Excerpt from Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman’s essay “Where is the Public Today? Design for a New Civic Imagination” from By the People: Designing a Better America exhibition publication.

panarama view of US/Mexico border

Dense Los Laureles Canyon informal settlement (on left) builds right up to the border wall, US side of the Tijuana River Estuary on the right. Courtesy of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman.

Border Crossing

Design by the people begins with re-energizing a public culture and building the capacity of divided communities for mutual recognition and coexistence. The San Diego–Tijuana border region has been a laboratory for us to rethink socioeconomic inequality, uneven urbanization, and global citizenship.

With a population of more than five million, the cities of San Diego and Tijuana comprise the largest binational metropolitan region and the most trafficked border checkpoint in the world, where urbanizations of wealth and poverty collide and overlap daily. This border region is a compelling point of entry for Latin American civic lessons to revive public debate about urban inequality and social inclusion, and to counter xenophobic narratives about citizenship and immigration that surge to the forefront as they always do in times of fear.

In recent years, we launched Political Equator Meetings to advance new critical interfaces between Latin America and the United States, and to rethink today’s urban-design conventions, which prioritize private to public agendas. Taking the San Diego–Tijuana border region as a local exemplar of global dynamics, The Political Equator traces an imaginary line along the US–Mexico border that extends directly across the world atlas, forming a corridor of global conflict between the 30 and 35 degrees north parallel [1].

map of contentious regions along the earth's equator

The Political Equator traces an imaginary line along the United States–Mexico continental border that extends directly across a world map, forming a corridor of global conflict between the 30 and 35 degrees north parallel that includes some of the world’s most contested border regions. Courtesy of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman.

The Political Equator Meetings were designed as nomadic urban actions and debates that traverse diverse sites in San Diego and Tijuana, and serve as evidentiary platforms to reorient debates among diverse publics, including local, national, and international activists, scholars and researchers, artists, architects and urbanists, politicians, border patrol, and other community stakeholders. A central aim is to link two marginalized neighborhoods adjacent to the checkpoint: San Ysidro, on the US side (the first immigrant neighborhood into the United States) and the Los Laureles canyon settlement on the periphery of Tijuana (the last slum in Latin America, home to 85,000 people, built right up against the US border wall).

The most emblematic public action of the Political Equator Meetings took place in June 2011 in the shape of an unprecedented public border-crossing through a sewage drain underneath a section of the border wall recently built by Homeland Security, located at the precise collision with the informal settlement and the Tijuana Estuary, an environmental zone on the US side. Because the slum is located topographically higher than the estuary, industrial and urban waste flows north in this case and has accelerated since 9/11 after Homeland Security dammed the canyons that cross the border in order to build a new border patrol highway. Crossing at this critical juncture enabled the audience to slip uninterrupted through an infrastructure of surveillance from the estuary in San Diego into the slum in Tijuana.

This unorthodox crossing resulted from a long process of negotiation with US Homeland Security and Mexican Immigration, who agreed to transform the drain into an official port of entry for twenty-four hours.

As part of the Cross-Border Drain Public Performance, a Mexican immigration station awaits people at the south end of the tunnel to stamp their passports. After crossing the border drain into Mexico, participants walk toward the Tijuana slum. Courtesy of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman.

As participants of the crossing moved southbound under the wall, against the natural flow of slum wastewater contaminating the estuary, we reached the Mexican immigration officers who had pitched an improvisational tent on the south side of the drain, inside Mexican territory. The strange juxtaposition of pollution seeping into the environmental zone, the stamping of passports inside this liminal space, and the passage from pristine estuary to slum under a militarized culvert amplified the region’s most profound contradictions: Can border regions be the laboratories to reimagine citizenship beyond the nationstate? Can a cross-border public be mobilized around shared environmental interests between these two divided cities?

The Political Equator demonstrated the urgency of coordinated action between these two border communities. Can we shift our gaze from the border wall and into the slum? Can this poor Mexican informal settlement be the protector of the rich Tijuana River Estuary in the United States?

Cross-Border Citizens

When Antanas Mockus became mayor of violent Bogotá, Colombia, in the late nineties, he opposed conventional law-and-order tactics of urban control and intervened instead into what he called “citizenship culture.” He insisted that before transforming the city physically, we must first transform social norms and mutual expectations among citizens.

InfoSite was a nomadic public space and cultural reference library built for the Cross-Border arts project inSite 05.

InfoSite was a nomadic public space and cultural reference library built for the Cross-Border arts project inSite 05. Courtesy of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman.

Mockus declared these values emphatically: that human life is sacred, that violence is intolerable, that radical inequality is unjust, that adequate education and health are human rights—and he mobilized a corresponding urban pedagogy of performative interventions to demonstrate precisely what he meant, inspiring generations of civic actors, urbanists, and artists across Latin America and the world to think more creatively about “citizenship culture.”

In 2013, we brought Mockus to the border region to witness the wall that separates the United States from Latin America and to help us cultivate a new cross-border public agenda around shared values and common interests across two divided cities. Mockus was eager to explore citizenship in the United States, where the designation is frequently used as a divisive tool to separate and marginalize people. With Mockus and his Bogotá-based NGO Corpovisionarios, we produced the Binational Citizenship Culture Survey, an instrument to measure “citizenship culture” in the San Diego–Tijuana border region. Corpovisionarios has now applied its Citizenship Culture Survey in more than thirty cities across Latin America, and recently in Europe [2], developing an impressive database of comparative urban research. Our survey would engage not just one city on its own, but two border cities. It would be responsive to the needs, challenges, and aspirations of this distinctive, binational region. While the purpose of the survey is to identify common agendas within divided publics, we were determined to promote a new era of cross-border public self-knowledge and collaboration on concrete public works in the years to come.

Living Rooms at the Border is an affordable-housing project developed with Casa Familiar in the border neighborhood of San Ysidro in San Diego, California. Diverse housing types and economies are embedded in an infrastructure of socioeconomic and cultural programming.

Living Rooms at the Border is an affordable-housing project developed with Casa Familiar in the border neighborhood of San Ysidro in San Diego, California. Diverse housing types and economies are embedded in an infrastructure of socioeconomic and cultural programming. Courtesy of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman.

The most exciting finding of the survey was, in fact, that the public on both sides of the border trust each other and want more cooperation on a variety of public issues than anyone realized. Reimagining the border through the logic of shared interests and common trust is the foremost challenge for the future of this binational region and for other divided regions across the United States and the globe. A community is always in dialogue with its immediate social and ecological environment; this is what defines its political nature. But when this relationship is disrupted and the productive capacity of the community is splintered by the ways in which jurisdictional power is instituted, it is necessary to find a means of recuperating its agency. This is the space of intervention that design needs to engage today. This cannot occur without expanding our conventional modes of practice and research, making design a political field and a cognitive system that can build collective capacity for political agency and action at local and global scales, in pursuit of a renewed public culture and civic imagination.

Teddy Cruz is a Professor of Public Culture and Urbanization in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. Fonna Forman is a Professor of Political Theory and Founding Director of Center on Global Justice at the University of California, San Diego. Together, Cruz & Forman direct the UCSD Cross-Border Initiative and are principals in Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman, with work represented in the exhibition By the People: Designing a Better America.


[1] Along this border encircling the globe lie some of the world’s most contested thresholds: the US–Mexico border at Tijuana–San Diego, the most intensified portal for immigration from Latin America to the United States; the Strait of Gibraltar, where waves of migration flow from North African into Europe; the Israeli-Palestinian border that divides the Middle East, along with the embattled frontiers of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This global border is ultimately not a “flat line” but a critical threshold that bends, fragments, and stretches in order to reveal other sites of conflict worldwide—other radical localities distributed across the continents from which to imagine new forms of governance and urbanization.

[2] Internationally: México City, Belo Horizonte, Caracas, La Paz, Quito, Monterrey, Uruguay, Asunción, Stockholm, Panamá, República Dominicana, San Diego, Tijuana. In Colombia: Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, Barrancabermeja, Neiva, Pereira, Yopal, Barranquilla, Popayán, Bucaramanga, Riohacha, Santa Marta, Ibagué, Valledupar, Arauca, Villavicencio, Cúcuta, Quibdó, San Andrés, Cali, Buenaventura, Tunja, 25 smaller municipios across Colombia.

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