Border Wall as Infrastructure

By some measures, the U.S. Secure Fence Act of 2006 funded the single largest and most expensive building project in the United States of the 21st Century.  It finances 700 miles of fortification dividing the U.S. from Mexico at the average cost of $4 million dollars per mile.  In many locations it is fabricated of steel, wire mesh, concrete, even re-purposed Vietnam-era Airforce landing strips. Elsewhere, it makes use of high-tech surveillance systems—aerostat blimps, heat sensors and subterranean probes.  In all cases, the concept of “national security” governs and militates construction and design of the wall, and the success of the wall has been measured in the numbers of intercepted illegal crossings.  This project suggests that the wall, at such prices, should and could be thought of not only as security, but also as productive infrastructure–as the very backbone of a borderland economy.  Indeed, coupling the wall with viable infrastructure—and this proposal focuses on water, renewable energy, and urban social infrastructure—is a pathway to security and safety in border communities and the nation beyond them.

600 miles of barriers have been constructed since 2006, at the cost of $2.4 billion.  Additionally, the new wall has been breached over 3000 times, incurring $4.4 milllion in repairs.  The construction and maintenance costs are estimated to exceed $49 billion over the next twenty five years—and there are several hundred more miles of wall construction recently proposed.

Border Wall as Infrastructure

One square foot of solar energy production along the border can power a dishwasher for a year

Solar Security

The most untapped potential for solar development in the United States lies along the U.S./Mexico border. Solar farms, in turn, are highly secure installations.  What if we were to reallocate some of the funds used simply to construct and maintain the border wall for the construction of energy infrastructure along the border?  We would actually create scenarios in many instances that are more secure than the existing wall, and that simultaneously provide solar energy to the energy hungry cities of the southwest.

Consider the 100-mile stretch of border between Nogales, Arizona and Douglas Arizona. There, 87 miles of border wall have been constructed at a cost of $333.5 million. Compare that figure to the cost of the largest solar farm in the world, the Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park in Olmedilla, Spain, which cost $530 million. For $333.5 million, 54 miles of profit generating solar farm could have been constructed, 40 feet wide providing 60 Mega Watts of electricity.  That is enough for 40,000 households.


A 20 million gallons/day wastewater treatment facility on the border between Mexicali, Mexico and Calexico, California

Water Security

The New River is the most polluted river in the United States.  It flows north from Mexicali, Mexico, and crosses the border at Calexico, California. New River toxicity is comprised of chemical runoff from farm industry, sewage, contaminants—such as volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides—pathogens like tuberculosis, hepatitis, and cholera—as well as fecal coliform bacteria, which at the border checkpoint far exceed U.S.-Mexico treaty limits.  The New River then flows through the Imperial Valley, which is a major source of winter fruits and vegetables, cotton, and grain for both U.S. and international markets. While the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was enacted, according to President Bush, to “help protect the American people” from illegal immigration, drug smuggling and terrorism, the new river represents a far more dangerous flow north from Mexico in need of containment.

A wastewater treatment wall located in the 2-mile long wasteland that buffers the dense border city of Mexicali from the agricultural Eden of the Imperial Valley would offer a solution to the “illegal entry” of toxins to the U.S. The pollution problem is expected to worsen as Mexicali’s population—already at 1.3 million—continues to expand without adequate infrastructure. For $33 million, the same cost as the wall that divides Calexico and Mexicali, a treatment facility with the capacity to handle 20 million gallons/day of effluent from The New River could be constructed. This proposed facility would be comprised of a linear pond filtration and purification system creating a secure and invaluable border.


Bicycle/Pedestrian wall in Tijuana, Mexico

Social Infrastructure

Sports are inherently social activities where networks between people with common interests are formed. The social capital produced by these networks is a core element in the fabric of communities: it produces safety and security, friendship and community, civic identity and economic value. Over time, social capital builds what may be termed “social infrastructure,” a key element in the success and health of communities. One of the most devastating consequences of border wall security in its present state is the division of communities, cities, neighborhoods and families, and the erosion of social infrastructure. Even so, sports have served as a way to cope with the realities of the wall.


Bi-National Library in Nogales, Arizona

As such, the border wall can and should be envisioned as a linear urban park through certain urban geographies. When supplemented with green spaces, connected to schools, libraries and other parks, there is no reason not to think of the wall as the organizing condition for an urban park, offering pedestrian and bicycle routes through the city. The linear park, in turn, has the potential to increase adjacent property values and the quality of life on both sides of the border while providing an important green corridor through the city.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the pioneer of WPA 1.0, set out a course for U.S. / Mexico relations at the onset of world war 2 with a vision of hemispheric security that was not beholden to a limited view of border fortification. He said:

“What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a nation has at all times maintained opposition –clear, definite opposition– to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall.” (F.D.R., Jan 6, 1941)


A labyrinth represents the enormous expense, complexity and effort in the construction of the U.S.-Mexico Border Wall

It is not the wall that we are calling into question, but the inflexibility and ancient strategy of a wall as a singular means of security. There are many reasons to think that border security can be achieved—and will only be achieved—with a more multi-valent and flexible vision of border infrastructure than has yet been imagined.

Project Date: 2009
Project Team: Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Brian Grieb, Nicholas Karklins, Emily Licht, Plamena Milusheva, Colleen Paz, Molly Reichert
Project Info: Border Wall as Architecture was selected as a finalist in the WPA 2.0 competition. Read more about the Border Wall as Architecture here.

3 Responses to “Border Wall as Infrastructure”

  1. […] friend Ron Rael asked to use it in his studio at Berkeley (check out his other work regarding the Border as Infrastructure here), and so I have now decided to go ahead and post it in […]

  2. […] topic of energy is present in other “border” project: Border Wall as Infrastructure by Rael San Fratello Architects. The project, that was selected as a finalist in the WPA 2.0 […]

  3. […] en una infraestructura que conecte y mejore las vidas de ambos lados de la frontera es la propuesta de un arquitecto de la Universidad de California en Berkeley que plantea paneles solares, planta tratadora de aguas, cancha de voleibol, pista para bicicletas y […]