After establishing a medical school a few years ago in the Rio Grande Valley, researchers with the University of Texas made an alarming finding in Cameron County. About one in three people has diabetes, driven primarily by a high rate of obesity.
Brownsville City Commissioner Rose Gowen, a physician herself, said the region could save millions on medical costs if residents were more physically active. But having a place to safely walk or bike can be challenging for low-income people.
"There are a lot of gaps in the recreational areas that we have," said Gowen. "Not everyone here has a car or access to a car on a regular basis."
So to help people have easier access to parks and trails, a coalition of 11 cities is now developing plans for an extensive trail system that would run throughout Cameron County. The system would include over 400 miles of on-and-off street trails, as well as paddling routes along local waterways.
"We are certainly a very poor area, one of the poorest counties in the nation. But we have not let that stop us," adds Gowen. "By building partnerships, especially with our sister cities, we've been able to create a situation where no one entity has to do a huge heavy lift on their own."
Local officials say the trail system will also provide a safe transportation option for people who depend on a bike to get to work. Another goal of the project is to attract visitors who want to explore Cameron County's unique ecosystems. That in turn could help boost the region's economy.
‘Our backyards are filled with white pelicans and green parrots that are our constant companions," said Gowen. "So as you ride through our trails or kayak down our water routes these are the types of things you would see."
Gowen expects the project will unfold over a period of years as funding becomes available and right now they're actively applying for grants. To kick off the effort, they've identified six initial trail projects that will form the backbone of the system.