Cross-Border Community Stations Foster Civic Architectures
By Melanie R. Ball
Since 2012, architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman (both UCSD professors) have confronted sociopolitical and environmental challenges in the San Diego-Tijuana border region through their cross-border design concept, Community Stations. This case study examines the co-production taking place in the “informal” urban settlements of Los Laureles, a canyon on the periphery of Tijuana, MX, where two of the four “cross-border” stations are sited. The development of these two stations, named UCSD-ALACRÁN and UCSD-DIVINA, takes place in partnership with local grassroots organizations from within the Los Laureles settlement. Here in Los Laureles, Haitian and Central American refugees have maintained communities and devised their own civic infrastructures all while caught in the standstill of rejection from either side of the adjacent US-Mexico border.
While Community Stations consist of four stations in four sites on both sides of the US-Mexico Border, the partnerships are particular to the goals and needs of each locality. UCSD-DIVINA involves co-production between an existing nonprofit, Colonos de la Divina Providencia and UCSD (see figure 1). The project involves a multiplicity of actors (students, youth, researchers, community leaders, UCSD faculty, designers, artists, local residents, mentors) who are recognized for holding “relevant knowledge to address and characterize sustainable development challenges” (Osuteye et al., 2019: 5). This breadth of perspective is essential to co-production’s potential as “one pathway to develop spaces for learning and cross-institutional reflection… in the spirit of more sustainable urban transformations” (Osuteye et. al., 2019: 5). UCSD-DIVINA is expected to “increase [Colonos de la Divina Providencia’s] capacity for social, economic, environmental, and cultural programming” in the neighborhood of Divina Providencia, thus affirming and recognizing the distinct characteristics of this neighborhood rather than homogenizing refugees’ experiences…or risking reinforcing “social structures that exclude some social groups and reinforce vulnerabilities” (Rigon and Castán Broto, 2021: 1-2). In the spirit of co-production, UCSD-DIVINA does not claim to raise any particular voice in the community to a higher position of power nor to elevate the nonprofit as a governance entity.
Yet Cruz and Forman do not suggest they are working from a neutral position. They see themselves as mediators between “top-down resources and bottom-up urban and political intelligence[,]” and they recognize that this type of intervention “requires transforming physical public space into a flexible and adaptable site for knowledge production… where citizenship is constructed through cultural mobilization” (Cruz and Forman, 2020). They criticize formal, nation-based citizenship conventions that render invisible the human rights of refugees who settle and self-organize beyond government-recognized urban infrastructure. In an interview with Gagosian Quarterly, Forman describes Colonos de la Divina Providencia as located across the street from Primario Basilio Badillo, an “overcrowded, and underfunded primary school,” thus functioning as a community center dedicated to “very basic needs: food, senior services, a weekly health clinic” (Gordon and Rubin, 2020: 43) (figure 2). Upon construction of the Community Station, the partnership will transform Colonos de la Divina Providencia from a provider of basic health services into “a genuine civic hub for that community… [reimagining] a more permanent infrastructure of inclusion and economic self-reliance” (Gordon and Rubin, 2020: 43).
This socio-spatial transformation of UCSD-DIVINA encapsulates an attempt at co-production of more permanent community space between a “formal” US institution and members of an “informal” settlement (figure 3). The co-production is premised on cultivating a long-term, self-sustaining community without imposing outside “solutions” to “fix” the everyday life of the Divina Providencia community. UCSD-DIVINA thus privileges forms of self-governance happening at a community scale: what scholars Nunbogu et. al. (2018: 33) have termed “a ‘collective action’ led by actors (e.g., individuals, communities, non-governmental organisations) guided by some form of internal coordination in informal structures” as opposed to the “‘planned intention’ guided by formal rules” in spatial planning. At UCSD-DIVINA, the “planned intention” of constructing the community station stems from a co-production process that “aims to combine the provision of public goods/services needed and the empowerment of mutually supportive communities that could influence policy to meet their needs” (Nunbogu et. al., 2018: 33).
However, rather than approach Community Stations as a replicable planning model, it is more productive to critically evaluate it as a springboard for potentially fairer methodologies in co-production. The planning perspective taken at UCSD-DIVINA supports the Divina Providencia neighborhood by dedicating sustainable yet flexible space for the community to continue exercising an alternative mode of citizenship. Miraftab (2009: 35) concisely describes informal settlements as “the material expressions of poor citizens’ insurgency.” UCSD-DIVINA offers physical infrastructure for an existing community organization, but it also offers potential for the community at large to further constitute itself, and for residents to express insurgent citizenship. The plans for UCSD-DIVINA reject normative notions of citizenship that assume refugees live in constant crises and placelessness, a perspective the planning discipline should consider when determining how much or how little intervention is appropriate or co-productive (figure 4).
By reconceptualizing the role of citizenship formations in co-productive planning with community actors, Community Stations ultimately prompts questions of responsibility vs. accountability in planning practice. As Ananya Roy (2006: 25) writes, the “formal profession of planning, I would argue, pays attention to responsibility but not accountability. … In the time of empire, it is not enough to be responsible. It is also necessary to be accountable.” Perhaps Community Stations is not responsible for fostering cross-border citizenship but rather accountable to an alternative mode of place- and community-based citizenship arising in Los Laureles. In this co-productive planning model, the external planner is de-centered as the sole expert responsible for an intervention and instead assumes accountability to the community. To pursue such accountable forms of planning, the planner’s responsibility might lie in recognizing community-based citizenship formations that result from self-governance. This, in turn, means letting go of pre-conceived planning outcomes revolving around replacing and re-organizing existing community structures.
Building façade (top) and community space (bottom), pictured in 2017, at the current home of the Colonos de la Divina Providencia nonprofit where UCSD-DIVINA temporarily operates. Source
2016 model of UCSD-DIVINA exhibited in By the People: Designing for a Better America, on view at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, September 30, 2016–February 26, 2017. Source
Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman’s 2020 rendering for the future 24,000 ft2 of civic space envisioned for UCSD-DIVINA. Source