American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2006 Student Awards
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This design utilizes landscape entropy and states of indeterminacy as tools in which to design ephemeral spaces within the terrain vague of the El Paso - Juarez international border.
Policies designed to deter undocumented immigration such as Operation "Hold the Line" and "Operation Gatekeeper" have increased the physical size of the border between border cities, creating a unique, substantial landscape.
The international border between Juarez and El Paso shifted over time due to changes in the path of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. Border fluctuations have left a massive void between the two cities that persists to this day: a marginalized terrain vague.
The river is released from the concrete channel and meanders along innumerable pathways over time. This process creates an ever fluctuating edge and activates layers of entropic occupation.  
Numerous dams upstream from the El Paso - Juarez site regulate flows of the river for occasional flooding. In conjunction with seasonal storm events, the river expands and contracts: a process requiring cooperation from both sides of the border.
Elevated highways criss-crossing the site provide opportunities for transient occupations. An International migratory festival occurs once a year when the river runs dry. Border patrol routes shift along parallel pathways at the waters edge.
Freed from the confines of the concrete liner, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo once again sinks into the floodplain after a 30 year absence. The re-introduction of water gives rise to riparian ecosystems including bosques, tall grass meadows and wetlands.
At times when the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo runs drydue to overdraw, drought, or intentional storing of water in upstream dams, the "border" disappears. Contemporary festivals (such as county fairs and Burning Man) will experiment with how the marginal space can be temporarily occupied.

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Inundating the Border: Migrating the Line
Brett Milligan, Student ASLA
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Faculty Advisor(s): Sue Anne Ware

"Powerful and illuminating--well done! A truly provocative idea."

— 2006 Student Awards Jury Comments

This design explores how time, entropy and indeterminacy can be used to design a marginalized urban space. Specifically, the project targets the condition of border and migration between Mexico and the United States. How can the border be designed as a fluctuating space, and how can this fluctuation approach the condition of migration?

History and Context: The Expanding US-Mexico Border
In the past 150 years, the US--Mexico border has changed from an invisible and unmapped line into a 2,500 mile frontier region with a unique set of economic, social, and spatial conditions. Perhaps the most remarkable phenomena are the exponential growth of twin cities along the border, and the thickening and expansion of the border itself. Border cities, such as El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, are linked together by an intricate network of global economic forces, yet they are physically and politically separated. Habitation within these cities is often improvisational as infrastructures cannot keep pace with the steady influx of more people.

In spite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1992), which has allowed for the relatively free flow of goods and services between the two nations, the border -barrier has become more pronounced. The United States in particular has attempted to deter undocumented/illegal immigration through policies such as “Operation Hold-The-Line” between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. This policy has added multiple layers of chain-link fences, floodlights and armed surveillance to the border, thus increasing the width of the border and creating a “no-man’s land” , or third entity between the two cities. The border space between Juarez and El Paso is both urban void and terrain vague. People meander through the space and there are very few built structures. Aerial photographs confirm the presence of a large expanse between the two cities that is a direct result of changes and fluctuations in the border.

As it has become harder to cross the US-Mexico border near border towns, undocumented migrants have been forced to cross in the open desert, where many die from heat exhaustion, exposure, hypothermia, dehydration. In 2004, nearly 400 migrants were estimated to have died trying to cross the border.

The Next Fluctuation: Ephemeral Occupations

In a 1962 agreement between the United States and Mexico, the river border between Juarez and El Paso was moved and stabilized within a concrete channel. This change left a void in the urban fabric between Juarez and El Paso that still exists today.
This design proposal utilizes the urban void created by historical shifts of the border between Juarez and El Paso as an opportunity to redesign the border as a fluctuating, indeterminate space. This process begins by releasing the Rio Grande (the border by treaty definition) from the concrete channel, thus allowing flows of the river to meander through the floodplain, constantly changing the precise location and thickness of the border. Through time (daily, seasonal, and mechanistic) the river shifts, migrates, floods and runs dry, and these processes create entire spaces of migration in which all elements—the ground plane, ecologies, and human occupation are transitional and constantly changing.

What the border is one day is different from what it may be tomorrow. The space becomes a series of momentary events in constant flux that will never repeat in the exact same way.


Water fluctuation through the space is controlled through the existing array of upstream infrastructures that include a series of dams, reservoirs and diversion channels. Additionally, the space serves as a massive retention basin for storm events, enabling run-off from the expanding twin cities of El Paso and Juarez to collect at the topological seam between them. One day the river is a gentle stream…calm, tranquil, and the next it is a torrent as powerful as the economic shifts that cause people to migrate.

Human occupation of the border will vary with the processes of the river and the ecologies that emerge. Border patrols are saved from boredom by the necessity of shifting the ground they patrol depending upon the shifting width of the border space. When the river runs dry, the edge disappears all-together and people can exit and enter the border space at will. The seam is closed and the abstraction of the line is revealed through its disappearance. At these times international festivals occur on the border ‘island’ that flood the space with people from all over the world. The border is alive, improvised, irreverent, and jubilant.

Emergent/Divergent Ecologies
The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo is a polluted and dying river. Strictly regulated flows and concrete channels engineered in the 1960s have eliminated much of the riparian habitat along its banks. Industries on both sides of the border dump heavy metals, and runoff from irrigated fields increases the alkalinity of the water.

If the Rio Grande is released from the concrete channel, it will once again penetrate into the ground, and create a diversity of habitats, such as bosques, meadows and wetlands that will begin to reclaim the river through regenerative natural processes. These environments will emerge and migrate with the fluctuations of the river, creating places that are never the same.

Indeterminacy and Time
As the river shifts courses, an abandoned channel becomes a tall grass meadow where a migrant spends the nigh, and the next day the river floods and the meadow lies beneath the swiftly moving current. During a particularly dry year, the space becomes part of the oscillating border patrol pathways. Years later, riparian trees have reached maturity and the meadow becomes a shady bosque.


Years from now patches of riparian forest will reach maturity and the path of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo will have shifted its placement in the floodplain between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.
The existing concrete channel and chain-link fences that were used to confine the river are demolished and reconfigured into gabion structures. What was a mechanism of environmental and political domination becomes an element of de-controlling the space.
Without gabions or the confinement of a concrete channel, the Rio Grande migrates through the open border expanse between Juarez and El Paso.
Fluctuating Border section as seen through time.
Fluctuating Border section as seen through time.
Plant systems will emerge that respond to the new riparian conditions introduced into the border space. A hybridization will occur between native and naturalized species that will colonize the environment through uncontrollable patterns of migration.
The fluctuating border diagram inserted into a gallery space.
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