Dec 18, 2008

Agricultural Hinge
U.S./Mexico Border Fence Proposal for Columbus NM and Puerto Palomas, Mexico
by Emily Licht

But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in our out; but may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may show where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.
-Wittgenstein, Tractatus

I. Sister Cities

Urban settlements are the fastest growing formations along the U.S./Mexico border – the “longest contiguous international divide between a superpower and a developing nation.” 90% of the entire border population resides in the 14 principal sister cities strung along the border. These populations will more than double in the next ten years [see Romero, Hyperborder, p. 42].

Elongated border with sister cities correlated to actual border

This project imagines a future for these sister cities as a supra-regional urban area like the corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston. An initial series of studies [see “Border Megalopolis,” Nov. 24 2008], manipulates the space of the border through elongation and compression in an attempt to understand the typological vocabulary of sister cities.

Juxtaposing different patterns of development between these urban forms suggests future routes of growth—ways of imagining new utilities for the border. How can the border areas between sister cities be activated as spaces of connectivity rather than mere security? Shaped by local history, industry, and geography, each existing urban formation addresses the border in its own way, either by pushing up against it—even using it as the infrastructure for daily commerce—or by pulling back, creating an additional intra-national buffer. In the case of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, the border has practically dissolved in daily traffic. Elsewhere, such as Somerton, Arizona and Ciudad Morelos, the proximity of the larger urban center of Yuma diverts exchange that would otherwise grow between the sister cities.

In the smaller cities of Columbus, New Mexico and Puerto Palomas, Mexico, an undeveloped zone three miles long intercedes between the two cities, yet because of the strong reciprocity and interdependence between the communities, this space is projected to evaporate. This proposal theorizes a mechanism that transforms this fertile zone into a progressive agent of planned growth and economic stimulation.

II. The Hinge

After an initial study of the typologies of sister cities all along the border, I have situated this project in the zone currently dividing Columbus, New Mexico and Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico. Like many cities separated by the border, Columbus and Puerto Palomas are undergoing ballooning populations and rapid urban expansion that propels fluid cross border traffic and bi-national reciprocities. School children, laborers, commodities and consumers all cross the border daily. As one educator puts it, “here you will find two cultures separated distinctly by a border; but the ebb and flow of culture across the line blurs the social-psychological separation" [see Herbert and McNergney, The Case of Columbus settlement and the national border line. Unlike larger, p. 5].

There is a historical backdrop to these cultural linkages in the shared mythology of Pancho Villa. In 1916 Villa accumulated a force in Puerto Palomas that invaded, burned and sacked Columbus. It was Mexico’s last armed incursion into US soil, and it prompted the decision by the US government to mandate a buffer of at least 60 feet between any US settlement and the national border line. Unlike larger metrapoles such as El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Brownsville and Matamoros, and San Diego and Tijuana, the towns of Columbus and Puerto Palomas have not yet physically converged. The three miles of land that separate them--the majority of it located on the US side--has at times been used for agriculture (natural aquifers here make this option attractive), but the land is currently fallow due to concerns over labor costs, and larger shifts in both state and global economic infrastructures.

This proposal uses the border “fence” to bridge these two communities; to stimulate a local agricultural economy and to project a future pattern of planned growth. The proposal replaces the existing six miles of fence with an “agricultural hinge,” a landscape machine, whose movement across the zone temporarily cedes territory to Mexico to facilitate the bi-national cultivation of newly viable farmland. The hinge is assembled from the 120-foot x 15-foot lateral irrigation trusses currently used in commercial agriculture. Linked together in a chain, these trusses create a moving border that relocates the security boundary between the two nations.

As the hinge opens and closes about its central axis, Highway 11, the area it irrigates is designated as farmland. Given that Columbus and Puerto Palomas are located on the largest aquifer in the region, this sort of water intensive proposal is not unrealistic, and current demographic data makes an agronomy-based proposal the most credible: more than 1 in 4 males in Columbus already earn there livelihood through agricultural work, and a skilled, underemployed labor pool already exists in the region. The New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council has implemented incubator programs to aid community-based farms in the production of regional crops such as corn, alfalfa, chili peppers and onions. This proposal takes advantage of these preexisting stimulus schemes by locating these four crops within the purview of the hinge, with each situated based on its irrigation requirements, corn centered on the well-watered N./S. axis around Highway 11, and alfalfa—which requires minimal irrigation—on the edges.

Generators propel the trusses of the lateral irrigation system, but they can potentially be adapted to more energy-efficient, self-propelling mechanisms currently being developed by irrigation system specialists. Each truss supports a minimum of seven sprinkler valves, which are protected on one side by a thin polycarbonate sheet that is rotated by the pulse of pressurized sprinkler jets. These sheets protect the spray from wind and evaporation, but they also assume the role of the security boundary. The sprinklers extend down eight feet and they can retract to meet diverse crop needs. A lightweight continuous decking spans between the truss web members allowing for varying degrees of programmatic activity. The hinge thus has ancillary use as a moving promenade/bridge between the two communities. Variations envisioned in the design can accommodate light, flexible program elements such as meeting spaces, bike paths, bleachers, and classroom space to facilitate an agricultural learning center. As the hinge traverses its plot these elements can change. For example, where

the two arms of the hinge come together – this occurs on average once a month – a larger space is created for markets, dances or other community gatherings. On the ground, interspersed with the agricultural zones are designated park spaces. These “green zones” are maintained as recreational areas—park space rather than urban sprawl knits the two communities.

III. The Landscape to Come

By claiming this three-mile swath between Columbus and Puerto Palomas for agriculture, unfettered urban growth is not able to preclude a viable local agricultural economy. The Agricultural Hinge is a mechanism whose movement serves a utilitarian agricultural purpose while maintaining a truly bi-national territory. It allows people on both sides of the border to benefit from this land designation.

Should we enter a post-border reality, the hinge may be dismantled, limited in scope or allowed to remain as a static walkway. The agricultural space once traversed by the hinge can slowly open up to planned infrastructural development that further merges the two now-unmediated communities. The furrows drawn by the wheels of the trusses become roads and the parks attenuate, becoming fingers of green space that suture the now vibrant space between them.

This proposed border intervention is specifically crafted to the exigencies of Columbus, New Mexico and Puerto Palomas, Mexico, and it consciously pushes the scalar limits of such a system. Yet, a similar hinge mechanism for flexible (de)territorialization could be imagined as a way of mediating the inevitable collision of any of the sister cities along the border. As we develop a vocabulary of resolutions to the border “crisis,” Agricultural Hinge offers one landscape in a repertory of alternatives to a barren wall.

Hinge application across sister cities

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