Elotes, Raspados and Urban Planning in the Rio Grande Valley

Learn more about our work in the Rio Grande Valley.

Elotes, raspados and tacos are just some of the many popular Mexican street foods that form a large part of street life and urban culture in areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Rio Grande Valley. In spite of their enormous popularity, mobile vendors selling those items often operate through the gaps of vague regulations in areas like Brownsville, where food trucks and food trailers are not allowed. Most mobile food vendors in Brownsville operate primarily during special events, such as Charro Days or at the local flea market.

[bc] and the City of Brownsville teamed up for a community outreach workshop on May 6 to discuss the possibility of adjusting codes and ordinances to regulate mobile food vending units and explore the possibility of a food truck park pilot in Brownsville as part of the programming of the Brownsville City Design Studio. During the workshop, Brownsville Redevelopment Director Ramiro Gonzalez gave an overview of the current situation regarding the city's mobile food vendors as well as ideas on how to regulate mobile food vending. Many cities have incorporated food truck parks into their city planning with great success: Austin and McAllen are two prominent examples that were showcased at the May 6 workshop.

Attendees provided creative ideas to incorporate food trucks to Brownsville’s landscape. One workshop attendee suggested allowing mobile food vendors to operate in existing city parks or vacant land instead of creating new space for them. Others suggested placing food trucks in areas that needed food vibrancy, like the Mitte Cultural District. Though most attendees were in favor of the creation of one or multiple food truck parks, there were a small number of particularly vocal opponents: these opponents were concerned that the mobile food vendors were "unsanitary" and not subject to the same regulations as standard food businesses.

However, according to [bc] advocate Elaine Morales, the disagreement over the cleanliness of mobile food vendors in the RGV is also linked to another principle: aesthetics.

In the past, mobile food vendors added multiple attachments to their units or removed the wheels from their units In their quest to comply with local regulations that in many cases were created for brick and mortar restaurants. For example, a vendor who sells raspados, a type of snow cone, will often add a sink to the side of their cart in order to comply with a city rule that requires all food vendors to have access to a hand washing sink. In spite of this, workshop attendees and local food business owners expressed sanitary concerns about mobile food vendors handling money with the same hands that they used to handle food.

Cultural norms around what a food vendor is also differ significantly between geographies - the mobile food vendor units that currently exist in the RGV differ considerably from what many citizens see in cities like Austin: brightly-lit, large food truck parks with trash cans, benches and tables for patrons. Substandard units in the RGV have affected the perception of what mobile vending units can be.

"One of the opponents to food trucks at the community workshop had admitted that she had never been to a food truck park,” said Morales.

The conversation about food trucks in Brownsville will continue with the creation of a committee or task force involving both the city and its citizens.  One city official from Austin, Marcel Elizondo, recalls that it took their city almost 19 months to finalize regulations for mobile food vendors.

More community-focused workshops in Brownsville beyond the topic of mobile food vendors are in the works for the next months.

PIDI Brownsville: Building Healthy and Resilient Environments

Learn more about our work in the RGV.

On January 30th & 31st, 2015, [bc] hosted the Public Interest Design Institute at the Market Square Center in Brownsville, TX.

The Public Interest Design Institute is a two-day course that provides design and planning professionals with in-depth study on methods of design that can address the critical issues faced by communities. The curriculum is formed around the Social Economic Environmental Design® metric, a set of standards that outline the process and principles of this growing approach to design. SEED goes beyond green design with a “triple bottom line” approach that includes social, economic and environmental issues in the design process.

PIDI Brownsville was the most highly-attended PIDI conference ever, thanks to Design Corps and to funders such as the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (BCIC), the LRGV chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the City of Brownsville, and [bc], who enabled free and low-cost attendance at the event.

PIDI Brownsville presented an array of topics focused on issues faced by most communities in the Rio Grande Valley,  such as housing, infrastructure, downtown revitalization, and public health. Panelists discussed how to harness community partnerships and design for the public interest as a tool to improve our communities and build healthy and resilient environments. The diverse audience in attendance (city and county employees, local and international design professionals, engineers, [bc] partners, architecture students and community organizers) contributed to  a productive discussion of these issues and possible solutions.

Speakers included Nick Mitchell-Bennett, Executive Director of CDCB, Maurice Cox, as well as Brent Brown and staff members from the [bc] Rio Grande Valley office. By contextualizing the principles of public interest design into the issues that Brownsville & the Lower Rio Grande Valley are facing, participants learned how to use public interest design when planning for diverse needs, such as infrastructure, public health and post-disaster recovery housing. Participants from Monterrey, Mexico also expressed their desire to apply practices from public interest design in the U.S. to issues being faced in their respective communities.

PIDI Brownsville events included:

Day 1:

[PANEL] Inclusive Strategies: Leadership and Partnerships

[PANEL] Building It Better: Resilient Housing and Infrastructure

[LECTURE] [bc]: Working Across Scales: La Hacienda Casitas, sustainABLEhouse, and RAPIDO

Day 2:

[Keynote] - Maurice Cox shared his work from Charlottesville and his work with Tulane University in New Orleans. His design, political, institutional, and educational experience serve to tie the panel topics with what is currently happening in Brownsville.

[PANEL] Downtown Economics: Urban Redevelopment and Revitalization

[PANEL]  Healthy Environments: Designing and Building Healthy Communities

“I'm a civil engineer, so it's kind of hard to apply PID to installation of a sanitary sewer line, for example. However, I frequently work hand-in-hand with architectural firms (civil site design) so the course did give me some valuable insight into the big picture, i.e. what a versatile design team is capable of accomplishing for the common good of the community,” noted one participant.

Check out the  #pidibrownsville hashtag for coverage of the event on Twitter, including lessons learned from PIDI Brownsville:

  • Invest in the people to reach sustainability goals.

  • Collaboration & teamwork is essential to serving the public.

  • Partnership & interdisciplinary goals are necessary for successful projects with public-interest goals.

[bc] hopes to recreate the success of PIDI Brownsville in Dallas, TX. Join us for PIDI Dallas in September 2015.