It all begins with the river. Without the river, there is no park. Without the river, there is no Laredo, Texas, or Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. The health of the largest inland port in North America located along the U.S.-Mexico border depends on the health of this river, known as the Rio Grande to those in the United States and as Río Bravo to their counterparts in Mexico. The inhabitants of this community — both human and nonhuman alike — depend on the stability of this fragile ecosystem, which stems from one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the world.
A binational working group was established in December 2021 that solicited the design of a conservation park that embraces the riverbanks of both nations. This major undertaking included the collaboration of ambassadors, elected officials, and stakeholders, as well as local, regional, and national advocates. San Antonio-based firm Overland Partners, along with Able City serving as their design partner and local liaison to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, was selected for concept design.
“When we got started with the working group and all the people that came together, everybody agreed from the very beginning that without a clean river, there was no reason to talk about a park,” says Frank Rotnofsky, AIA, principal and vice president of Able City. “That was the priority. Everyone understood that.” The park concept design is the first step toward community engagement and securing funding for the endeavor.
Several themes prevail throughout the project. Foremost is the goal of conservation — restoration and revitalization of the river’s ecosystem. Security and safety are another priority, addressed by putting eyes on the park and, ultimately, on the river. The project also enhances and diversifies the local economy and celebrates a culture that has been shared between both cities for centuries, represented in the annual abrazo (hug) ceremony performed at the beginning of the annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration as a symbol of these ties of friendship. Ultimately, at its heart, the project supports and celebrates this binational community.
“It’s a really profound act to say we’re going to work in two nations and actually respect the watershed in a way that will bring benefit to both of us,” says Rick Archer, FAIA, founding partner and principal at Overland Partners. “When we think about what has happened to what was one nation becoming not just two cities and two nations, but ultimately really separated from one another with a river in between, it is the total antithesis of what our forefathers and foremothers thought about the river. They saw it as being the heart of it, not the divider between the two. And so the park really goes back and reclaims an identity that has been there between the two Laredos for generations.”
The park’s 6.2-mile linear path begins in the northwest at Laredo’s Water Museum, which lies adjacent to a water treatment plant. From there it extends to an elbow comprising native wilderness and arroyos, an ecological preservation and protection zone defined by trails and green spaces where one can explore nature organically. It boasts a rich ecosystem — with relatively clean water — that is a primary habitat for migratory birds and butterflies.
Beyond this elbow, the first signs of distress begin. Effluent water is present; erosion and siltation are problematic; invasive species have taken hold. The river becomes shallower, speeding up the rate of evaporation for this threatened resource. “As a conservation project, an essential part of the park’s role is to help manage water,” says Archer, and this presents a design challenge that will draw upon the expertise of landscape architects OLIN and engineers from ARUP, as well as Crane Engineering and local biologist Dr. Tom Vaughan. The Laredo team also worked with a team from Nuevo Laredo that includes the Secretaría de Obras Públicas, Desarrollo Urbano y Medio Ambiente (Secretary of Public Works, Urban Development, and the Environment) and Grupo SILA.
After passing under the international railway bridge, yet another world emerges as the river begins to interact with the urban core of both cities. A binational amphitheater is planned between the railroad bridge and Bridge One with a series of more urban interventions.
The park culminates at the Nuevo Laredo Zoo to the southeast. In this sector, the design gives way to a recreation zone with playing fields that allow the community to activate the park. “We see the creeks on both the Mexican side and the U.S. side as fingers that bring in the community and connect the neighborhoods down into the river park system,” says Viviana Frank, principal and president of Able City.
The binational park is approximately 1,000 acres, evenly split with 500 acres on each side. “It really is connecting north to south, urban to suburban, country to country so it actually acts as a connecting tendon to various parts of both cities,” says Archer.
The river is the most important lifeline for both Laredos. “Everything you see about the park serves a purpose in this case — far beyond recreation, far beyond cultural binds,” says Frank. “As the city’s only water resource, which must be preserved for future generations, the park is a system that filters water runoff and mitigates erosion and water evaporation.” The park’s economic impact on land, water, and health is worth billions of dollars, in addition to the impact on private investment and ecotourism.
The project also deals with complex social issues. “On a micro level, culture is created when people have shared behavior that then begins to influence the way we act, and we begin to work in a symphony with one another,” says Archer, “Our role as designers is to create a physical place where that actually can happen.”
Telissa Lueckenotte Molano, AIA, is a principal at Redline Architecture and co-founder of Laredo Cultural District.