Collaborative Practice - Empowerment by Design

Empowerment by Design: Brownsville West Rail Corridor Study

Edna Ledesma, University of Texas at Austin


The “Empowerment by Design: Brownsville West Rail Trail Corridor Study” was an advanced interdisciplinary architecture and planning studio collaboration between the nominating architecture program and Texas Southmost College (TSC), which studied the potential transformations of an eight-mile abandoned railroad corridor in the City of Brownsville, Texas as a vision for a new city place. The core purpose of this course was to address social justice in the design of the 21st century American city by working directly with community stakeholders to address an a politically contentious site of future redevelopment.

The corridor, located on the south Texas border, runs parallel to the Rio Grande River and the U.S.-Border Wall, and links to both economically deprived and affluent neighborhoods directly to the historic downtown and has the potential to be the first bi-national hike and bike connection in Texas.

Students from both schools met with community members, local planning entities and key stakeholders, to help drive the planning and design strategies and delivered four master plan strategies to the public. A key aspect of innovation within this project was the partnership between the City and Brownsville and the nominating school. By using an academic studio to tackle a politically divisive planning agenda, the student work served as a platform to help bridge the planning discourse of competing stakeholders is key to the success of this project.

The ultimate product was a book publication that outlines four comprehensive plans of potential development strategies of the West Rail Corridor. A key divisive dilemma for the community was the issue of having a bike only or car roadway along the easement. What the students proposed was an effective visioning that provided a variety of holistic mobility strategies that improved connectivity for the region while keeping people at the center of the planning agenda.

City elected officials have coalesced around the vision of a world-class trail attracting citizens and tourist alike, in addition to receiving backing from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. In 2013, Brownsville adopted the 2013 Hike and Bike Trail Master plan as part of the city’s new Comprehensive Plan, where they outline the West Trail as the primary linkage of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. In 2016, the city secured a $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recover (TIGER) Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve public transit, pedestrian and bicycle networks in the region. Most recently, the Rails to Trails Conversancy hired a project manager to take the work of the students to help secure financial resources for a strategic implementation.