Not Found

​Сan we imagine cross-border cities?

, Cities

How urbanist and architect Teddy Cruz and political theorist Fonna Forman promote a ‘citizenship culture’ that is based less on the imposition of the nation or state, but rather organised around our shared values and common interests in a border region.

Photo: Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman archive

There are plenty of geopolitical conflicts currently developing in the world. They have great influence on the citizens of bordering cities. Political systems and institutions tend to support the construction of more walls and make it harder for those borders to be crossed, due to the illusion of security they provide. Teddy Cruz, an architect and urbanist, and Fonna Forman, a political theorist, claim that we need a new form of political leadership, one that is not based on xenophobia or polarisation, but on coexistence and new forms of collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries. Borders don’t have to be just that – they can be a platform for such collaboration, for research, or even for art or a new culture. These ideas were the basis for Teddy Cruz’s lecture for students of the New Normal during their field-trip to Los Angeles. Strelka Magazine explored his projects and his expert opinion on what borders should really be and represent.
Teddy Cruz – architect, urbanist, professor of Public Culture and Urbanism in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego; Director of Urban Research at UCSD Center on Global Justice; and Fonna Forman – professor of Political Science and director of the UCSD Center on Global Justice. Together they are principals in Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman.
The work of Cruz and Forman is mainly focused on cross-border cities, their systems of communication, as well as potential ways of uniting them and implementing artistic and innovative ways for the citizens of cross-border cities to live, work, and create together. Cruz has received multiple awards for his work in architecture, urbanism, and design. He also gave a TED Talk in 2013 about how architectural practices can travel across borders, in which he shared details concerning the San Diego-Tijuana border, his main field of expertise.
Cruz and Forman have taken part in creating multiple political and architectural projects, most of which are part of Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman, a research-based political and architectural practice in San Diego. One of the largest-scale projects they have developed is called th e UCSD Cross-Border Initiative; this is a research project that explores subjects like the wealth gap between bordering cities, especially San Diego and Tijuana. The Initiative strives to present the border as something more than the transition from the impoverished city of Tijuana to the prosperous city of San Diego, but as a separate place that could be associated with dialogue, art, and collaboration rather than mistrust. The Cross-Border Initiative is set to make something more of the border: a platform for conversation, and a fight against the fortification of the walls, which only causes more conflicts and endangers the environment. The project’s authors are developing new systems and formats for connecting the two countries, as opposed to tearing them further and further apart, and are helping these cities share social and economic practices, because they consider this the proper way to reach urban stability, resilience, and adaptation. This strategy is something that government institutions seem to ignore. The border, in this case, is not a distinct separation of one territory from another; according to Cruz and Forman, it’s rather a binational region, which has the potential to develop its own specific culture.


The project called Political Equator was launched as a part of the Cross-Border Initiative. A few years ago, Cruz and Forman discovered that the most contested border checkpoints in the world are located in the same corridor, between 30 and 38 degrees parallel north, starting with one of the most interesting cases, the San Diego-Tijuana border. This is the main point of migration from Latin America into the United States. This imaginary line, which is called the political equator, also covers other contested territories: the Ceuta-Melilla border, and the Israel-Palestine border. That line, the political equator itself, was the core of the whole project, which is focused on digging into the specifics of these territories: the state of things at these borders tends to be reproduced all over the world.


Political Equator serves as an illustration to Thomas P.M. Barnett’s draft for the Pentagon’s New Map of the post-9/11 world. According to this theory, there are two opposing areas on the world map, the “Functioning Core”, where “the globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security”, and the “Non-Integrating Gap”, where there are “regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists”. The cases studied in this project show both sides of the equation: border-related conflicts are often based on the clash of these two kinds of territories, especially the clash between wealth and poverty, which is definitely the case when talking about the Tijuana-San Diego border. Because these are the most contested checkpoints in the world, the political equator can’t remain just a flat line: these conflicts turn it into a critical threshold, which transforms constantly. Thus, this reveals all the sites of conflict where hidden trans-hemispheric sociopolitical, economic, and environmental dynamics can be traced, both at local and global scales. The creators of the Political Equator project argue that the most fascinating socio-economic and artistic initiatives come from sites of scarcity, not sites of abundance: they emerge during conflicts, including geopolitical border-related conflicts, and conflicts regarding national resources and marginal communities.
Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman suggest re-imagining these borders and creating new natural and social systems, however challenging it may be. According to them, cross-border citizens need to have dialogue and work together, but the way in which jurisdictional power is instituted doesn’t allow this to happen in the way it should. This is where architecture comes into play. The creators of the Political Equator project suggest that architects can influence the geopolitical situation, intervene in the re-organization of political institutions, and cause the creation of new, better, forms of governance, economic systems, research, and pedagogy, and new conceptions of cultural and economic production. Making architecture a political field may break the mould, and help generate new experimental spaces and social programs for the city.

Image: Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman



A cross-border mobile conference and community forum was created as part of the project. The meetings are held in the area of the San Diego-Tijuana border. The pressing regional, socioeconomic, urban, and environmental conditions of the area are discussed there. The participants of the forum (local, national and international activists, scholars and researchers, artists, architects and urbanists, politicians, border patrol officers, etc.) analyze current border-related conflicts and work together to figure out how they can reevaluate the meaning of shifting global dynamics across geopolitical boundaries, natural resources, and marginal communities. The Political Equator meetings take place outside of institutions, in the area under discussion itself, which allows the participants to witness the real situation and get a glimpse of how the border actually functions. Public walks and performances are an important part of PE. The meetings are held in a “conversations on the move” format, which allows not only for discussing the issues of possible urban actions but also for exploring the site of the conflict at the same time.
Political Equator places particular emphasis on the San Diego–Tijuana border, which is now contested and has a lot of urban, environmental, social and political issues to solve, but yet has the potential to become the cross-border city the world needs.


The San Diego-Tijuana border is the main point of migration from Latin America into the United States. The US territory is separated from Mexico by the Mexican border wall, while another wall is in the process of being built. The population of the two cities is almost the same: around 2 million. The border is considered the busiest land crossing in the world, at an estimated 300,000 crossings per day. The wall is constantly being reinforced, especially after the events of 9/11. Tijuana is now one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico. The economies of San Diego and Tijuana are inevitably linked, which is why they need to collaborate and look for new ways to unite, instead of stimulating more division and mistrust.
Teddy Cruz shared a story of how the idea that the future of San Diego depends on the future of Tijuana first came to be. This idea belonged to Kevin Lynch, a famous urban planner from MIT, who came to San Diego in the 1970s to develop a vision plan for the city. He proposed a binational airport and suggested the idea that a border can also be an infrastructure. Eventually, the airport was built next to the wall. Tijuana was waiting for the USA to seal the deal, but US representatives never came. Later, a developer from Texas realised that he could build a bridge for people to come from San Diego directly to their plane. That was the only infrastructural project built there.


A few years ago, Cruz and Forman organised a cross-border performance in order to propose the notion of the cross-border citizen. The goal of the crossing was to increase public knowledge and provoke new ideas for political and urban action to make the area more useful for both sides. The performance was held in collaboration with community-based nonprofits, Casa Familiar and Alter Terra. Casa Familiar represents San Ysidro, which is the first neighbourhood one reaches when coming to the USA from Mexico. Alter Terram, in turn, represents Laureles Canyon, which is a slum of 85,000 people, who are literally pushed up against the border wall in Mexico, specifically the Tijuana river estuary, an environmental zone that is overrun with militarization. The natural estuary is a part of a bi-national watershed system. The river is a great indicator of how things are on different sides of the wall and how the fortified walls cause not only social conflicts, but also environmental ones. After the events of 9/11, Homeland Security began working on the secondary wall. Now, the new American President, Donald Trump, has plans to build yet another wall. All of this will result in the destruction of canyons. The problem is that there is a slum that is located in a canyon that crosses the border almost tangentially. Thus, these environmental systems of natural ecologies are truncated by the border wall. This is where the political conflict becomes a natural one.
After a year of convincing Homeland Security to grant permission, Cruz and Forman transformed an existing border drain under the wall into an official port of entry for 24 hours. What looked to Homeland Security like a cross-sector symposium was actually a public performance, which was supposed to be an experimental tool to render visible the collision between the environmental zone, surveillance infrastructure, and informal settlement.


As Cruz and Forman tell it, Homeland Security gave permission for the team to leave the US almost immediately, while Mexican Immigration needed to wait for them on the southern end of the drain, in order to stamp their passports. While waiting for immigration officers to stamp their passports, the team witnessed sewage coming from the slum, contaminating the estuary. In Cruz and Forman’s opinion, the construction of the new wall will most definitely contaminate this environmental asset, which is a precious one for the two cities. This is yet another important reason for these cities to unite.
The walk gave the participants new information about the implications of the new border wall, especially its influence on the environment.
Cruz and Forman argue that the American public has been sold the idea that the wall is an artifact of security. The cross-border walk proved that the wall was, in fact, an artifact of environmental insecurity and that it would produce environmental and socio-economic damage in the future. According to Cruz and Forman, instead of building the wall, people need to collaborate and reorient investment to the slum south of the wall.
Thus, Border-Drain Crossing mobilised public awareness around a subject that touches the economic, environmental, and social interests of both cities. The event manifested the idea of the border region as a laboratory for rethinking global citizenship. It raised some fundamental questions: can we imagine cross-border cities? Can we imagine citizenship that is organised around shared values and common interests in a border region? Is there a cross-border citizen?

We have recently launched the new website. If you have any questions or comments about it, feel free to !