San Antonio’s Evolution Is Written in Its Landscape Heritage

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The Japanese Tea Garden at Brackenridge Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

The Japanese Tea Garden at Brackenridge Park.

When speaking about the future of San Antonio, it’s imperative to speak in terms of change and continuity because stewardship of such a culturally rich and distinct place calls for balance.

The concepts of change and continuity get us away from the binary either/or choices that too often prove both polarizing and restricting. They recognize and address the complexities and nuances of this exceptional shared legacy, from the World Heritage-designated missions and Brackenridge Park’s millennia of layered history to the San Antonio River that physically and spiritually connects so many people.

Resulting from both natural and human conditions, change is sometimes subtle (shoreline erosion along the San Antonio riverbanks) or barely perceptible (the loss of historic views at Miraflores when invasive understory plants go unbridled). At other times, it is strikingly obvious, as with the death of a single tree species, the addition of a new playground or memorial in the wrong location, or ever-expanding parking areas.

The dynamic quality of all cultural landscapes is balanced by the continuity of distinctive character-defining features retained over time. Despite a landscape’s constant change – or perhaps because of it – the unique character and authenticity of San Antonio’s unrivaled cultural landscape legacy should continue to exhibit continuity of form, order, use, features, and/or materials.

But how do we get there?

Embracing a holistic approach to the stewardship of this legacy – valuing and understanding the city’s inherent and unique natural, historical, and cultural assets – is how municipal, nonprofit, and private stakeholders will be able to measure success going forward.

In March 2017, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) organized the Leading with Landscape conference in San Antonio, which established a strong foundation of ideas for comprehensive planning. In addition, through recent research for the new online What’s Out There San Antonio guide and the printed guidebook of that same name, TCLF aspires to further enrich the knowledge base for that conversation (at launch, the guide will feature some 60 sites and information about some 20 pioneering figures who contributed to the city’s design legacy).

As the city continues to celebrate its Tricentennial, allow me to share some observations that are both celebratory and cautionary:

Evolution of Parks

San Antonio’s network of parks and open spaces evolved organically and, in the process, embraced its natural systems, ecology, and cultural lifeways.

Contrast this with Dallas and Houston, which were historically more comprehensively planned in the first decades of the 20th century: the former has a park system designed by midwestern landscape architect George Kessler, and the latter has two large municipal parks designed by George Kessler and Hare & Hare, and a park network by Arthur Comey. That’s a key and defining difference.

As Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City, wrote in 1854: “The San Antonio Spring may be classed as of the first water among the gems of the natural world. The whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth . . .  The effect is overpowering. It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring.”

These cultural observations, written 36 years before Yosemite became a National Park suggest a holistic way of seeing the built environment – one that recognizes that nature and culture go together.

Cultural Authenticity

As we have seen from the exemplary work at the Pearl by planners, architects, and landscape architects, and from the recent combustible fracas at the Alamo, San Antonians are passionate about their history. Is a quest for authenticity in the city’s drinking water? I think so.

In viewing the recent Alamo debate through the lens of cultural heritage, it’s worth restating Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard’s spot-on observations in Texas Monthly: “More than the physical landscape is at stake here. Healing old wounds caused by the distortion of history is also a work in progress, with no clear outcome or resolution. Anglos hijacked the real history of the Alamo, erasing Tejanos and vilifying Mexicans (and, by extension, Mexican Americans) in the Disneyfication of its telling.

“Much has been done over the past twenty years to recover a more complete narrative, but a city obsessed with its own history still insists on telling a myth with too many uncomfortable gaps. That’s why the famous phrase “Remember the Alamo!” carries such different meanings for different people, all of whom live together, yet still apart, in the Alamo City.”

Population Growth

San Antonio is growing by an average of 66 people per day, which is re-energizing traditional centers of energy and creating new ones. While this boom presents opportunities, it also prompts concerns about when the city’s cultural resources might reach a tipping point. For example, what role should landscape architects and urban planners play when designing for the public realm at a time when there is a need to absorb massive new development along the Broadway corridor, at Hemisfair, and the River Walk?

Leading with Culture

San Antonio has an opportunity to lead with culture as it has with nature along the river. The city’s parks and open spaces embody a regionally unique and diverse cultural narrative that ranges from Kimi Eizo Jingu’s contributions to Brackenridge Park’s Tea Garden, which leveraged a former quarry site, to Dionicio Rodriguez’s faux bois (imitation wood) follies that dot the city’s urban landscape today.

A new San Antonio River Barge passes by VFW Post 76 decorated in holiday lights.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A new San Antonio River Barge passes by VFW Post 76 decorated in holiday lights.

Perhaps most pronounced throughout the city is the unique regional application and interpretation of Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival architecture, which is not only reflected in the city’s residential neighborhoods but also in its celebrated campus and institutional landscapes, as well as parks and gardens. Proselytized and popularized by architects Ford, Powell & Carson, Ayres & Ayres, and others, these civic acts of patronage bind us together as much as the river.

San Antonio has many public treasures ready to be leveraged – assets rich in history and ecology, such as San Pedro Springs Park, one of the first municipal parks in the country, and Brackenridge Park, with its unrivaled prehistoric and historic resources, which, I believe, is to municipal parks what national monuments like Yosemite are to the nation: places where the conservation of “wild nature” for posterity (in the context of a rich history and prehistory) serves as a symbol of national pride and informs stewardship.

One possible path forward is the creation of a National Heritage Area (there are 49 in the United States but none in Texas). National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes. Unlike national parks, National Heritage Areas are large, lived-in landscapes. Consequently, National Heritage Areas entities collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs.

Brackenridge Park, with its prehistoric and historic assets and its critical relationship with the San Antonio River, is as significant in telling the story of the city as the World Heritage-designated Missions, and these sites are inextricably intertwined with the river and the park.

As San Antonio embarks on its next 100 years, now is the time to think holistically and ambitiously to carefully manage change while ensuring continuity. In this way, the city’s natural and cultural uniqueness – its very identity – is something with which we co-exist and nurture rather than conquer.

2 thoughts on “San Antonio’s Evolution Is Written in Its Landscape Heritage

  1. All I can say to you Charles Birnbaum is “Bravo! Way to go. Keep it up.” We will be seeking out future WOTWs in other cities in the future. You have hit the nail on the head. Thank you.

  2. Good evening, Mr Birnbaum. This article I read on your speech published Nov 2018 piqued my interest, so I thought I’d reach out and try.

    I’m looking for someone to guide me on best approaches to cultivate my future backyard, best adapted to SA environment, yet best suited to what I’d like to grow.

    I’ve learned by trial and error how to nurture some SA native trees, and some transplanted, yet adapative species to our climate. I’d like to try more – but will be moving to a new area in SA mid-2019. I want to do better.

    I’d like to avoid the nonsense ‘best landscaper’ award websites if possible, because I have no idea if they can give me good advice. I’m asking if you can point me in the right direction.

    I’ll stop here for now, to avoid an overly long email. I will provide more details on what I’ve done and what I’d like to do pending your response. Thank you for your time.

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