Efforts to create a 6.3 mile park straddling the Rio Grande River that reconnects Laredo, Texas, with Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, have taken a major step forward with the announcement that San Antonio firms Overland Partners and Able City have been chosen to design the park.

The idea was first floated late last year, as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar, U.S. Consul General for Nuevo Laredo Deanna Kim, Mexico Ambassador Esteban Moctezuma and other officials brainstormed ways to celebrate the relationship between the two Laredos and their shared river.

City officials from both Laredos unanimously approved the hiring of Overland Partners and Able City, which have already created renderings of what the proposed park might look like. While the project doesn’t yet have funding, architects from both firms referred to this first stage as the seed, which should grow into fruition over the next several decades.

Rick Archer, architect and founding partner of Overland, said the proposed Binational River Park at the Rio Grande-Rio Bravo should be thought of as “a connector, much like the San Antonio River Walk,” which links the city’s five missions to downtown and the Museum Reach.

The binational river park, he said, will also serve as a connector between the various cultural and natural destinations on both sides of the border.

San Antonio is acting as more than just inspiration for the proposed river park. Salazar invited Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other San Antonio officials to meet with the border cities to describe how improvements to the San Antonio River became a catalyst for economic development; last month, a delegation from Laredo spent a full day in the Alamo City meeting with river experts, including the San Antonio River Authority.

In January 2021, construction of a Trump Administration-era barrier wall being built on the southwest border was halted via an executive order from the Biden White House, paving the way for the park plan to continue.

After the design team spoke to existing committees of officials from both sides of the border, they agreed on five themes to drive the design of the park: restoring and revitalizing the river’s ecosystem, attracting culture and tourists, improving the local economy, reinforcing security and building a bi-national community.

Or rebuilding, as the case may be.

“This was one city until the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848,” said Frank Rotnofsky, architect and co-founder of Able City. “The idea of having this one place for both countries for both cities, it’s not new to Laredo. It’s very old. But it is a beautiful way of bringing it back with this park.”

The first theme, restoring and revitalizing the river’s ecosystem, may present the biggest challenge.

“Right now, Nuevo Laredo is dumping millions of gallons of effluent into the river every day, and as a result, the river is filthy,” said Archer. As a result of that pollution, long stretches of the river’s banks are completely denuded of native vegetation. In its place, an invasive species called carrizo cane has taken over. The tall plants also reduce visibility, interfering with security.  

Native habitat will have to be restored, Archer said.

“We’re talking about one of the most important habitats in the world for birds and butterflies. … Eliminating the carrizo cane as a part of this initiative will restore native plant species habitat and improve visibility and security on both sides of the border,” he said. 

Overland and Able City are also integrating roadways and trails into their design to help improve movement across the river. 

“For the people who live there, it means they can enjoy the Rio Grande on both sides,” Archer said. For La Guardia, Mexico’s border security force, it means creating a pathway to secure the border and to make sure both sides are safe.

By creating the park, where biking and strolling is possible, with areas for fiestas (parties) and marketplaces, Archer said healthy activity should help drive out illegal activity. 

Other plans to attract culture and tourists include soccer fields, playgrounds and a national amphitheater shared by people in both nations. 

Improvements to the existing bridges are also envisioned, so people from both nations can gather without documentation or having to go through customs. 

It could be, Archer said, a way to “reunite families that had been separated for decades.” 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is receptive to the idea, said Barbara Warren, architect at Overland, although there are many security details that would need to be hashed out.

Both Laredos would like to break ground on some part of the project before the end of the year, according to Archer. The firms are working with both cities and other potential partners to fund the project. While the cost is yet unknown, the economic impact of a completed park could run into “the billions,” he said.

“I think this is a project that has the potential to truly impact the world, being the first of its kind,” Archer said. “As we continue to think about design as a way to address some of the biggest challenges that we face in the world, whether they be ecological, environmental, economic, or social, that this part can be a real model of how design can be a game changer for communities around the world.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this story misstated Able City’s headquarters. The firm is based in San Antonio, and has an office in Laredo. Also, Overland Partners’ Rick Archer said the economic impact of the completed park, not the cost to construct it, could run into “the billions.”

Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.