San Antonio CityFest Vision: Stop Talking, Start Doing

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Gil Penalosa, Founder of 8 80 Cities.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities, speaks at San Antonio CityFest on Saturday at the Southwest School of Art.

We can build a better San Antonio. We really have no choice if we want to join the ranks of cities that focus on the people who live and work there instead of on cars. The alternative is to join the ranks of cities that settle for mediocrity.

The most important piece of infrastructure in any city is its network of sidewalks and parks, the places where people walk, recreate, stay healthy, and meet across the socio-economic spectrum as citizens, neighbors, and equals.

That’s the message and the challenge the urban visionary Gil Penalosa, founder of the Toronto-based nonprofit 8 80 Cities, brought to San Antonio as the keynote speaker at the inaugural San Antonio CityFest. It’s a message he shared Thursday with a sold-out audience at the Pearl Stable, with students at Texas A&M University-San Antonio Friday morning, with a millennial-dominant audience at the Alamo Brewery Friday evening, and to help kick off the daylong programming at the Southwest School of Art on Saturday.

Penalosa has worked with more than 350 cities from around the world, from Brownsville and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley to Singapore and Melbourne many time zones to the east. This was his first visit to San Antonio. If we are smart, we will bring him back – not as a keynote speaker, but as a working consultant to help local leaders accelerate the pace of change and the philosophy of development in San Antonio.

Many of our elected leaders were in Los Angeles for part of the week to attend the National League of Cities conference, an important annual gathering of mayors, city managers, city council members, and urban professionals. That conference comes to San Antonio next year and offers an important opportunity for the city to showcase its most impressive urban accomplishments and amenities.

I wish, however, that those same officials could have been inside the Pearl Stable to listen to Penalosa’s TED Talk-style presentation, an evangelical call to action: “Stop talking. Start doing.”

You can watch Penalosa’s presentation here.

Penalosa pointed to San Antonio’s anticipated population growth of 1 million people over the next 25 years and asked how the city had grown to accommodate the 1 million who are here now. If we had it to do over again, would we do it differently? Would we have managed sprawl more intelligently? Or are we on a path to continue developing over the next 40 years the same way we developed over the past 40 years?

More than 600,000 people in San Antonio can reach the closest park only by vehicle, he noted, comparing us to San Francisco, where every child lives within a 10-minute walk of at least a pocket park.

The city’s hike and bike trails and the 13-mile linear park along the San Antonio River drew praise from Penalosa, who spent four days walking the city, taking his first scooter ride, and exploring our best and worst features.

“Are we still in San Antonio?” he asked me at one point as we passed the 10-mile mark leaving downtown and driving along Interstate 35 and Loop 410.

He pointed to city statistics on the web touting San Antonio’s growing network of 200 bike lanes.

“Where are they?” he asked me as we drove the length of Broadway and meandered into adjacent streets. “A white stripe on the street under parked cars is not a bike lane. I don’t see many people on bikes. Most people are afraid to ride a bike in traffic. They need a connected network of protected bike lanes, and every street needs a sidewalk.

“The right to walk safely in any city, on a well-maintained sidewalk, with a good tree canopy, with good lighting, without being attacked by stray dogs, should be a human right,” he said. “If you want to be a city of happy, healthy people, you are going to have make that commitment and make it now. You can’t afford to wait.”

CityFest closed Saturday evening with a panel titled “The Decade of Downtown: An Early Assessment.” Former Mayor Julián Castro, who sparked that urban renaissance, shared the stage with Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith, who oversees the ambitious public-private partnership with the City to redevelop a large part of the western side of downtown, a project that includes the new Frost Tower. SA 2020 CEO Molly Cox, who oversees the goal-setting agenda citizens shaped also under Castro’s watch, and UTSA Provost Kimberly Espy, who talked about the coming $200 million expansion of the university’s Downtown Campus that is expected to add about 15,000 students to the mix, rounded out the panel.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the impetus of the decade of downtown.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the impetus of the decade of downtown.

There was much to celebrate looking back over the past decade. San Antonio is on track to surpass some of the goals set in 2010, while it lags in other categories, including public health, pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and economic segregation, which are all related.

Penalosa, with a fresh look at San Antonio and global experience on the subject of the connection between healthy cities and economic development and competitiveness, sounded a clarion call. Will the right people listen? And if they do, will they act? The emerging generations of young San Antonians expect nothing less of us.

17 thoughts on “San Antonio CityFest Vision: Stop Talking, Start Doing

  1. I agree with Mr. Peñalosa and hope our leaders will make decisions to achieve goals for this challenge. As citizens wishing to live in a healthy, pedestrian, active atmosphere, we should strive to live that way by walking, bicycling, riding scooters and using public transportation on an everyday basis. The average San Antonian needs to understand this too. There should be more education for citizens on the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for this lifestyle change. Suggested ways to encourage mobility for the good of the community are having larger ciclovías all over the city more often, and offering lower taxes for those who use public transportation and bicycles on an everyday basis. Suggested ways to discourage a landscape dominated by automobiles include assessing more fees/taxes for the use of cars; restricting auto access to certain high pedestrian areas by permit based primarily on residency.

    • you need a compact city to get a landscape that is not automobile dominated, SA is one of the least dense cities in U.S./world, it needs more density to be a walkable place. There is a strong connection between walkability and land use.

    • No, because the great Ms. Scully will remain on the job. This WOMAN has done a FANTASTIC job for the city of SAN ANTONIO!!
      GO SCULLY GO!!!!

  2. “ Or are we on a path to continue developing over the next 40 years the same way we developed over the past 40 years?”
    I believe we are. There seems to be a lack of political will to advocate for more density and building in the urban core. Elected’s cater to the single family homeowner with resisting diverse housing and middle housing that would create more homes, more neighbors in near downtown neighborhoods.

  3. Dawn, look at a map of single family homes, new and older spread acrosss the northside and west side. This isn’t the Elected’s making these decisions. The ordinances and regulations in Development Services, allow and encourage the sprawl. Planning and Zoning Commissions follow existing rules. Those rules are made, mainly, by Technical Advisory Committee – look at it’s membership.

    • Elected’s frequently vote down multi-family developments and vote for single family homes becoming historic landmarks so they can’t be torn down (most recently a developer was going to build 8 condos on two single family lots in Alta Vista, the NA submitted paperwork to make them historic landmarks, HDRC ruled to make them landmarks – one was against staff recommendations – and the vote will now go to Council). Council tries to have zoning and land uses amended through their vote, check out several of Trevino’s Council Consideration Requests over the last year. Council will soon vote on reformed IDZ that will now require developers to include parking, which will also promote sprawl. Much of these changes are led by council responding to a select minority of loud homeowners.

  4. You mean will the city continue to do the bidding of developers? Of course! Having seen the urban density in Dallas-with great architectural features, green space, amenenities such as shops, grocers, and small restaurants within walking distance—and then seeing the new developments near the Pearl and downtown you had to wonder how these developments-big square boxes devoid of the architectural features San Antonio is known for, will fare in 10 years? Not to mention the price tag, which is out of reach for most who live in SA!

    Transportation? The city planners should have been more forward thinking! Who didn’t know that 281 would need to be more efficient when developers got approvalfirso much building in that direction and on 1604W and on I-10. Maybe the city should look at the impact of approving development on current infrastructure and neighborhood concerns! You want parks and green spaces? Require developers to set aside areas for that! Don’t even think about yet another tax for vehicles on roads! It’s regressive and not employment friendly!

    The housing problem is a direct reflection of the education/skills problem. When most outsiders think of SA they think of it as a low-wage service sector economy—for the most part. As an aside, housing as a budgetary item is not the responsibility of city government. What services are not being provided to taxpayers?

  5. San Antonio is among the most automobile-dominated, low-density cities in the country. We have half the population per square mile of Los Angeles. For decades, due to our cheap land and cheap oil, we have encouraged unconnected suburban growth, and we are far behind on changing our sprawl development pattern.

    Many residents yearn for walkable communities, as shown by the increasing value of our historic downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. But instead of building more of what we love, we fight over what we created a century ago.

    We can feel the consequences of sprawl in our pocketbook and our lungs. Changing the policies that created it will require greater leadership and a willingness to work together towards a more sustainable future.

  6. “The most important piece of infrastructure in any city is its network of sidewalks and parks, the places where people walk, recreate, stay healthy, and meet across the socio-economic spectrum as citizens, neighbors, and equals.”
    I would think many would dispute this statement by Mr. Penalosa. Ask those who drive on congested roadways, see the filth along our city roads, experience flooding every time it rains… He is like most every other consultant. He has figured out a way to get organizations to pay for his thoughts and is held accountable for nothing. What a nice career he has carved out for himself-taking advantage of dreamers/not visionaries.

    • Ken, You should do your homework before sharing your cynical conclusions. Gil Penalosa has a long record as an accomplished city commissioner in Bogotá, and also working as a results-oriented contractor with cities across the globe, from small cities in the Rio Grande Valley to some of the biggest cities in the world. We brought him here as a speaker, but his 880Cities delivers results. –RR

  7. This particular topic highlights the huge divide of citizen opinions. Unfortunately, if you ask 2 million people what is your 40-year vision for San Antonio, only 10% would be able to give you a coherent answer with real thought put behind their reply. The other 90% will say, whatever you want, as long as it does not negatively impact me. Mexico City is the same geographical size as San Antonio with 25 million people, so we can easily accommodate another few million folks. Without changing regulations, most likely that will simply be more “urban sprawl.” With any political decision, there will be winners and losers. Should a majority of citizens decide what our city does, or a precious few that have chosen to get involved and be louder than the rest?
    I’d like to see several public educational forums that are also televised and put over the radio with Penaloso as well as another consultant or two with alternative viewpoints. Let’s educate the public on the three, five, or twelve different options, and I believe that will help drive the majority to 1-3 better options, and then do some further detailed analysis from there. The only guarantee is that any decision will be monumental in its importance for the future of the city, which also means that there will be a lot of lobbyist and political activity behind it to try to get the answer that certain factions want.

  8. Although not related to this article, I would appreciate the Rivard Report doing a story on S.A.’s tricentennial to include events, participation, dollars spent, and results. Thanks.

  9. Saying we need more density before the city looks at fixing sidewalks (both existing and non-existent), complete curbs and drainage, bike lanes, parks, etc. is backward. You need to put those things in place, and correct the lackadaisical planning of the past. That provides the incentive, the infrastructure, and the desire for density to exist. Some people argue to add density immediately without correcting the infrastructure to support it, making it more taxing on the current car-demanded streets in existence. All this will do is make the existing residents frustrated with all the “new” people coming to areas.

    • One could argue what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Often, good mass transit, amenities to walk to, and sidewalk infrastructure follows density – this has already been experimented with in other large cities.

  10. Can he be our Mayor…two things we must overcome, the complacency, and be bold. Your hear that city and business leaders? Unfortunately I have my doubts. One example, for years now people have pushed for dedicated city bike lanes. Nada. It’s so easy to accomplish, due to the hi numbers of streets I’ve witnessed practically empty on certain days. City leaders, please take Mr. Penalosas’ pleas to heart.

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