Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

In the eyes of the current administration, the U.S.-Mexico border is violent, in crisis, and must be redundantly fortified, concretized, and policed. But architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman see that southern boundary as an ecological region—a shared territory of cross-border interdependence and exchange. To them, flow, not heated rhetoric, is the defining character of the San Diego–Tijuana crossing. Most obvious are streams of traffic, goods, and people through the point of entry. What goes unseen is the northward flow of waste and toxins, which disregards the jurisdictional boundaries of nationhood, traveling from the informal settlements in Tijuana’s Laurales Canyon via watersheds and tributaries to the Tijuana River estuary in San Diego and out into the Pacific Ocean. 

“The estuary is already a Federal protected zone—NOAA and the EPA are involved, but it has to be thought of as bioregional,” says Forman. “It is a circular system. Informal settlements recycle and repurpose urban waste, then the trash of the informal settlement ends up back in the estuary.” 

On an August morning, Cruz and Forman travel south from their offices at the University of California at San Diego, where both are professors, to meetings with incoming municipal government in Tijuana as well as local community partners. The pair is leading a cross-border coalition address the environmental degradation, a project that operates both as broadly ambitious consciousness raising and as specific, on-the-ground action. 

In 2018, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman exhibited on the international stage, showing MEXUS, a mapping of the multiple watersheds spanning the whole of the U.S.-Mexico border, at the U.S. Pavilion in the Venice Architecture Biennale. “The canyons are part of the Tijuana watershed river system—25 percent in San Diego and 75 in Tijuana,” Cruz explains. “While it has been part of the imaginary of many activists, there’s been a general lack of recognition of the interdependence between the two countries. Our goal is to elevate the watershed and the estuary as bi-national commons.”

Closer to home, they zoomed in on 18 parcels of land in Laurales Canyon— some as big as 15-20 acres, others just long and narrow slivers nor larger than half an acre—that are deemed critical in stemming the flow of trash into the estuary. With a suite of partners that include University of San Diego, local NGO’s, and government officials on both sides of the border, they are creating an “archipelago” conservancy by purchasing, with help from philanthropic investment, or working with the city to manage the lands.