Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) traveled to Wuxi, China, a sister city of San Antonio, this week to participate in the 8th Wuxi International Sister Cities Forum, titled New Changes, New Opportunities — Urban Sustainable Development.
The mayor of Wuxi, Wang Qian, encouraged the delegations from the 45 cities represented at the forum to “learn from the best practices of other cities.”
The forum, which took place Tuesday Nov. 1 through Thursday Nov. 3, included the signing of cooperation and exchange agreements, keynote speeches, and the opportunity for visiting delegations to promote their cities to businesses and investors in Wuxi.
Nirenberg also signed a letter of intent for economic cooperation with the city of Nanjing.
Martha Henry, City of San Antonio senior international relations officer, and James Andrews, principal at Overland Partners and chair of the Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce China Committee, also traveled to China to participate in the forum and economic exchanges.
Nirenberg, who this summer was appointed vice chairman of the board of directors of Sister Cities International, the organization that oversees sister city relationships, gave a keynote speech titled Our City, Our Water: How San Antonio, Texas Protects its Most Precious Natural Resource.
In his speech, Nirenberg highlighted the many similarities between Wuxi and San Antonio, not only in tourist attractions, but in issues of sustainability.
“We know that ‘Wuxi is full of warmth and water.’ In that way, our cities are very alike,” Nirenberg said. “San Antonio is a place of rich, cultural heritage, warm people, and, gratefully, a magnificent water source that leaders like myself have been charged to protect.
“As one of the fastest growing regions in the United States, we also face challenges in protecting the Edwards Aquifer water supply and quality. The purification of water the Edwards provides is an extremely valuable environmental service and part of my job – perhaps the most important part of my job – is to ensure that we’re taking care of this resource.”
Water scarcity is cited by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to be the single greatest threat to the Texas economy, Nirenberg said, so San Antonio is proud of its plans for a desalination facility, its wastewater treatment plants, and its water conservation programs.
Water sourcing is an increasing concern in China, where one-sixth of the world’s population lives and vast swaths of land are becoming deserts. Nirenberg cited the World Economic Forum choice to name water crises as the top global risk with nearly half of the world’s population living in a state of water scarcity.
"Water is life, it’s community, it’s the basis of our economy,” Nirenberg said. “I look forward to working with you on these critical challenges affecting our cities and our entire world.”
Wang Jinjian, vice mayor of Wuxi Municipal People’s Government, outlined the four main concerns for Wuxi in the coming years including structural adjustments for sustainable industrial development, conservation of resources, sustainable development of the ecological environment, and the sustainable development of history and culture.
The city is heavily focused on improving the pollution in one of its largest sources of water: Taihu Lake. This huge natural body of water was polluted by companies on the lake and sourced at unsustainable levels.
Wang said that key projects are being carried out and that the lake is improving.
“Water treatment of the lake has been our priority since 2007,” Wang said through a translator. “We have transformed the lake by closing or reforming 4,000 high-pollution and high-consumption enterprises with pollution problems around the lake and we have invested more than ¥5 billion ($700 million).”
Another water feature, Wuxi’s most famous tourist destination and one of the top tourist attractions in China, is the 2,500-year-old 40-kilometer-long stretch of the Ancient Grand Canal. The Canal was originally used by barges to transport rice, but when the tourist barges began to pass through, the city built a larger separate canal for the barges that continue to transport goods.
In 1983, the city recognized the importance of conserving the canal and in the 1990s began renovating the ancient houses that line the canal. The city focused its first phase, which was recently completed, on infrastructure improvements such as waste management and moving electricity poles underground instead of along the canal.
The Qingming Bridge over the canal, which was built more than 400 years ago during the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. The section of the canal that passes through the city now draws between 70,000 and 80,000 tourists per year.
Sun Zhiliang, Wuxi’s senior urban planner, gave the San Antonio delegation a tour of the canal on a barge, not unlike an enclosed version of the River Walk barges, and described the challenges the city faced as it considered plans to renovate the canal and the homes there.
“It’s a problem we all face: We want to preserve history and the homes, but we want to renovate,” Sun said through a translator. “So we undertook the infrastructure improvements and the government encouraged businesses to move into the old homes, but they kept the exteriors. Now there are bed and breakfasts along the canal and the stores and restaurants are open until late.”
Foreign Investment and International Collaboration
One part of the forum included informal meetings between the delegations and Wuxi firms to encourage the formation of foreign partnerships.
Andrews, who attended the forum in his capacity as both principal at Overland Partners and as the chair of the China Committee, said before the meetings that he was hoping to meet local firms with which the city and Overland can partner.
“Overland already has one partner in Nanjing, ARUP, so firms in Wuxi may see the advantage in partnering with us,” Andrews said.
The San Antonio delegation met with a Wuxi design firm and an official from the Wuxi Municipal Bureau of Commerce and said that they were pleased with the discussions.
Sustainable Growth in Shanghai
Before arriving in Wuxi, the delegation spent two days in Shanghai where they met with ARUP, an engineering and design consultancy firm Overland Partners continues to work with on projects in China, and attended the Green City and Sustainable Development Forum organized by the U.S. Department of Commerce regarding sustainability efforts in Shanghai.
Nirenberg said that San Antonio can learn from Shanghai because the ancient city offers an opportunity to see the future of sustainable building and smart urban planning in San Antonio. He also said that the forum in Shanghai put many of the early-stage issues in San Antonio into perspective for him.
“Nathan Donohue, commercial officer for the consulate, said that there are more than 300,000 pollution and air quality-related deaths in China per year. In Bexar County, there are 52 of these deaths per year,” Nirenberg said. “We know what the answers are, so San Antonio has a choice. We’re only 300 years old versus 3,000 years old, and with only 1.5 million people versus 26 million in Shanghai.”
Andrews said that Jesper Würtzen, mayor of Ballerup, Denmark, summed up his beliefs on the importance of building sustainable cities: Ballerup had a polluted harbor when Würtzen was young. The city acknowledged this and changed its ways, and, in his words, “We solved it!"
“This idea of recognizing unsustainable city practices and then addressing them is what it’s all about,” Andrews said. “Once you develop a goal and strategies then everyone buys into it. There are guiding principles, so working this way means it’s less of a ‘ta-da’ process and more of an ‘a-ha’ process.”
On Sister Cities International
Nirenberg said that, although decisions affecting cities can be political in nature, the ability to exchange ideas with sister cities is key to finding solutions.
“The efficacy of the sister cities program is that decision makers and average citizens can both be bettered by these changes,” he explained.
Sister Cities International was created in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to foster peaceful relationships between U.S. and international cities. There are now more than 2,300 participating communities in 150 countries. As one of 10 San Antonio sister cities, Wuxi became the city’s ninth affiliation in 2012.
Mayor Ivy Taylor recently traveled to Windhoek, Namibia where she and Windhoek Mayor Muesee Kazapua signed San Antonio’s 10th sister city agreement. She was joined by Councilmen Alan Warrick (D2) and Ray Lopez (D6).
“The signing was such a momentous occasion,” Taylor stated in a news release. “Not only did it mark our 10th such MOU (memorandum of understanding), but it was our first with an African city. Windhoek is home to nearly all Namibian corporate headquarters, governmental bodies, and educational and cultural institutions. It is my hope that this Trade Mission will lead to great partnerships and business ventures.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) also travelled to China to attend the 2016 World Historical & Cultural Cities Expo — a UNESCO-sponsored event — from Oct. 23-26 in Nanjing.
Viagran presented on balancing development and preserving cultural diversity and heritage at the Forum on the Sustainable Development of Historical and Cultural Cities. Colleen Swain, director of the City’s World Heritage Office, also traveled to Nanjing.
While in Nanjing, Viagran and Swain met with the mayor of Nanjing and signed a “Letter of Intent expressing intentions for both cities to explore exchange and collaborative opportunities on the topics of heritage tourism and travel, cultural and educational exchange” according to the release.
“San Antonio has already gained national attention and, in many ways, has become a model for other cities seeking a World Heritage designation. Over the past week, I met with leaders from around the world and toured other World Heritage sites in an effort to find creative solutions to common challenges and explore best practices that can be applied universally,” Viagran stated in a news release.
Henry, who, along with Sherry Dowlatshahi, San Antonio’s chief of protocol and head of international relations, hosted the Wuxi delegation when they visited in 2013, said that forums like the one held in Wuxi are vital to the success of cities because city leaders can exchange ideas on their best practices.
“It’s the perfect intersection of international and local, of how cities are run. We find out answers to the question of ‘How do you get things done?’” Henry said. “To learn what other countries do is just brilliant.”