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Access all areas: the porosity of a hostile border

Conflict map teddy cruz

As countries become ever-more hostile to external migrants, action must be taken to ensure the city remains inclusive

The Tijuana-San Diego border region is a global laboratory for tackling the central challenges of urbanisation today – namely, deepening social and economic inequality, dramatic migratory shifts, urban informality, climate change, the thickening of border walls and the decline of working for the greater good. Now that Tijuana-San Diego has become the main site of arrival for Central Americans seeking asylum from violence and poverty, geopolitics has again become intensely local. 

So we begin on an urgent local note, but one with global resonance. The human rights of migrant populations are in jeopardy across the world right now, and too many countries are closing their doors. Our world is veering dangerously away from the norms of human dignity. The nativist mentality that once characterised the political fringe has gone mainstream, with open racism being legitimised in a way we have not seen since the middle of the 20th century; an urge to protect ourselves from ‘infestation’.

070312 a 6950h 001 tc

070312 a 6950h 001 tc

In 2007, a small fence separated densely populated Tijuana from the San Diego Sector. Advocated by the US Border Patrol, and enthusiastically spurred on by fervent isolationist President Donald Trump, construction is now under way to replace 14 miles (22.5km) of fencing with an 18ft (5.5m) steel bollard barrier. Image courtesy of Sgt 1st Class Gordon Hyde / US Army 

The very language of a ‘caravan’ is derailing us. It transforms the particularity of human struggle into an abstract movement, a ‘barbarian invasion’ to be grasped in its magnitude from above. When an immigrant is depicted aerially within a mass of others, they lose their individual place, their story. Their reasons become invisible, their rights easier to violate. The more-strident voices among their group can jeopardise the claiming of their rights in the court of public opinion. One rock thrown, and the claims of thousands dissolve into a narrative about the ‘criminal’ immigrant threatening to ‘infest’ our nation. These are individuals, not a mass – humans, not aliens – each with stories and traumas that need to be heard, each bearing rights that need to be protected. 

Fear of deportation has produced unprecedented anxiety in the immigrant communities of San Diego County. Men and women who have lived, worked and contributed in innumerable ways to their communities in the US are terrorised by threats of the proverbial knock at the door. There are countless stories of egregious human rights violations, mass sweeps, entry and seizure without warrant, extra-legal deportation that – because of the border’s proximity – can take a matter of minutes, detention of minors in adult facilities and the forced separation of migrant children from their parents. 

In this radical context, the prototypes for Trump’s beautiful wall are a physicalisation of hatred, manifesting in concrete or steel or whatever, a physicalisation of the politics of fear that is gripping the world from Brexit to far-right movements like Lega Nord in Italy and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland.

‘Our world is veering dangerously away from the norms of human dignity’

Protecting the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees has a spatial dimension, and urbanists and architects need to place themselves at the front line. We all speak regularly about the need for mitigation and adaptation to tackle climate change and its impacts – but, in an age of accelerating global migration, we need to expand our idea of resilience to include the capacity of our cities to anticipate social emergency. Building higher, thicker walls is one response to migratory flows, but such a response is inconsistent with a long history of international human rights norms, and we ought to reject it. 

In recent weeks, as thousands of Central American asylum seekers arrived in Tijuana, they were met with public anger, demonised by both the US and Mexico as an unruly mob, repelled with tear gas, and forced to find refuge in wet, makeshift camps distributed in the interstices of the city. This humanitarian crisis prompted us to reflect on the relation of human rights to what Henri Lefebvre once called, ‘the right to the city’. 

As migration intensifies across the globe, we must reassert an ethical commitment to the stranger in distress. Today, this means urgently protecting migrants – no matter what their reason for leaving their native country – from public reprisal and political repression, intervening in the very sites of contact between the arrival nation and the other: the host city. 

Gettyimages 166174101

Gettyimages 166174101

Living, quite literally, at the border between Mexico and the United States, those in Tijuana are reminded that attempts to cross into the US and a better life are unwelcome. The panels of the fence have been numbered to facilitate the identification of attempted crossing points. Image courtesy of Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

Just as climate change forces us to reimagine the city, extensive migration demands that we design resilient infrastructures that anticipate social inclusion. Urban infrastructure is more than motorways, bridges and other single-use urban systems. Infrastructure must be hybrid, flexible and adaptable, able to absorb the impacts of migratory waves. Hospitality must be the first gesture, an essential charitable opening. Asylum seekers may have immediate needs of food and water, medicine and shelter – urgent needs of the body. Providing for these is the proper response of an ethical society. But we need to problematise and expand the meaning of hospitality; needs may become more complex over time, and charity is not the appropriate model for building a just society in an age of migration. 

Immigrants must be included in the civic, social and economic life of the city. They must have opportunities for education, and for psychological and spiritual good health. The urban challenge is how to escalate hospitality towards inclusion, both normatively and spatially. Cultivating new social norms of equality and respect has a physical dimension; it must be accompanied by inclusive spaces and programming – in other words, protecting human dignity in the host city has an urban and architectural mandate. It is a process through which human rights are spatialised in the host city, and through which ‘we’ transform alongside ‘the other’.

A major area of research for our practice, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, in recent years has been situating our specific border conditions at San Diego-Tijuana in the context of broader global border dynamics. The Political Equator is a visualisation project that problematises local-global correspondences, connecting the San Diego-Tijuana border region to other geographies of conflict worldwide. Along this imaginary global border, 30-38°N parallel, lie some of the world’s most-contested thresholds and border regions. When this global political equator is visualised alongside the climatic equator, the convergence of environmental and social injustice across the world becomes evident. The collision of geopolitical borders, environmental crises, political marginalisation and human displacement is the great crisis of our age. 

‘Hospitality must be the first gesture, an essential charitable opening’

In our practice, designing inclusive cities is not only, or primarily, about spatial intervention, but about designing the programmatic frameworks to reorganise institutional protocols, knowledges and resources. Our projects always begin with visualising the conflicts and contradictions of a site. We think of this as a double desire: on the one hand, to disrupt local and global social and economic policies that have spatialised exclusion and marginalisation and, on the other, to imagine new interfaces between top-down and bottom-up institutions and agencies to produce the political, social and economic frameworks for inclusion. In other words, we aim to design not only physical things, but also the protocols and policies that will ensure inclusion over time.

We have always resisted the criminalisation of the US-Mexico border and have advanced it, instead, as a site of urban and political creativity that disrupts our very understanding of belonging, identity and citizenship. We believe the most compelling ideas about the future of cities today are emerging from peripheral communities in sites of conflict, such as the San Diego-Tijuana border region, where human resilience and adaptation manifest in the ingenious reinvention of everyday life. In these zones, survival strategies shape new social, cultural, economic and political dynamics that become models – and ideally catalysts – for alternative urban policies that enable more inclusive, sustainable patterns of urban growth.

Although public perception of the border as a barrier separating oppositions has been shaped by a politics of fragmentation and division, identity in this part of the world is actually shaped by the hybridity and porosity of the everyday, the transgressive flows and circulations that continually move back and forth across the wall. A key dimension of our work has been rethinking citizenship in this contested region of flows, disrupting conventional jurisdictional and identitarian ideas of belonging that divide communities and nation states with a broader and more-encompassing lens. This lens should elevate shared practices, norms, interests and aspirations as essential criteria of community – all of which, typically, flow unimpeded across border walls like ours.

‘In sites of conflict, human resilience and adaptation manifest in the ingenious reinvention of everyday life’

But while environmental and social flows across the US-Mexico border are the armature of our region, the invisibility of this information prevents new more-deliberate transborder publics from emerging. Knowledge that remains siloed and self-referential perpetuates existing power structures and disparities. An investment in an urban pedagogy – the transfer of knowledge across institutions and communities – is essential to construct a knowledgeable and engaged civic culture that demands inclusive urbanisation. 

Visualising and mobilising this transborder information lies at the heart of our urban pedagogical work. In this context, we see our primary role as researchers in horizontal terms, as mediators, curators and facilitators who translate both bottom-up and top-down knowledge. In our research practice at the border, we have been particularly interested in the role that universities can play, facilitating the exchange of knowledge between marginalised border communities and institutions to address urgent deprivations at the scale of cities and regions.

This interface between top-down and bottom-up resources and knowledge depends on a two-way dynamic that needs mediation: bottom-up urban activism needs to trickle upward to transform top-down institutions and their policies and, likewise, the top-down needs to engage sites of marginalisation, transforming urban policy and civic infrastructure to invest in the creative intelligence embedded in bottom-up urban dynamics. The transfer of urban knowledge, from the bottom-up to the top-down and back again in the pursuit of urban justice, is an urban curatorial activity, a new space of operation for many architectural and artistic practices.

In this sense, we have been dissatisfied by the recent uptick in ephemeral acts of resistance in our own region, and short-term artistic and cultural interventions that dip in and out of the current border conflict, as the energy that produces them quickly dissipates. Although we are often inspired by these creative gestures, they tend to be short-lived in their impact. What happens the day after? Instead, we have been advocating a more-rooted infrastructure of partnerships that are spatialised through a network of public spaces that educate, taking a longer view of resistance, strategic thinking and anticipatory planning. 

‘Knowledge that remains self-referential perpetuates existing power structures’

To this end, we founded the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Cross-Border Community Stations as a platform for reciprocal knowledge production, linking the specialised knowledge of the research university with the community-based knowledge embedded in immigrant neighbourhoods on both sides of the border wall. The Community Stations are a cross-border network of public spaces that educate, where research and urban pedagogy is curated collaboratively between university researchers and community-based activists.

The UCSD Community Stations also perform as a spatial and programmatic infrastructure of inclusion, to increase community capacity for civic action to claim a right to the city. They detonate new forms of community and economic development. The resources and local capacities of our research university become leverage for our community partners as they develop their own emergency housing and public spaces. The UCSD Community Stations also advance cross-border citizenship through cultural action. In our current environment of escalating tension and militarisation, we have been developing transgressive experiments in ‘unwalling’ that enable people to see each other anew and cultivate cross-border public commitments towards a more inclusive, democratic and environmentally connected bi-national region. We believe border zones are laboratories for imagining new strategies for coexistence, and for provoking a more speculative imaginary of cross-border citizenship. Working closely with immigrant communities, we are advancing what we call a ‘sanctuary urbanism’, characterised by mutual recognition and solidarity. 

Lead image: Borrowing the bright red arrows of Guy Debord’s Situationist map, Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman chart conflict zones and cross-border urbanism at the San Diego-Tijuana border in the 2012 De-Bord(er) collage

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today