At its third annual Design Access Conference, design advocacy group Public Architecture targeted Texas’ Rio Grande Valley as the next hotspot for economic transformation. For three days in February, a nexus of disciplines convened at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California, with one common goal: laying out the nuts and bolts for the design of an “anchor institution” in the economically challenged region.
An anchor institution is any establishment that develops a community by grounding it with a cornerstone model of economic and cultural growth—typically represented by a hospital, university, or local government establishment. The current project aims to turn the Rio Grande Valley—where at least 30 percent of residents live beneath the poverty line—toward economic viability with the development of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. The University of Texas launched the initiative in 2012. The ten-year program aims to bring high-quality education programs into the valley with four focus areas: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Architects, designers, scholars, and community members all met to strategize about how developing the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley branch might augment growth, bolster economic advances, and transform the community as a whole. Attendees covered a range of topics, including community health, local wealth creation, and sustainability. They also worked in small groups to discuss the project’s impact upon the community, detailing the risks and rewards of the program through discussion as well as individually. All attendees volunteered their time for the conference, although best efforts did not go unnoticed: Those with the best ideas won prizes from the conference’s sponsors, which included the Ford Foundation, Holcim Foundation, Humanscale, Shaw Contract Group, Teknion, Cannon Design, and HomeFed Corporation.