Border residents want to build park, not wall
San Diego — Some 14 miles west of the Trump administration’s prototypes for a future border wall, a small group of San Diego-Tijuana border residents has begun championing a very different notion: removing the wall altogether.
Instead of a double fence, the small, all-volunteer organization Friends of Friendship Park envisions a bi-national park and pedestrian port of entry at the westernmost end of the 1,969-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
“Hey, if you’re going to prototype a border wall, why not prototype a border park?” asks John Fanestil, a Methodist minister who offers weekly communion at the fence. “Why not prototype friendship on the U.S.-Mexico border?”
A long shot? For sure. For the U.S. Border Patrol, the existing double fence separating the suburb of Playas de Tijuana from Border Field State Park south of Imperial Beach deters illicit activity — the smuggling of people, drugs and bulk cash — and protects the U.S. agents from aggressions such as hurled rocks.
Beefing up security on the U.S.-Mexico border has been a central issue for President Donald Trump since he campaigned for office. He has vowed to build a “big, beautiful wall,” along its length and said Mexico would pay for it, although its leaders say it won’t.
Last month, eight prototypes, each 30 feet high, were unveiled in San Diego at Otay Mesa. In about a month, once the concrete cures, a testing period of 30-60 days will be launched.
But members of Friends of Friendship Park, who for years have been advocating for greater public access to this stretch of the border, argue that building good relations with Mexico would enhance security more than a taller wall. They say that securing the border and building a bi-national park are not mutually exclusive concepts. Fast-changing technologies offer new possibilities for law enforcement agencies at all levels, they say, and some of these could be applied here.
“Some people might think it’s the worst time to propose it, but you could also think it’s the best time,” said architect James Brown. “Especially in the political climate that we’re in, it might capture the public imagination.”
Friendship Park is the name for a small area that surrounds Monument 258, a stone marker at the site of the original boundary point between the United States and Mexico. For decades, it marked the space where families from both sides of the border would gather.
“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo calls for peace and friendship between the people of the two nations,” Fanestil said, saying this location should be a place that pays homage to that.
Loose fencing in the area for years had allowed people to reach across, hug, share picnics. But in recent years such exchanges have become largely impossible.
Saul Rocha, a community liaison officer in San Diego for the U.S. Border Patrol, said stronger fencing became necessary as smugglers seized on the opportunity to infiltrate legitimate gatherings. “The smugglers were taking advantage of the opportunity that we were providing the families to blend in and conduct their illicit activities.”
Today, the fence consists of a highly controlled double-barrier. On weekends, the secondary fence is opened for several hours, allowing those on the U.S. side to step up to the primary fence and talk to friends and family across the border; the tightly woven metal mesh that allows them only to touch fingers. Two or three times a year, the primary fence is opened briefly at the request of the group Border Angels, allowing people to embrace.
“Friendship Park is one of the most important meeting spaces in the world, but at the same time, it’s one of the least humane,” Brown said.
Removing a 1,000-foot stretch of the double fence at this spot is at the heart of the Friends of Friendship Park proposal. Brown and Fanestil speak of a 36-acre park built around this area that would span Tijuana and San Diego, and could even include a pier jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. “Wouldn’t it be fun to walk out on the pier with your friend from Mexico, and then come back, and give them a hug, and say, ‘See you next time,’ ” Fanestil said.
The proposal at this point is conceptual, and leaves many open questions. Just how would authorities maintain control over the flow of people through the area? How would the perimeter be secured? How would people get there? Would only people with border crossing documents have access?
To come up with a design, a group of Loeb fellows — mid-career architects, designers and other professionals from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design — are scheduled to come to the region early next year. There will be two public hearings, one in Tijuana and the other in San Diego, said Brown, a former Loeb fellow and the creator the experimental art space Bread & Salt in Barrio Logan.
Fanestil and fellow park proponents argue their proposal is not inconceivable — nor is it unprecedented. The U.S.-Canada border already has bi-national parks, most notably the international Peace Arch Park that spans British Columbia and Washington state. And for a pedestrian-only border crossing look no further than the Cross Border Xpress pedestrian port of entry linking Tijuana’s airport to Otay Mesa.
New technologies in recent years have offered a range of possibilities for law enforcement agencies on the border. A 2015 white paper titled “Envision 2020” by University of California, San Diego and Cubic Transportation Systems listed vision analytics, biometric markers, sensor technology, and drones as part of the wave for the future for border security.
Removing the wall and creating a bi-national park “you’d have to secure the perimeters of the park,” said Katie Busch-Sorensen, a global senior solutions architect for Cubic Transportation Systems. Physical barriers, biometric markers, overhead video cameras could be part of a future solution, she said.
“It’s something great to work toward,” she said. “You could certainly try this out in a smaller area and grow it. I think you should do little trials and make sure you have the protection that you need.”
Even if it proves technically feasible, the challenge will mean persuading officials at the highest levels of government, say Brown and Fanestil. It would involve not only creating a binational meeting space, but the approval of a Presidential Permit to build a pedestrian port of entry.
“This could happen in our lifetime,” Brown told a group gathered last month at the Mission Valley United Methodist Church to learn about the proposal. “It seems unlikely, but it can happen.”