In pursuit of a ‘better’ city, less tangible values become paramount

What makes a city great?

Travel magazines thrive on tourist recommendations that puncture popular myths about seemingly familiar places. In San Antonio’s rapid transformation across a number of sectors, today’s mapmakers can be excused for mostly missing the boat.

In a way, we’re victims of our own marketing.

“San Antonio has the reputation of a charming city, but I don’t think that folks see the San Antonio of 2011,” Mayor Julián Castro told the Current this week. While we’re known as a nice place to enjoy a margarita on the River Walk, “there’s not a lot of depth” in how much of the world sees us. As the city wrestles over how to remake our inner core, a place almost completely given over to visiting margarita sippers and corporate entertainers, we can expect that to change quickly as a number of ambitious agendas continue to roll out.

Key in our transformation has been the hard-won rewiring of CPS Energy and guiding sustainable principles taking root within city government aimed at not only changing how we generate and use our energy, but in “re-naturing” the city. While the roots of modern cities grew out of dominating the natural world — whether through the earliest temple-based cultures or the discovery of agriculture that first cut a deep channel between wild and the civilized — even the builders of the earliest “megacity,” Rome, understood that cities needed a defined boundary line with nature. Bands of pasture were frequently preserved outside the city walls, and when one city grew too big, new cities were founded rather than being allowed to sprawl out into an ungovernable mess. It’s a lesson we’re still struggling to remember.

San Antonio’s environmental awareness jolted awake over water concerns decades ago and has only more recently turned to issues of open land as our frontier city has bumped up against the price tag of runaway development. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said the strain on county resources has become so acute that it’s become wiser for Bexar County to invest in subsidizing downtown apartments than to pay for the cost of providing services for new residents moving into the unmanaged fringes. It’s a problem he blames partially on the city’s increased reluctance to annex outlying lands but also on state-limited county powers.

“It’s untenable right now, I can assure you of that,” Wolff said this week. “There’s no way to provide the services out there with the limited resources we’ve got. … So the idea of drawing people in is much more important than it was 20 years ago. We just did two tax breaks just last week for developments downtown. It used to be just jobs, now it’s: Can we get you to live [downtown]?”

Attracting new residents into San Antonio’s urban core will involve a number of issues, including improving the proximity to jobs (low), grocery stores (none), and affordable housing (limited). But increasingly nature has also become an institutionalized value. Pollution-free solar energy is vital, Wolff said, as are the hike-and-bike trails that have begun to line area creeks. And while Wolff has spent much of his career brokering high-profile big- development business deals, he called the extension of the River Walk’s Mission Reach — chiefly an environmental restoration project stretching, ultimately, for eight miles south of downtown — “the most important public-works project of our time.”

Factor in a gathering seven-county conservation plan aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive areas and species to the rapidly developing north and west of San Antonio, and you’ve got the start of rapid revaluation of unpaved landscapes.

It turns out that cities don’t just need jobs and cash to be great: they need human creativity, transparent governance, and a dose of wildness, too. At least that’s what the global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers stressed in 2005 after surveying mayors and city managers from around the world, the findings of which were released in the report, “Cities of the future: Global competition, local leadership.”

In it, there’s much talk of knowledge-based economies and the need for imaginative leadership, and — of course — healthy environments.

In a none-too-romantic view of modern metropolises, William Rees, a professor in sustainability studies at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning, wrote last year in Scientific American: “Today’s land-grabbing, auto-dominated, fuel-inefficient metropolises have evolved into parasitic black holes, sucking in excessive megatons of energy and materials from all over the globe and spewing out volumes of (often toxic) waste.”

Attempting to reverse a legacy of sprawl and dirty energy, Castro declared last month that San Antonio is now officially seeking to become the nation’s clean-tech capital. Part of that involves research and development in both private and institutional settings — new partnerships with companies like energy-management company Concert, and LED-lighting outfit GreenStar, which Castro said are being encouraged toward the city’s center. It will mean trading sprawl for density, a key to effective energy management.

Though he entered his tenure in 2009 with downtown in mind, Castro said he’s been surprised by the public enthusiasm he has been met by. And so it’s become a time to “layer” on the amenities, he said, such as bike lanes, bicycle sharing stations, great art, and parks.

And while cities have evolved since the days of the Fertile Crescent’s centralized ziggurats into exercises of secular management, their success is also determined by less quantifiable measures, such as a common sense of place, community, and shared aspirations. “Without the notion of sacred space, it is doubtful that cities could have ever developed anywhere in the world,” Joel Kotkin writes in his sweeping work, The City: A Global History. And while the gods are still with us (blessed Manu, anyone?), the sense of ourselves as a community — perhaps today’s most “sacred space” — is what Castro wisely marks as our greatest asset. It’s one that, thankfully, remains creatively volatile. And increasingly wild. •

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