Transforming San Antonio: Opportunities for Greener, Healthier Urban Development in Rising Cities
By Cameron Kraus, technical designer at Gensler
The future of the city is in flux. Many of us have been and continue to work from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic altering our perceptions and expectations of what it means to live in an urban environment.
According to insights from the Gensler Research Institute’s City Pulse Survey, which aims to capture people’s changing attitudes during this time, many people, particularly those with young families, may be growing tired of big city life. This is due in large part to ongoing affordability issues, but also to increasing concerns about health and wellness.
The survey also found that nearly half of our respondents still want to live in an urban environment. Many said they want to leave high-density, high-cost cities for more affordable, smaller ones like San Antonio, as these cities still offer a broad range of amenities with a lower cost of living.
Reintroducing The 20-Minute City
As we examine our cities with fresh eyes, we have a unique opportunity to rethink how we define and connect our neighborhoods. Cities such as Barcelona, London and Paris are looking to create “20-minute cities,” a concept based on early 20th century models of urban design in which residents’ needs could all be met within a 20-minute walk or short bike ride from their homes. From housing to school and work and leisure activities, this idea can be extended to cities across the globe, including San Antonio.
Much of the success of San Antonio’s placemaking and identity is inextricably linked to its response to a disaster. In 1921, not long after the Spanish flu pandemic subsided, flooding destroyed the downtown area. The extensive damage spurred city leaders to embark on a massive investment in infrastructure, with some calling to pave over the San Antonio River. Fortunately, it was the plan for the now-famous Riverwalk that prevailed — an enduring affirmation of human vitality at the center of downtown.
Perhaps the lessons of the Riverwalk, looking at infrastructure with a human and timeless sensibility, have relevance in how we can stitch the city together with green space.
Connecting Business, Lifestyle Hubs
Over the past few decades, San Antonio has been revitalizing its downtown area, investing in green space and infrastructure, as well as establishing satellite districts and new city centers. All of these initiatives are designed to contribute to a sense of place and community, as well as to allow for shorter commutes.
The 20-minute city not only redefines the time and distance that separate our community hubs, but it also builds back the spaces and activities in between. This is the main advantage of the model; it provides for a whole network of accessible businesses, entertainment, recreation and services. In turn, the broader city is richer for the dynamism between these different nodes.
Beyond the touristic heart of the Riverwalk, the push toward a greener San Antonio is already underway. With nodes such as the Bluestar Arts Complex to the south and the Pearl Brewery mixed-use development to the north, the meandering gait of the river paces out a walkable, enjoyable urbanism.
One project of ours currently in development is a mixed-use residential building, whose location encapsulates many of the ideals of a 20-minute city. Situated along the more recently developed Museum Reach section of the River Walk, the site’s appeal lies in its adjacency to various city districts and amenities.
From downtown’s business and entertainment offerings, this four-mile section of the river connects to the city’s north side, which includes the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl District, as well as the vast 343-acre Brackenridge Park, home to the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Zoo.
A pedestrian bridge over the river from our site leads to the Pearl District, where the 146-room boutique Hotel Emma stands at the heart of the neighborhood. The hotel is surrounded by a myriad of dining options, including the southern campus of the Culinary Institute of America.
Here is an ever-growing collection of multifamily and, more recently, larger office buildings. In fact, the success of the Pearl District is spurring on more mixed-use planning to the east along Broadway, a major north-south corridor that will be redesigned as a more inviting streetscape. The dual infrastructure of green space and well-designed streetscapes promises to enliven future development and to recall something of the spirit of the original Riverwalk.
Could this model be extended further? The city already has a broad network of green spaces that could be expanded into historically underserved neighborhoods, bringing vital resources into view. Targeted development along these green corridors could promote access and opportunity for existing communities while activating and promoting growth along pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.
Post-pandemic, cities will continue to be economic and cultural centers, albeit with some changes. Successful design can bring people together and create opportunities for meaningful interactions. A truly viable 20-minute city offers a network of shared spaces that can help foster connected, thriving communities for the benefit of all.