Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dialogues in Planning: Urban Connectivity hosted by UTSA

2nd installment of Dialogues in Planning
- hosted by UTSA, presented by imagineSanAntonio and UTSA

courtesy graphic-UTSA

With a packed room on the first floor of the UTSA College of Architecture, Dialogues in Planning brought together professors, citzens, policymakers, and students alike.

The night began with presentations from Dr. Richard Tangum, Director of Center for Urban/Regional Planning(UTSA), and Bob Wise, president of imagineSanAntonio. Both presentations gave the audience a historical evolution of street patterns of San Antonio. Tangum as a San Antonio native provided us with colorful stories of growing up in his neighborhood  - reminiscing of a time when a pharmacy, grocer, corner store, and other amenities were all within walking distance - in what is now known today as Hemisfair Park. His and other neighborhoods were razed for the development of Hemisfair Park, the Alamodome, and other public-private projects.

With the new Federal-Aid Highway Act implemented by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, San Antonio began developing its highways that would shape the future of its commerce. Unfortunately this construction would tear through the heart of many communities, displacing families and severing connections between neighborhoods. A diagram displaying numerous inner-city streets removed since 1904 to present-day proved staggering in its impact, eliciting moans from the audience.

Notice the boundaries of San Antonio's modern inner-city area confined by I-35 to the north/east, I-37 to the west, and I-10 covering the south, creating a box-like border. The northwest sector of downtown, once the heart of San Antonio's Italian community replete with churches, markets, and public spaces, was part of the cultural geography affected by highway development.

Picking up where Tangum left off, Bob Wise illustrated this disconnection causing major problems for our communities such as social isolation, environmental deterioration. His presentation demonstrated the need for neighborhoods to be self-sufficient, compact with mixed use, and provide a broad range of housing in creating diversity.

He presented his case for complete streets with a thorough investigation of the pros and cons for residents, business, public transit, etc.  He warned of the "superblocks" created by acquisition of public streets or spaces in serving the organization and excluding pedestrian traffic or vehicular mobility. (see: SA Current article by Charlotte Luongo) "The UTSA downtown campus is itself a superblock. No disrespect intended," he stated.

The completeness is created by setting priorities not only for motor vehicles, but for pedestrians, rapid transit, and cyclists. He emphasized the planning - with community input - for urban streets will create an efficiency of mobility, enhancing the quality of life for everyone.


Moderator David Bogle inquired into the panelists' views of the history and future of the streets of downtown San Antonio. Andrew Perez, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, in great detail gave a history of the significance of San Antonio as a major city, beginning with travelers settling here some 1200 years ago. They discovered the bountiful water supply of the San Pedro Springs area and the San Antonio River. The French LaSalle expeditions of the late 17th century recognized San Antonio as the future sight of a major city. 

Christine Drennon, Director of Urban Studies at Trinity University, also alluded to the Interstate Highway Systems destroying communities in her studies of Treme, New Orleans. Most recently the community organizations are making efforts to revitalize the original neighborhood affected by I-10 construction.

Angela Hartsell completed a unique case study of five cities - Vancouver, Chicago, Istanbul, Kyoto, San Antonio - in which she studied a specific street segment unique to each region, with downtown Houston Street fitting the model for the study. San Antonio definitely fails in maintaining a green grocer, but she was impressed with the sidewalk widths and ease of navigation with directional and historical signs indicating downtown destinations.

As the dialogue was between the moderator and panelists, an audience Q&A session was not held. So I pose my questions at this point:

  • Given the evident lack of street lighting, walkable sidewalks, and pedestrian development, will we see a shift in public policy to address the essential social fabric of communities?
  • Time will tell whether the VIA streetcar will effectively serve commuters and tourists. San Pedro, Culebra, Bandera, Broadway, and other main streets serving as arteries prove to be so wide that rapid transit, whether bus or light rail, would substantially benefit commuters and motor vehicles. Along with the new streetcar, can we expect to see San Antonio adopt a mass transit system in the near future?


In an effort to increase walkability in neighborhoods, the San Antonio-Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization has developed the Walkable Communities program, recently taking on Wheatley neighborhood on San Antonio's east side, broadcasted by Nowcast SA. See video below: