The Advanced Design Landscape Architecture, Architecture, and Urban Design Studio “Integral Cities for the Tamaulipas Border Region: Infrastructure for Rapid Urbanization” originates due to a research grant provided to the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at the School of Architecture from the State Government of Tamaulipas, Mexico, to research best practices in architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and urban planning, in the context of the recently enacted “Energy Reform” by the Mexican Federal Government. This reform opens Mexico’s energy, hydrocarbons and renewables, to private investment; before the reform only the state managed and exploited the country’s energy resources. In the case of Tamaulipas this reform could have a significant impact due to the presence of largely untapped shale deposits and wind energy potential. Important urban growth and development is expected in the Tamaulipas Border Region once the reform starts to encourage private investment in these energy rich areas. For the moment, low oil and gas prices have discouraged investment, but, as history demonstrates this is likely to change in the near to mid-range future.
Hydrocarbons contained in shale formations are extracted through non-conventional methods otherwise known as “fracking”, short for Hydraulic Fracturing. The environmental risks posed by this extraction method are well known. These risks are mitigated in the overall recommendations by the UT Austin research team which also included a transportation study and a water study both developed by specialized teams at the School of Engineering. In the case of the Urban Development study executed at the School of Architecture, the studio accepted to work under the premise of a well managed extraction process, focused on sound and safe environmentally conscious practices, regulated by law by the Mexican Federal Government, including water recycling, treatment, and reuse. Accepting and working with this condition, the main question then was how to leverage the economic boom to be produced by the new energy extraction activities to invest in an urban infrastructure with social and environmental capacities conducive to sustainable growth and a diversified economy where old and new inhabitants can decide to continue to stay or settle down.
The answer to this question is shaped by 3 essential themes to restructure Ciudad Miguel Aleman, a case study border town within the shale and wind region of Tamaulipas. This town is also a regional commerce and service center known as the “frontera chica” or the “small border” due to its central location on the border line between the larger towns of Nuevo Laredo-Laredo and Reynosa-McAllen. Ciudad Miguel Aleman is also a “sister city” with Roma, Texas, and both are connected by an international port of entry in the form of a bridge over the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo (as it is known in Mexico). The 3 themes are:
1. The Energyscape: where the opportunities to intensify the interactions between territorial energy infrastructure (wind and shale access roads and conduction lines) with water and agriculture were explored. Typically, energy related infrastructure is laid over the landscape with little regard to the capacity to reshape ecosystems services such as water collection/distribution and agriculture. The resulting territorial scale design was developed with the premise to minimize the impact on the natural environment, enhancing cost efficiency, and the signification of human engagement with the energy of the land (energyscape). Energy infrastructure, like most other infrastructural systems, can perform more than just one function. In the case of the territory of Ciudad Miguel Aleman, the road network required to access, build, and extract hydrocarbons is paired with water conduction lines and made multi-functional by proposing the overlaying of wind turbines within the fracking wells. While the scale of the well and wind fields is different, the vastness of these systems allows for the matching of their specific functional requirements. This network also realigns water management by redefining micro-watersheds that harvest rainwater supporting agricultural activities made safe by the separation and reuse-treatment of water employed in the extraction process.
2. A hybrid urban structure: based on the integration of mobility and transportation with the existing natural and artificial drainage-ways of the urban area of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. This strategy relinks urban systems with the natural realm through irrigation canals, creeks and rivers of various scales, all the way to the Rio Grande/Bravo. These green corridors become then urban amenities with both recreational and social capacities while enhancing the delivery of ecosystem services and the recovery of natural habitat. Additionally, these corridors are used as flood mitigation infrastructure as the lower parts of the urban area, close to the Rio Grande/Bravo, are subject to seasonal flooding due to urbanization and the construction of pervious areas upstream. It is important to mention that this network should mitigate the loss of habitat for various endangered and migratory bird species.
3. Neighborhood Structure: in the urban center of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. The construction and drilling of hydrocarbon wellfields need a significant proportion of temporary workers and then transition to a less labor demanding phase during the extraction phase. These populations have been known to have a significant social impact on the local population, unfortunately, most of the time a negative impact as crime, violence, drug consumption, and prostitution typically rise. Most of the population of Ciudad Miguel Aleman lives in the central core. By leveraging the additional taxed income coming from the construction of energy infrastructure and its productive process, the city has a unique opportunity to retrofit existing neighborhoods with an infrastructure that links housing areas with the hybrid urban structure connecting to a larger public and environmental system. This retrofit includes the construction of small scale green infrastructure to enhance the spatial quality of streets and barrios while connecting these to the larger amenities found on the green corridor system and the Rio Grande/Bravo.
These 3 themes were understood as components of the larger project for the Ciudad Miguel Aleman region and were produced by a multi-disciplinary team of graduate and undergraduate students. They were Travis Scheider, Dominic Sargent, Bernardo Jimenez, and Nadia Aseeva from the undergraduate architecture program; Quan Yin from the graduate landscape architecture program; and Shiva Jabarnia from the graduate program in urban design.