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Borderless: Urban and Rural Design in Mexico

November 4, 2016


Paola Aguirre is the founder of Borderless, an urban design consultancy based in Chicago. In addition to her training as an architect and urban designer, Paola’s professional experience includes working with government, universities, and architecture/urban design offices both in Mexico and the United States. Impact Design Hub spoke with Aguirre about the relationship between urban and rural conditions in northern Mexico.

IDH: You are a urban designer born and raised in Chihuahua. What was it like just growing up in that part of Mexico? How did it shape you?

Paola Aguirre: I grew up in social housing in a neighborhood that wasn’t very friendly. It was a model of subsidized housing that has spread out more intensely over the last two decades in Mexico, but it was very emerging when I was a child. I grew up in a house that was 450 square feet that my parents bought and then incrementally made additions to. That is a very common thing for low-income families to do, to acquire property and just incrementally expand their homes.

When I was growing up the population exploded. Of course, a lot of migration of people from the smaller towns around it and there was this increasing need for housing. Development of new residential complexes and neighborhood started emerging, not necessarily by retrofitting areas of the city that could hold more capacity, but just adding more land. 

In retrospect, I yearned intensively for access to public space. Whenever I give talks about why public space is my topic of passion, I show the picture of my neighborhood park, because it’s a piece of dirt. Having a planning framework for public space is one thing, but these ideas need to be implemented with an understanding of what the social and environmental function of public space really is.

Public Space in Chihuahua. Paola's Childhood Park

Public space in Chihuahua. Paola’s childhood park.


IDH: You worked as an architect and urban planner, and then went to Harvard. How was the transition from Chihuahua to the Graduate School of Design (GSD)?

PA: Harvard really amplified my interest in planning. Going into graduate school, I had a very prescribed understanding of what I wanted to get out of a master’s, and GSD completely disrupted that understanding in a good way.

I found another way to understand urban design, one that is not necessarily only about the technical part, the urban form. It was also about layers of complexity and understanding, layers of history and relationships and frameworks. For one thing, the vocabulary or tools and techniques expanded tremendously. Therefore, the perspective and the horizon of what I could do with my training just skyrocketed.

It was at Harvard that a few other students and I started a group, GSD Latino, that focused on the border as a topic of research, a topic of programming. It was beyond Mexico and the United States—it was between the U.S. and Latin America. That is where the idea of “borderless” started.

IDH: What was your experience of the border from the Mexican perspective?

PA: When I was growing up, we used to take trips to El Paso, I don’t know, six or eight times a year. That experience became a very strong part of how I grew up and how I saw my proximity with another country, with another city, with another culture and all the implications of that dynamic. In fact, until I moved to the U.S., I still got nervous every time we lined up to cross a border. My hands started sweating. It’s because of an emotional and psychological terrorism, I think, that is embedded in the whole form of those crossings. I guess it was the sense of feeling extremely uninvited.

IDH: How do you understand the conditions that define the border now?

PA: I’ve been really frustrated about the dominant perception or narrative of the border. First, I don’t think about it as a line. It’s more of a gravitational field. You can feel it. There are implications of that flowing energy.

Secondly, anytime you scratch the surface about the border in any conversation, everything goes towards immigration and insecurity, or lack of safety. That’s one of the problems we have, but there are so many others, like infrastructure and ecosystems. The themes are so limited.

That was the driver of Borderless, the question of whether or not we could expand this conversation into other ideas; whether or not we could talk about things that are much more positive or introduce any level of creativity.  

IDH: What happened to the Borderless research project after you graduated?

PA: After Cambridge, I moved to New York for a couple of months. Those were the two most intense months, intellectually speaking, of my life. I felt like I had access to this amazing network of people and a capacity to deploy different things I had learned, but it was hard to figure out exactly what to do.

I started to put a website together and reach out to people who were working with this same geography. I thought that if I could at least document all the things that I was learning, it would become an archive. The good thing is that I learned that research is the best tool for reaching out to people. People are always interested in talking to you if you say, “I’m doing this research on…” whatever.

IDH: How did the Borderless Studio move from a side project to your main thing?

PA: At the time, I thought I needed a more robust professional experience, and ended up in Chicago as a city designer for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM). I still don’t know what I did with all the money that I earned, but I know a big chunk went to developing that website and creating and hosting a series of workshops in Chihuahua that I called MAPEO. I’m so committed to the idea of transboundaries that my web developer is from Chihuahua. I also reached out to all my network of colleagues from different organizations and institutions in Chihuahua and Mexico to be part of these workshops. The result was an interesting platform to test interdisciplinary work and dialogues.

It took us literally almost two years to bring together the website for the Borderless Workshop from a Tumblr to its own platform. I used a lot of my free time after work to continue developing that. A lot of our first original content was generated after a trip that I took to Tijuana and San Diego, and documented projects and interviews. Everything started with funding from me and my day job.

IDH: Eventually Borderless Studio matured into something that you could do on your own. What was the transition point?

PA: I think that point was transitioning from SOM to the University of Chicago. I learned that small institutions or small organizations can have much more power than we give them credit for. I spent a year working in this group called Place Lab as an urban design fellow, which opened my career to a completely different way of doing things and really helped me understand how nonprofits work.

Borderless Proposal for an Urban Intervention at HABITAT III Village. Quito, Ecuador May 2016.

Proposal for an Urban Intervention at HABITAT III Village. Quito, Ecuador May 2016.


IDH: Knowing what you know now, what do you understand as the greatest opportunities for planning to impact the lives of daily citizens in a city like Chihuahua?

PA: I would put a priority on public policy and infrastructure that actually benefits more than a third of the population—parks, mobility, and good transportation as well.

However, it’s not only about the modernization of systems. I think the policy of bringing every neighborhood to a standard that is livable is important too, because if Chihuahua has over 50 neighborhoods (and I don’t even know how many neighborhood it has), probably a fifth of them are in good shape. How can you operate a city with all those deficiencies?

Also, having some strategy that defines territory in a way that can be addressed in pieces while having an overall structure would make it more manageable. You would be able to say, “This neighborhood needs a better school,” “It needs a better park.” If you break it into pieces, I feel that we will have more chances to make impactful decisions.

IDH: What is life like in the rural areas around Chihuahua?

PA: That’s not necessarily my area of expertise. Life is very hard for the farmers. One unique situation is that rural Chihuahua has a large Mennonite population.

IDH: Mennonites?

PA: They have several communities between the cities of Juarez and Chihuahua, one of the most known is in the northwest, in the (Nuevo) Casas Grandes Municipality. They have an amazing agricultural system and they’re massive producers of different kinds of goods. They are in the most deserted land possible, but they have remained for decades as a closed community. It’s really the most difficult agricultural land you could ever imagine. Like this region in general, it’s super dry. But they are resilient. For me, the ultimate resiliency is social, but they have also made the land produce when no one else thought it could produce anything.

IDH: Do you sense a change in the relationship between the rural Mexico and urban Mexico, other than people migrating from rural countryside into the city?

No. I think that’s going to be the status quo, unfortunately, especially because of the lack of education of the farmers. The farmers of today are not connected necessarily to the values of their fathers, and whoever inherited that land doesn’t really understand the fight that went into securing the title from the aristocrats in the first place.


Chihuahua, Mexico and surrounding landscape.


IDH: Is the rural a place that’s rich for new thinking?

PA: I think the potential of the rural is going to merge out of the value of landscape and the ecosystem functionality of the land. Mexico is very good at environmental protection. Mexico is not good at imagining alternative futures for farmland. What is it between conservation and farmland and urbanization? There’s nothing between. The lines are very strict, and that has to do with the policy and the way government is structured.

For me, the U.S. is a model for practices for protection of sources of water or protection of biodiversity. The National Parks network that this country has is great. They’re not just about limiting access to development, but they become an industry for tourism. People that are proud to put their tax dollars into the conservation of these places. It’s a different relationship with the value of landscape. It has to do with education.

A professor friend from Mexico has a very cool anecdote. He went to Chihuahua and asked someone that was looking over the desert landscape, “What do you see?” The person was like, “I see nothing.”

That’s a cultural struggle. Even if they don’t produce food, desert landscapes have a function, but because it’s not obvious, it’s not communicated. For me, it’s re-positioning the value. Understanding regions based in ecological functions as supposed to political boundaries. That is, for me, the game changer. We need to transcend political boundaries, and there are many ways of doing that, of course.

IDH: When we’re thinking about the rural condition in relation to the urban, what questions do you think we should be asking?

PA: For me, it’s looking at aggregates and territories that are natural boundaries as opposed to man made ones. That makes the equation of understanding our cities and our rural land very complex. We know they’re networked; cities could not survive without rural just because of the food production, in addition to recharging of aquifers and other environmental functions. The more we see those interactions as inter-dependencies, I think we will start to understand how cities can have a more positive effect on the landscape. We can start using our creativity to re-activate and sustain our rural communities in the rural landscapes.

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