Rethinking the U.S./Mexico Border Fence, With Bike Paths and Burrito Stands

Ron Rael thinks the border wall is bad policy, but he has bold ideas for making it more humane.

If you can’t beat it, redesign it. An assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Ron Rael, is not exactly a fan of the 700-mile series of separation barriers that have been erected between the United States and Mexico. He says the wall is expensive, detrimental to the environment, ineffective, and even deadly, since hundreds die of dehydration each year as they try to cross the culture.


And yet it’s there. “It would be easy for me to raise a picket sign and as an architect say, ‘Down with this wall!?’ Rael says. ?I have to accept the wall because it exists, but as a designer I see that something better is possible. Why not do something intelligent, something incredible” I envision not just a “dumb wall,” but a social infrastructure that connects and improves lives on both sides.?

Call it ironic architecture. But he’s directly inspired by life.

To that end, he has re-envisioned the wall as something like a town center, complete with infrastructure, social services, and recreational facilities. Among the stations he envisions along the wall are a volleyball court, a confessional, a lending library, a water catchment system, a wastewater treatment plant, a solar farm, and even a “burrito wall” featuring “a food cart inserted into the wall, allowing people from each side of the border to share a meal, chat and conduct business, all within full view of security.” The designs are partly practical, partly satirical: call it ironic architecture.

Yet he’s drawing inspiration directly from life. “These are ongoing things that are already happening to a certain extent,” he tells Co.Design. “There are exchanges of food and money through the wall already.” Priests already come and hear confessions across the wall. In a photograph Rael once saw, a thirsty border patrol agent bought a sno-cone from a vendor across a semi-porous stretch of wall. In one region, says Rael, Homeland Security recently put a 40-foot gap between two panels of the wall. But people on either side found an ingenious way around even that distance; “the sign language has been going there and having poetry readings,” he says.

Rael has said that he looks forward to a “post-border wall world.” That needn’t mean for the wall to literally come down, a tall order politically. Rather, ?If it’s a swing or a teeter-totter or solar panels, it materially ceases to be a wall.”

“Border Wall as Infrastructure” a proposal by Rael and a partner, Virginia San Fratello, was a finalist in the 2010 Working Public Architecture 2.0 Competition organized by UCLA’s cityLAB. Rael is first to admit that his plan isn’t likely to be implemented anytime soon. Until then, though, we can dream of the day when a border wall with personality shows up as a hot destination in the travel and leisure sections of the newspapers.


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal