From the street above, the structure Oscar Romo built looks like a sandcastle. It’s a piece of experimental architecture with three tiers cascading down the eastern edge of Tijuana’s Los Laureles Canyon. A new dirt soccer field and a playground sit at the bottom, and six columns painted red, white, green and blue mark the top.
Before Romo steers his truck down the rutted dirt road to get a closer look at his nearly completed Parque Frontera 2012 / Border Park 2012, he pulls over to point out a pile of trash littered down the canyon wall.
“Let me show you,” he says, rolling down the passenger-side window. “Let me point out something. All these lots have been filled with trash and turned into illegal commercial operations…. This guy, he charges people to dump their trash here. Everything is trashed—construction debris, car parts, trash from industries and even household trash—see?”
Romo pulls his truck closer to the edge. “Across the canyon there are other areas,” he continues. “All this trash will end up at the Tijuana Estuary, and it’s really hard to track this trash, so that’s what I’m doing—you’re going to see my probes. I’m trying to document all these illegal dumping sites.”
Romo, a lecturer in urban studies and planning at UCSD and the watershed coordinator for the Tijuana River National Research Reserve, has a love-hate relationship with garbage. He’s been working for years to find ways to stop the flow of the stuff from choking the estuary in Imperial Beach.
We inch our way down the steep road, kicking up dust. Romo says loose dirt is a big part of the problem. When people develop environmentally sensitive canyons, the first thing they do is tear away the protective vegetation, exposing the canyon walls to erosion.
“Huge amounts of sediment end up in the estuary,” he says. “We lost 20 acres of salt marsh just by the creation of this little neighborhood.”
Romo stops his truck at the entrance to his creation. He shakes his head at the graffiti covering the columns and walls. He has to repaint them every few days.
“The walls are made with plastic bottles we call ‘eco bricks,’” he says. “The bottles are filled with silt, which is not a good construction material unless you put a skin to it. The bottle becomes the skin to make it stable and give it weight, and the bottles are held together with more silt.”
The tiers, he explains, are built from roughly 10,000 tires he and his team found in and around the canyon. But they aren’t just piled on top of one another as they are in, say, the squatter ranch across the way or the many rudimentary staircases traversing the canyon. Romo has come up with a building technique that he swears will keep the tires from eventually washing away with the erosion of the dirt.
“I would say 5 percent of the tire is exposed while the rest is inside the structure,” he explains. “They form a figure-eight, and they’re attached together in groups of five or six so they become a very massive wall. Also, the side wall of the tire was removed and attached in the back to create an anchor…. So this is not going to move—this wall is stronger than concrete.”
Native plants poke out from the tire wall, which also catches and stores rain water. From the soccer field looking up, the structure is majestic.
“This is just the first step of the beautification of this area,” Romo says, squinting into the sun. “But 100 percent of the things I’d like to do, I’d like to do with trash.”
In the back seat of the truck is a thick binder containing Romo’s master urban plan for Los Laureles Canyon. He’s come up with detailed plans to turn it into a model that can be used in the 27 other canyons that cut through Tijuana. Los Laureles is the perfect guinea pig because, unlike other canyons where all existing construction is illegal, part of the development in Los Laureles is legal, so the Tijuana government has given Romo the green light to experiment with ways to stop erosion and combat illegal dumping.
Parque Frontera 2012, Romo says, is just one example of what can be done. He’s working on getting municipal codes passed that would acknowledge tires and his eco bricks as acceptable building materials. Then, he says, he wants to distribute manuals depicting proper construction methods. And, he wants everyone from high-ranking decision-makers to kindergartners to understand the importance of smart development, especially in these canyons. As long as grants from Mexico and the United States keep coming, he says he’ll continue toward his goals.
“Just bringing water and sewage and power to this neighborhood took me five years of working with authorities,” he says.
Just down the road from the park is Romo’s field office. Bundles of bright-blue plastic bottles are piled in the front yard.
Inside the bottles are transponders that allow him to track the flow of garbage. He places the bottles at known dumping sites along the canyon and watches as they make their way to the estuary. One thing he’s learned from working with Tijuana authorities all these years is that they react better to conclusive scientific data than informal documentation.
On the drive out of the canyon, Romo points out entire homes that have been washed away from flooding and erosion. He slows to get a good look at a broken sewer pipe at the bottom of a creek bed and says the shoddy construction is typical of these canyon developments. He stops to point out some newer-looking construction over the creek.
“This is one of my successes,” he says, pointing at a brick sediment basin. “But I recommended the construction of five of them and there’s just one built and one in the works.”
He mentions a few houses in the neighborhood that are built entirely of trash.
“They have their charm,” Romo says. “Trash doesn’t have to look bad, you know?”
And that’s what he hopes his park proves: One inexpensive structure can work to confine sediment, reuse discarded materials and look pretty cool, too.
“It’s tiny,” he says, “but it’s a contribution. I wasn’t really looking for something beautiful, but something useful, somewhat attractive, functional and featuring trash.”