Choosing Public Health in the U.S./Mexico Border City of Laredo, Texas

by Hector Gonzalez, M.D.MPH

The City of Laredo, Texas is the gateway city on the border between the United States and Mexico. The city has four international bridges crossing the Rio Grande that supports 47 percent of U.S. international trade headed for Mexico and more than 36 percent of Mexico’s international trade into the U.S.

Laredo is the second largest port of entry in the United States and is also home to the largest inland port along the border. A vibrant and diverse city, Laredo also has communities that bear disproportionate burdens of environmental harm, public health disparities, and economic problems (up to 40% of the population is uninsured). The international flow of trade, as well as potential pollutants on both sides of the border, compound health disparities already present and heighten the potential for health hazards (many of which necessitate some sort of public health response).

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In recent years, Laredo, like other U.S./Mexico Border communities, has taken important strides to improve healthier outcomes and safeguard the environment. Planning and taking strategic steps to improve the city’s economic condition and to address critical public health issues is part of the intervention. Such planning includes engaging citizens in public decision-making, providing greater access to outdoor spaces, educating people about public health and prevention through healthier choices, and establishing new developments that enhance the overall quality of life for all residents. With our “Healthy Living/Viviendo Mejor and Active Living Plan” we have challenged our community to think healthier and to build and plan with health in mind (such as walking clubs, healthier eating and nutrition education, and the Mayor’s Active Living Task Force).

One of the city’s showcase projects is the Haynes Health and Wellness Center, a state-of-the-art park in Laredo that provides open access to indoor and outdoor exercise areas and community spaces, such as a pool, rooftop gardens, and a playground equipped for special-needs children. This park, funded jointly through public funds, private funds, and EPA brownfields funds, is a prime example of how green infrastructure and engaging the community in public decision-making can uplift emerging communities.

The primary mission of the Haynes Center is to provide the public with access to recreational facilities as a way to improve their overall quality of life. The presence of a public recreation center also serves to connect the community around central values. With public access to trails and facilities comes increased public participation in regular exercise regimes and a greater appreciation for the outdoors. In addition, a building like the Haynes Center promotes unity and well-being throughout the entire community.

In 2004, Laredo passed a Green Space Ordinance, which aims to achieve both economic development and environmental protection goals. The ordinance requires developers to include green space when constructing a new development.  For instance, the new outlet mall scheduled to be built along the Rio Grande River will feature a community waterpark on the riverfront.  This development allows businesses to set up shop in Laredo, but also gives the community an outdoor public area that will entice more children to play outside.  For developments in areas that already have designated green space, developers are encouraged to make additions. Overall, the Green Space Ordinance encourages more community areas that encourage more time spent outdoors.

And the most notable feature of Laredo’s decision to put public health as “our choice,” is that we have engaged citizens through the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) and the Laredo Health Coalition. CEAC is a group of professionals and environmental advocates hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds who weigh in on proposed city plans and ordinances, effectively providing a voice for the people. These meetings are publicly announced, and there is a time for community issues to be brought before the committee. Once consensus is reached on an issue, a recommendation letter is drafted and sent to the decision-making body, and the city council takes action. The CEAC played a tremendous role in the plastic bag ban ordinance, as well as a program to offer deposits on used tires to prevent tire discards into the Rio Grande River and the environment.

In Laredo, putting citizens first is our public responsibility and one we feel very proud of. And when you put citizens first, it becomes a healthier community for all.

About the author: Dr. Hector Gonzalez is the director of the City of Laredo Health Department. He has more than 30 years experience in public health and is committed and determined to ensuring the protection, well-being, and disease control in Laredo and Webb County.

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