A planned bike trail in Matamoros, Mexico, would connect with trails in the U.S. city of Brownsville, linking cultural districts on both sides of the border. Photo courtesy of Matamoros Planning Commission.
A planned bike trail in Matamoros, Mexico, would connect with trails in the U.S. city of Brownsville, linking cultural districts on both sides of the border. Photo courtesy of Matamoros Planning Commission.

BROWNSVILLE, United States and MATAMOROS, Mexico – The international border between these two cities is marked by the winding waters of the Rio Grande and fortified by a tall rust-color fence. But Mauricio Ibarra prefers to think of the two sides as one.

Ibarra is planning director for the city of Matamoros. Every morning, he drives his silver Jeep across the B&M Bridge from his home in Brownsville to his office on the Mexico side of the border. Born in Matamoros, he’s one of 12,000 workers who shuttle back and forth across this part of the border each day.

Lately, Ibarra has been thinking a lot about a bicycle trail on the U.?S. side. Known as Linear Park, the eight-mile trail follows the path of an abandoned rail line before ending in a pleasant green space in Brownsville’s revitalized downtown. The park anchors a cultural district that includes an art museum, restored historic buildings, and a zoo. On weekends, it’s the gathering area for the local farmer’s market. “They really have done it well,” Ibarra says.

Ibarra thinks Matamoros could do something similar – something that would connect his two hometowns in an exciting new way.

A couple of years ago, Union Pacific railroad relocated a route that had crossed over the B&M Bridge, abandoning tracks on both sides of the border. Ibarra wants to turn the tracks and a switching yard on the Mexico side into a bike trail and park that would anchor Matamoros’ own cultural district of museums, music schools, and theater spaces.

What’s more, he’d like to see the bike path cross over the bridge and link up with routes on the U.?S. side. If he and his counterparts in Brownsville can pull it off, the result would be a truly international innovation: a two-country urban arts district connected by a bicycle trail.

This is an unusual initiative for a border zone better known for crime, illegal immigration, and political controversy. Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee in the American presidential race, proposes to build a much longer wall along the U.?S. border with Mexico – and make Mexico pay for it.

But at the local level, city officials in Brownsville and Matamoros are moving in the opposite direction. They’re working on identifying common problems and opportunities and looking for ways to cooperate. Ibarra’s rail-trail is just one example. From fighting crime to promoting economic development to combating Zika virus, local officials in these two cities increasingly see their fates tied together.

One day last month, Ibarra visited with Ruth Osuna, Brownsville’s assistant city manager in charge of downtown revitalization. Perusing an aerial map on Google Earth, they noted how their two urban renewal projects practically touch each other – despite the border. “Their project ends where ours begins,” said Osuna.

“Everybody is trying to separate us,” she continued.  “But we keep coming together.”

Sister cities

Brownsville and Matamoros have always had a complex and intertwined relationship. Brownsville was an outpost for the U.?S. Army during the Mexican-American War; the first battle was fought near here. When the war ended in 1848, it left Texas in American hands and established the Rio Grande as its border with Mexico. Later, during the American Civil War, Matamoros became a key route for the Confederate Army to smuggle out cotton and other goods to sell in Europe.

Today, Brownsville’s economy relies on the resorts of nearby beaches, as well as a deepwater port that links to the Gulf of Mexico. Matamoros is home to many factories called maquiladoras, which employ 50,000 people and ship some goods out through Brownsville’s port. Considered as one metropolitan area, Brownsville, Matamoros, and the suburbs of both cities comprise more than 1.1 million people.

In October, officials from the two cities will present at the U.?N.’s Habitat III conference on cities in Quito, Ecuador. They’ll offer a case study of a “conurbated’ metropolis – an urban region made up of many cities and towns where jurisdictional boundaries can complicate decision making. The latest draft of the “New Urban Agenda” nations will agree to in Quito calls for encouraging “synergies and interactions among urban areas of all sizes … including those that are cross-border.”

(Get Citiscope’s weekly updates on Habitat III here)

In Brownsville and Matamoros, synergies have mostly happened informally through conversations between officials like Ibarra and Osuna. Talking face-to-face isn’t easy: for safety reasons, Brownsville city employees are not allowed to travel to Matamoros on official business.

But Pablo Aguilar has been working with both cities to explore how they can strengthen and formalize their ties. Aguilar is the head of a Mexico City think tank called the National Urban Jurisprudence Association. In January, he launched a set of meetings called “Urban Labs,” where Brownsville and Matamoros officials discuss common problems and ways they might tackle them together.

There are many problems that fit the category. Matamoros’ air pollution is Brownsville’s air pollution. A surge in gang-related crimes in Matamoros in recent years – it’s subsided some – has been a concern on both sides of the border. Traffic congestion and mobility at border crossings is a common problem. So is public health, especially with new concerns about mosquitoes transmitting Zika virus. While Brownsville shreds discarded tires in its landfill, tire dumps in Matamoros are notorious for providing mosquitoes plenty of standing water where they can breed.

The first Urban Lab meeting identified some of these common challenges, though nothing was decided. At a second meeting in September, officials hope to discuss ways to coordinate their approaches and possibly even their local governance structures. One idea up for consideration is whether Brownsville might have a member of its planning commission sit on the planning commission in Matamoros – and vice versa.

Aguilar thinks some kind of binational legal framework is needed to allow for better local government coordination across the border. It’s tricky terrain, however. Both cities have state governments to answer to – Texas in Brownsville’s case and Tamaulipas for Matamoros. There’s the national governments, of course. And there’s also international agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which govern some aspects of waste management, air pollution, and joint preparedness for environmental response.

Rails to trails

Ibarra has a good view of things from both sides of the border. As a young man, he worked at his father’s bar in downtown Matamoros, checking identification cards to make sure patrons were old enough to drink alcohol. The bar was popular with Americans, who had to be 21 to drink in Brownsville but could do so at 18 in Matamoros.

Ibarra, who is now 40, has family in Brownsville. Five years ago, after surviving a kidnapping, he moved to Brownsville again so that his children could go to schools there. Though the security situation in Matamoros has improved, Ibarra continues to live in the U.?S. and work in Mexico. The commute makes him a bit like a bee, flying back and forth pollinating ideas on both sides of the border.

Inspired by Brownsville’s downtown revitalization, Ibarra hopes the new park, bike trail and cultural district in Matamoros can bring back some of the tourism business that vanished with the crime wave. Ibarra says the new park will be a secure place because its bike trails will loop around the grounds of a new U.?S. consulate complex; security in the area will be under the control of the U.?S. Marines Embassy Corps.

It also would bring lots of benefits to Matamoros’ residents. A neighborhood of abandoned warehouses and boarded-up houses, currently isolated between the Rio Grande and the train tracks, will be reconnected to the city. There will be new green space, recreation opportunities, and mobility options. At the border crossing, which often backs up with cars headed into the U.?S., there would be a new way across – by bike.

Earlier plans did not look so good. The initial concept was to replace the train tracks with a six-lane freeway that would cut across downtown Matamoros to the B&M Bridge. Its construction would have bulldozed parts of Colonia Jardin, a historic neighborhood with lots of mid-century modern homes.

But Ibarra took it upon himself to undo the freeway plans. After several months of lobbying, he got local officials to reduce the number of highway lanes to two. Ibarra’s colleague Xochitl Marmolejo Garcia, a planner in charge of mobility in his office, dreamed up the idea of building a bike path and keeping the old railroad track alongside it as a design treatment. “We had been talking about promoting mobility other than the automobile,” says Marmolejo. “Our new plan was born.”

Ibarra also lobbied the Matamoros arts and business communities to join the project, and the idea of creating a full cultural district was complete. Four museums are to be part of the plan, along with music schools in renovated 1950s buildings and open theater areas. To emphasize the unique cross-border possibilities, Ibarra is calling the proposed district the “Centro Cultural Binacional” – the Binational Cultural Center.

Making connections

As Ibarra waits for construction to begin in Matamoros, he’s been working to ensure that all the bike-trail connections between the two cultural districts get made. One sticking point is security on the B&M bridge border crossing. To accept the bike crossing lane, the U.?S. Department of Homeland Security would have to set up an X-ray machine that could handle bike traffic.

Brownsville officials needed some convincing as well. Their initial plans called for replacing the train tracks with a road for cars. They’ve come around to the idea of a bike path instead, and are planning a connection between the bridge and Linear Park. City Manager Charlie Cabler says the Binational Cultural Center plan will be a boon for both cities.

Back in Matamoros, the lunch crowd is thin at Garcia’s, a popular restaurant located in Matamoros right in front of the entrance to another border crossing, the Gateway Bridge. Once a favorite of the Brownsville tourist crowd, the restaurant caters to Mexican and American diners. In the good old days, it was hard to find a table at lunch time in the restaurant, but that’s not a problem today. With a U.?S. travel advisory for American citizens still in effect, and a midnight curfew for U.?S. government personnel based in Matamoros, the gargantuan parking lot will remain half empty for a while.

Ibarra says his park will be a way to reacquaint Brownsville with Matamoros. After all, he says, both cities have gone through difficult times together over many decades and they have always pulled through. “There can’t be a Matamoros without a Brownsville,” Ibarra says. “Nor the other way around.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Mauricio Ibarra attended college in Matamoros.

This story originally appeared in Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope.?org.


Top image: A planned bike trail in Matamoros, Mexico, would connect with trails in the U.S. city of Brownsville, linking cultural districts on both sides of the border. Photo courtesy of Matamoros Planning Commission.

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Ana Arana is an investigative journalist with extensive international experience. A former U.?S. foreign correspondent, Arana was director of Fundación MEPI, an investigative journalism project in Mexico...