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How this city planner is helping great ideas cross the U.S.-Mexican border

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Pablo Aguilar believes a new type of collaboration can help border cities across the world work together on shared challenges

A proposed multicity bike trail being discussed by leaders in Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, which would link into a larger trail system proposed for the Lower Rio Grande, presents a vision for cross-border collaboration at odds with this year’s political dialogue.

And according to many city officials and planners involved in the effort, which held a meeting in Brownsville last Friday, the possibility of creating a "conurban" spacea legal framework that allows for closer collaboration between the two citiessets up a way of working together that might impact border regions around the world.

"We have different regulations in Brownsville and Matamoros, and urban planning with different visions, but we also have the same problems," says Pablo Aguilar, who runs the Mexican think tank the National Urban Jurisprudence Association, an organization which has helped facilitate the collaboration between the two cities.

Aguilar, who is working to refine the conurban concept, will present the plans and collaboration at the UN Habitat IIIConference in Quito, Ecuador, this October, a gathering of urban planners from across the globe. He believes this type of collaboration—which helps cut through bureaucratic barriers—can work for border towns and cities across the globe, and facilitate more collaboration over pressing urban issues.

"This project is about mobility," says Aguilar. But after creating this bike trail, that’s when this kind of collaboration can truly move forward. The next step in the plan is to create a shared framework for developing shared infrastructure projects and closer collaboration between different municipalities. He can see similar concepts working along the border, in cities such as Laredo and El Paso, or Tijuana and San Diego.

Other share optimism about these kinds of collaborations. According to Ruth Osuna, assistant city manager of Brownsville, there’s a desire here to knock down borders holding back closer collaboration, which comes from generations of families living on both sides of the border.

"It’s the human element," she says. "We breathe the same air. What happens if there’s an outbreak? Getting to know each other helps us work together better in case of emergencies, and be able to respond quicker together."

On the Texas side of the border, the bike trail concept came in response to regional health issues. According to Rose Gowan, a obstetrician/gynecologist and Brownsville city commissioner, the city and region faces serious issues with diabetes: 1 in 3 local residents is diabetic, more than twice the national average, and treatment leads to roughly $250 million a year in lost wages. Building a bike trail in Brownsville was a means to encourage a more active citizenry, as well as develop bike tourism in the region (the city has an active transportation plan, and 10 other cities in the county have signed on to set up a regional trail system).

Roughly 10,000 bike trips a month already cross the bridge that spans the US-Mexican border. The fact that Matamoros had already been working on a trail and cultural district was a lucky coincidence. Gowan believes linking the two cities can have positive effects on more than just health.

"I was born and raised here, and families live on both sides of the border; many live on one side and work on the other," she says. "The idea of crossing back and forth once or twice a day, or over the weekend, it’s not an outlandish idea. Hopefully with connections like this, we can reconnect a little more often."

Osuna believes there are hurdles to overcome for close collaboration. Security is a big concern, and working with ICE and Homeland Security are important consideration for the Texas city. A open, secure, and safe relationship lets the two neighboring cities work on different levels, from bike trails and health to commerce.

"The presentation about Quito is about making a big noise," says Aguilar. "Then we can create a framework to realize common visions."