridor natural for parks and green space.
(The project sounds similar to Cleveland’s Walworth Run, an urban tributary of the Cuyahoga River on the city’s near west side that was buried below Train Avenue and was the focus of a green restoration / park planning project).
“The idea is you can channelize but not in traditional way they did the Tijuana River 30 years ago,” he says. “Imagine a set of green lungs for the city. It would save this last part of the urban river that runs right through it. It’s where most of the population lives but lacks public access to green space.”
Their plan is to copy the green “interventions” in the Los Angeles River. Also buried below a concrete aqueduct, L.A. has allowed perforations in the concrete ‘river’ bottom for trees and shrubs to grow through, and pocket parks to locate along its banks.
“They did that in (L.A.‘s) Frog Town and suddenly it had a lot of birds coming back,” Peralta says. “It really became a nice area for the neighborhood.”
Tijuana faces a generational opportunity to introduce nature back into the city as the regulation of historic ejidos, or communal farms, has been allowed to run out. Land that was given over to families of farmers after the Mexican Revolution was, until a few years ago, prohibited from sale. Baja California’s state government is loosening the reins on Mexico’s socialist legacy—many families are selling their ancestral lands. Ejido land also rings the Alamar River, which presents the city with an opportunity to make good on the creation of public parks. It would mean convincing ejidos to sell some land perhaps not at the maximum market value. Mexico’s centralized political system means the federal water agency, CONAGUA, would need to manage a green urbanism project (it would be like Cleveland turning to EPA every time it wanted to add green space).
“NGOs are defending the Alamar,” Peralta says referring to a citizen’s group, Friends of the Alamar River. “They are cataloguing plants and animals which still exist here. They think it could be designed in a different way. The city doesn’t have a lot to say because the federal jurisdiction extends to rivers. So they would have to fight it out in Mexico City to get them to change their mind.”
The issue doesn’t pit green space for residents against economic development, says Peralta who acknowledges that factories that have relocated to hillside communities at the periphery of the city are producing toxic waste that makes it way to the rivers through tributary canyons.
“Manufacturing is still the future of the city, so we have to think about working with industrial parks on how to make the environment safer,” Peralta says.
Similar to Cleveland, they are trying to re-think the river as more than a dumping ground or a flood threat. As an architect, Peralta understands the need for engineering, but also recognizes that the threat of a 100-year flood shouldn’t be the design criteria that prevents people from approaching the river as a place to experience nature and respite from the city.
Also like Cleveland, the river in Tijuana was the first settlement area. But instead of malarial swamps pushing out the shantytowns of the Flats, it was the flash flood that wiped out temporary housing and literally swamped Tijuana in 1972 and led to the armored river of concrete.
“We never really acknowledged the river,” Peralta said. “During World War Two, the (federal works program) brazeo hired a lot of workers from the south and they started to settle in the riverbed areas. Carto landia (the land of cartons) they called it in the 1950s. After the floods of the 1970s, the city culverted the river and created Zona Rio to move people from the carton town.”
The move turned Zona Rio into the prime development area, with the city investing heavily in broad avenues lined with trees, sidewalks, shopping malls and museums. But the river is a barrier that divides the zone in half. Joggers use its concrete banks, but reclaiming those banks and building bridges out of green space would be a small investment in a vital part of the city.
Stay tuned for part two of my interview with Peralta which includes a discussion of Cleveland and Tijuana’s emerging cultural economies and how they're shaping their city.