UT architecture students take part in the development of Brownsville

Stephanie Adeline

At seven years old, Edna Ledesma immigrated to Brownsville, Texas, from Monterrey, Mexico. Last weekend, she took 15 UT students to Brownsville to show them the realities of living in a border city.

Architecture professor Ledesma and students from her class, “Empowerment by Design: Brownsville West Rail Trail Studio/Practicum,” are making plans to potentially convert a historic freight line in Brownsville into a new city area. As the first UT architecture class project centered in Brownsville, Ledesma divided her 15 graduate and undergraduate students into four teams to propose designs over the course of the semester.

“Many of them had never been to the border, so it was extremely eye-opening,” Ledesma said. 

The project is a collaboration between UT students, Texas Southmost College architecture students, Cameron County and the Friends of the West Rail. At the end of the semester, students will present their design proposals to Brownsville residents, which will be economically assessed by students from UT Rio Grande Valley.

“The planners are incredible at researching and investigating possibilities, and (the architects) are really good at thinking spatially about what makes quality of place,” Ledesma said. “But in the middle we have to remember that we’re working towards a specific demographic that has needs and disadvantages and deserves to have opportunities.”

The project idea started when Cameron County announced a toll road would be built in the West Rail Trail, which was a freight line connecting Brownsville and Mexico. Brownsville residents united to fight back against the toll road, and county officials decided to make a community decision regarding use of the space.

“There was a lot of community fight,” Ledesma said. “(The community wants) a rails to trails project, a cycling infrastructure, running tracks (and) green corridors.”

Ledesma’s students are working to create a master plan for the rail corridor while taking into account multiple perspectives, said Jessica Sadasivan, one of Ledesma’s students.

“Our task is to kind of figure out how do we brand the trail to be what’s best for Brownsville,” architecture senior Sadasivan said. “It’s so interesting to hear so many of them have different opinions on whether they want a road or a biking trail.”

Hilary Andersen, a community and regional planning graduate student in Ledesma’s class, said working on this project has expanded her professional connections and her knowledge on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I am interested in regional planning, and I think borders are an arbitrary thing,” Andersen said. “It’s … a clear sign of separation that federal entities who clearly have never been to the border have been planning.”