illustration of us-mexico border fence and land
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Rethinking San Diego is a series exploring new approaches to some of San Diego’s biggest policies, plans and dilemmas.


There has long been a gap between how the federal government and locals in the San Diego-Tijuana region view the border.

Many locals who have jobs, homes and families that require them to cross the border daily and navigate both San Diego and Tijuana seamlessly feel that the region is more cohesive than the infrastructure built by the federal government may suggest.

In academia, too, there’s long been a tension between two concepts: de-bordering and re-bordering, said Lawrence Herzog, professor emeritus in city planning at San Diego State University.

De-bordering imagines a future with more cross-border integration, where the line dividing the two countries is relaxed. Many locals who cross the border regularly lean toward a preference of de-bordering.

Re-bordering, Herzog said, is what the White House has emphasized the past four years – a reinforcement of the border division with things like walls and other security measures.

“Re-bordering partly defines how the federal government has used its responsibility of managing the border,” Herzog said. “That mentality has especially dominated since 9/11.”

Local entrepreneurs, government officials, architects, artists and land use experts have floated many ideas over the past several decades that envision a very different border – one that embraces the idea that the border is in itself one community and one natural environment.

The ideas span from making the existing ports of entry more hospitable places to expanding transportation options across the border to completely rethinking the line that divides the U.S. from Mexico.

‘You Have to Design a Place Where People Want to Stay’

The San Ysidro Port of Entry / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Herzog said his first thought in changing the border is moving away from a strict security or militarized design in ports of entry themselves and in the areas surrounding them, where people wait to enter a new country.

The current design creates “a claustrophobic feeling for everyday border-crossers,” he said.

“I think the border zone could be a livable space as well as a security space,” Herzog said. “Right now the needle is so far over to security that when we walk through the border crossing it doesn’t feel human. It doesn’t feel safe. It doesn’t feel friendly. It doesn’t make you feel like it is a community, but in fact, it is a community.”

There are things that could be done to make the border both safe and livable.

Airports, for example, didn’t used to be pleasant, but at some point they realized they had people stuck in their space, sometimes waiting for hours for their flights. Now, once you go through security, you enter a more pleasant space that has cafes, bookstores and restrooms.

“You breathe a sigh of relief, put your belt back on and walk into an area that is safe and comfortable, where you can get a coffee at Starbucks during your hour wait for your flight,” Herzog said. “Our border doesn’t feel like that.”

Herzog said that certain design changes, like making the buildings where people are processed at the port of entry of transparent glass could help increase security, while also feeling less daunting.

“It makes it much harder to commit crimes when everyone can see what is going on in and out of buildings,” he said.

Claudia Moreno, who lives in Playas de Tijuana, would similarly like to see the Mexican side of the port of entry become lighter and airier, with more things to purchase for people preparing to leave the country.

Right now, everything is cramped around the border, from the lines themselves to the shelters and hotels that house asylum-seekers who are waiting in Mexico for their chance to request asylum or who are awaiting their U.S. asylum proceedings.

“It should be an open space where people who are waiting can breathe,” Moreno, an artist, said in Spanish. “Have dignified place where migrants can stay. Have places where people can eat, communicate with their families, print documents. For some people, crossing this border can change your life.”

Moreno envisions the port of entry having a park of sorts, with different stations: one where you could use the phone, one where you could eat, etc.

“I see it from the perspective as a mom,” Moreno said. “What do people need? To sit, breathe, go to the bathroom, eat, communicate with loved ones.”

Herzog thinks that the areas surrounding San Ysidro, Otay Mesa and the CrossBorder Xpress airport crossings should be developed into smart-growth villages that are walkable and have more public transportation options.

“It’s about placemaking,” Herzog said. “You have to design a place where people want to stay.”

More Transportation Options

Hundreds of travelers wait in long lines at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry after Customs and Border Protection officials shut down crossing lines in San Ysidro. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

To cross between the United States and Mexico by land, you either have to travel by vehicle or on foot.

But expanding options to cross has long been on the mind of many local government officials, entrepreneurs and architects. There was even an idea for aerial transport system – or a gondola – that would cross the border from San Ysidro to Tijuana dating back to 1959, according to the Journal of San Diego History.

During a binational tourism hearing in National City in 2019, Oscar Escobedo, Baja California’s secretary of tourism, suggested that the United States and Mexico could build a cross-border trolley to better connect the mega-region.

Escobedo floated the idea of using part of an already built-out cross-border cargo railroad. The trolley, he said, would be used by passengers who were pre-cleared — like those who can use the SENTRI program’s commuter lanes to pass more quickly through ports of entry.

It’s an idea local governments in Mexico have been eying for a while, though multiple hurdles to the plan exist, including the stalling of Tijuana’s own public transportation plans, like its light-rail system and Bus Rapid Transit system.

Several groups have advocated for improving bike infrastructure along the border, though they, too, have faced many hurdles, including the lack of bike infrastructure in San Ysidro and Tijuana.

Even planning agencies in San Diego and Imperial counties looked at installing a designated bike lane at the actual border crossing in February 2015.

A proposal by a group led by architect Rene Peralta was named a semifinalist for the Hyperloop One Global Challenge for its proposal to connect Ensenada and Los Angeles via hyperloop, which would cut the trip down to roughly 20 minutes.

“For us, the proposal is still on the table,” Peralta said. “It’s just a matter of having somebody in politics be interested in the region.”

The hyperloop could prove a major economic boon to the region, Peralta said. Because Baja California’s housing prices are so much more affordable than San Diego or Los Angeles, the technology would not only facilitate tourism, but make it much easier for people to cross the border for work on a daily basis. The technology would also make it far easier to transport cargo between the Port of Ensenada and the Port of Los Angeles.

“If we think that in the future, cities will be more important than countries, why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for people to be able to roam freely in the binational region?” Peralta said. “We need a border regional union.”

A Border Defined by Its Watersheds

A Tijuana River tributary near the U.S.-Mexico border / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Jill Marie Holslin has been documenting the border wall as a visual artist. She spends a lot of time thinking about the border and always comes back to the same conclusion about how we should shape it.

“I think we need to re-envision the region in terms of the base we have in the natural environment,” Holslin said. “Instead of envisioning the border in the base of the nation-state, let’s look at the watersheds.”

Holslin thinks we should look at the natural watershed maps and “think about how we can use this region and space to create a kind of sustainable ecosystem and social system that works for everybody.”

For Holslin, that means making the border zone more of a green area, with recreational spaces on both sides. She also would like to see a series of additional pedestrian bridges, where people can make informal crossings by foot or by bike to hike or bike around, and then come back. The additional crossings could also activate economies in other parts of Tijuana, where people crossing may want restaurants or other services.

The ports of entry for vehicles for people who need to go shopping or commercial traffic would still exist and involve all necessary inspections, but Holslin also thinks there should be a border residency or “fronterizo” migratory status, that would allow people who lived within a certain radius near the border to cross more easily.

“I think it’s a failure of imagination if the only way we think about the border is ‘I have to go to San Ysidro or Otay if I want to cross the border,’” Holslin said. “What if I could make it a daily routine to just go for a hike across the border and come back? You would have more of an exchange.”

Peralta also suggested creating a recreational area that straddles the border. Similar spaces have been created in Africa, like national parks where the countries involved share responsibilities in caring for it. The park would still have immigration and customs checkpoints around it.

Another of Peralta’s ideas, which was presented at UC San Diego’s Border Innovation Challenge and received the audience choice award, is a solar farm atop of the Tijuana River channel.

The river channel is about 17 miles long and would become the biggest solar farm in Mexico if it were actually carried out. The project would not only produce clean energy for manufacturing and elsewhere in the city, but has another component that would clean water with a microalgae system being developed with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

A solar farm on top of the 17-mile Tijuana River channel could produce clean energy for the region and provide the opportunity for a binational public-private partnership. / Image courtesy of Rene Peralta

The project would provide an investment opportunity for San Diego and American companies to invest and partake in binational public-private partnerships.

For Peralta, re-envisioning the border must come with a regional autonomy – with San Diego and Tijuana managing their water, air, landscape and geography together.

The differences between the two sides of the border are often positive, Peralta said, and “we wouldn’t want those removed or washed away, but we need to fix the things that are negative.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.