Over the past decade, San Antonio citizens have used their voting power to approve more than $1.1 billion in publicly-funded bond projects to improve the city's built environment. With that investment, San Antonians bought hundreds of street, sidewalk, bridge, parks and open spaces, library, museum, public art and public safety projects. Together, citizens and policy makers have done an excellent job of ensuring that funded bond projects contribute both efficiency and utility to our growing built environment. But we can do an even better job next time around by raising our expectations of what our major public investments should yield in total.
In the spring of 2017, San Antonio voters will again have the final say on whether or not to invest hundreds of millions of dollars more into the city’s public realm – another huge and potentially catalytic investment in our future.
As voters, we could easily settle for future public investments that meet only the most basic standards of form, utility and function. Alternatively, we could be more deliberate and demand that our biggest investments satisfy the basics, but also retain, expand, and enrich the physical beauty of our city. High standards for design and impact could result in great streets, supporting the ways that San Antonians want to move about in the future, and make the neighborhoods that they frame much more interesting. Higher standards could also yield more parks and civic spaces that are beautiful, are more accessible, bring people together, and are maximized in their use. Elevating our standards can also seed and cultivate homegrown cultural institutions that will come to rival the world’s best as places of learning and discovery.
Come bond season, if citizens bring low expectations for design and impact, there could be an extensive and expensive list of projects that contribute little to propelling us towards a deserved and achievable future as a great American city. The “Great City Club” comes with benefits: being known as a center of energy and opportunity that attracts the world’s most talented people to study, work, create, invest and call home. At some point in the near future, the world’s school kids will transform themselves into the most valuable fuel that cities need to thrive – smart, creative, young talent. The lens through which we make today’s investments in San Antonio’s public realm will determine if we are preparing the city for their arrival or not.
At every corner of San Antonio, there is individual evidence that thoughtful public investments can help seed and cultivate the great places that will make the city a more competitive place for that talent. Recent examples of thoughtful public investment include San Antonio River Improvements Project, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System, and the public infrastructure support of the Pearl. Another example, on a smaller scale, is the near Eastside Dignowity Hill Neighborhood’s call for quality streets.
The whole city, however, is not yet greater than the sum of its parts. San Antonio is on a very positive path and continues to shed its sleepy, “also ran” image. However, to move our city into the company of America’s most irresistible cities, it will take an even higher citizen standard of quality and impact from public investments. Utility and efficiency are important and should be “givens” in public investments. San Antonio’s opportunity is to move beyond the “givens” and into the realm of great expectations.
Nearly 60 years ago, the late writer/urban agitator Jane Jacobs wrote the widely read and thought provoking article “Downtown is for People” for Fortune Magazine. The article is a studied critique of the “modern” city planning theories of that time.
Jacobs is best known for her 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," a provocative and full-throated critique of the popular American city planning theories and techniques used during the first half of the 20th century. Jacobs was most critical of the well-intentioned sanitization of big city life in America, delivered courtesy of boring, large-scale, and antiseptic project planning. She stated that the efforts of planners to introduce vibrancy and energy to America’s declining urban cores produced unintended returns: the removal of the most valuable asset these downtowns and urban neighborhoods had going for them – their heart and soul.
Jacobs’ theories on great city planning centered on her belief in the value of:
1. Seeding fertile ground for the diversity of both people and land use
2. Being serious about getting the human scale right within the public realm
3. Ubiquitous and generous sidewalks, thoughtfully imagined neighborhoods, parks, and civic spaces
4. Exorcising our fears of a few rough edges or occasional disorderliness in neighborhood life
In the "Fortune" article, Jacobs likened the majority of publicly sponsored projects at time-- civic parks, grand streets, promenades, and public squares of her era--to vacant, well manicured cemeteries, best appreciated by the departed. There was no sense of there at these places.
The 2017 bond will be an opportunity for San Antonio to invest in the type of projects that powerfully demonstrate that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine voters who demand that the combined impact of many projects will serve as a watershed investment toward the best San Antonio of tomorrow. Imagine the expectation that what ultimately gets built will materially accelerate the ongoing evolution of San Antonio as one of America’s most irresistible cities. San Antonio as a more vibrant, physically beautiful, connected and culturally rich community than ever before. Imagine a city that from its northern, southern, eastern, and western edges, to its heart at the center, functions better for residents, engages visitors, and inspires all.
As years pass and new generations emerge, San Antonio will continue to evolve as a city. Physically, our downtown skyline will change and new parks, streets, and city infrastructure will expand. New views and vistas will emerge, and neighborhoods will be born, revitalized and redeveloped. Smart, discerning people of all ages and walks of life will continue test what our city has to offer against their ever demanding ideas of what a great city should look and feel like, and how it should function. With each major investment in the future, we should always ask ourselves: how are we advancing our march towards becoming a great American city?
Bond projects presented by politicians, policy makers, planners,as well as private sector designers and constructors can be challenged by citizens to deliver a return on investment that goes far beyond the important yet basic accountabilities. This will only happen if we expect great outcomes. Cumulatively, these projects can, as Jacobs hoped generations ago, increase our connectedness to one another, re-establish the public realm as the domain for people first, retain and create beauty in every part of our city, and make the San Antonio of tomorrow a better place to work, play and live.
A public engagement process will commence later this year, giving voters both early insight into and influence over the number and scope of bond projects to be considered. When the public review and input process for the 2017 bond begins, the City of San Antonio staff will share a developing list of recommended projects. At some point during that public process, which has been quite robust and inclusive in the past, the San Antonio City Council will negotiate, refine and finalize the list of recommended projects, then call for an election in the spring for voter consideration.
As citizens, let's pledge to participate with a keen eye for both the details and the big picture. Let's maintain the highest of expectations and set the toughest of standards on what is yielded by our investments. Our expectations as citizens on the quality of design, utility, and the impact that these bond projects cumulatively make will matter greatly. The look, feel and function of tomorrow’s San Antonio will depend largely on the standards that we demand today.
*Top image: A jogger runs underneath the Jones Street bridge on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, decorated with holiday lights. Photo by Scott Ball.