A chain-link fence and “No Trespassing” sign halt any pedestrian and bike traffic on the Franklin Canal in El Paso, Texas. Established in the late 19th century, the 28-mile canal was celebrated as the first complex, large-scale irrigation project along the Rio Grande in west Texas. Today, about 2 miles of the canal runs through the Chamizal neighborhood, a largely low-income community that connects downtown to the burgeoning Medical Center of the Americas. Bordering several Housing Authority sites, the canal is overgrown and remains underutilized.
In fall 2016, about 100 residents, business owners and public officials came together to discuss the canal, the adjacent neighborhoods and an opportunity to connect them: a proposed Active Transportation System (ATS) funded by the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). These community members were participating in an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Services Panel, a week-long workshop convened to develop a strategy for the “International Beltway” portion of the ATS.
Co-sponsored by the city of El Paso, the Borderplex Alliance and the county of El Paso, the Advisory Services Panel sought to identify a land-use strategy for the ATS, exploring how the ATS could be designed to build resilience. A key question was how cycling and pedestrian infrastructure could address climate risks, such as drought, water supply shortages, urban heat island and flash flooding, which El Paso regularly experiences. Among other proposals, the panel recommended integrating the Franklin Canal into the ATS. The canal, which includes a 6- to 10-foot right-of-way, would be a safe space for cycling and walking, while continuing to offer opportunities for stormwater management and emergency flood control.
When asked why she convened the panel, Nicole Ferrini, director of the El Paso Community & Human Development department, said, “There was a need for us to have an outside perspective that tied all the pieces of resilience together. The city was interested in taking advantage of the expertise that ULI brings.”
ULI has hosted Advisory Services Panels in 600 communities since the 1940s. These panels are five-day workshops led by ULI members, who contribute their professional expertise to addressing complex development, planning and land-use challenges. Finance, implementation and delivery strategies are often a crucial focus of discussions. After community consultation, site touring, research and strategizing, the panelists present their ideas at a public event and produce a report. In El Paso, the report detailed a strategy for the ATS, which focused on resilient design and land use.
Beginning in 2018, park and recreation departments will have increased access to the Advisory Services program. In conjunction with the 10-minute walk campaign, which is led by NRPA, ULI and the Trust for Public Land, ULI is offering specialized week-long Advisory Services Panels focused on parks and open space, resilience, park-connecting infrastructure and related issues.
“Park and trail projects are a great fit for a ULI panel,” notes the El Paso panel Chair Kamuron Gurol, the corridor development director for Sound Transit. “By combining the talents and disciplinary knowledge of market and real estate experts, architects and planners, landscape designers and engineers, and nonprofit leaders and public-sector managers, the ULI panel process delivers visionary recommendations that reflect local needs and goals.”
ULI panelists presented a vision for a vibrant trail system, including a series of community green spaces along the canal and within the residential areas of the Chamizal neighborhood. They also recommended broader land use strategies, including increased coordination between the MPO and the Housing Authority to integrate the plans for housing redevelopment along the Franklin Canal into the trail’s public space network. Involving a range of agencies and stakeholders and incorporating these adjacent sites would help the MPO create pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure likely to provide the greatest value for the local communities.
The panel also explored strategies for engaging the Chamizal community in the design of the project and in promotion of active transportation in general. “It was exciting to participate as a panelist in a community that recognizes the challenges and opportunities that the ATS corridor could present to vulnerable populations and then worked to include those voices in the visioning process,” says Jodi Slick, panelist and CEO of Equilibrium, a nonprofit organization focused on energy, resilience and revitalization. After the panel, Ferrini cited the advice on “moving toward a shared leadership model with the community,” and the proposed strategies for engagement and partnerships, as key components for implementation.
One year since the panel, the city continues to work with the MPO on positioning the ATS. Beyond the canal itself, Ferrini noted that the vision for an integrated, resilient Active Transportation System has since influenced projects led by the MPO, Housing Authority and local philanthropic community. Ferrini is also currently exploring how the ATS concept could be applied to sites across the border in adjacent Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, through the Borderplex Regional Planning Taskforce.
Carlos Perez, panelist and principal of Perez Planning + Design, explains: “Active Transportation Systems (ATS) are regularly a top-priority leisure and transportation need for communities across the country. The El Paso ULI panel showed how a system can also tackle some of the broader and more challenging issues facing many communities, such as social, environmental and economic resilience.”