Like many cities of all sizes across America, our home of San Antonio is engaged in an effort to prepare for the future. Here in the Alamo City, we know that we can expect to welcome over one million new neighbors before the year 2040. How the city looks, feels and functions as they arrive over the coming decades is a very current topic of conversation for policy makers, civic leaders, the business community, and most of all the already 1.4 million "owners" of the city. SATomorrow, the city branded effort to marry a comprehensive plan, a transportation plan, and sustainability plan is under way and must satisfy some very high expectations. It is my hope that the comprehensive planning conversation becomes much louder and much more public.
As a volunteer Tri-Chair alongside City Councilman Ron Nirenberg and Dr. Afamia Elnakat of the University of Texas at San Antonio, I hope we break the record (if there is one) on how many citizens will have contributed to a true two-way conversation about the future of the built city. I am optimistic that the conversation will lead San Antonians to ask and answer the toughest of questions like (1) how do we want the physical city to contribute to the quality of our lives?; and (2) how serious are we about setting the hard priorities, committing to them, and supporting those who will execute what we want show up in the real world?
A central output of good comprehensive planning is that it guides the physical development of the city over time based on some existing conditions, some assumptions, some science, and a healthy dose of aspiration. This is San Antonio's first effort at comprehensive planning in many years and it should not be "your grandfather's stuffy old planning process". With good fortune, the analogy in the end might be that the new comprehensive planning effort will be to San Antonio what the new and improved Brussels sprouts have been to many Americans in recent years!
Current discussion around very public, emotional, and multi-layered regional issues like long term water security and annexation deserves lots of the public's current attention and should be resolved within the context of the comprehensive plan process - not independent of it.
The foundation and glue that supports the built environment is public infrastructure. While never permanent, public infrastructure is always expensive and time consuming, and usually violent and disruptive to place in service. Those characteristics always lead me to conclude that cities must do more than just try their best to get it close to right when it comes to infrastructure investments. By getting it right I don't mean just on time and on budget. I mean ensuring that major public and private investments in the built environment directly advance the long term priorities of San Antonians themselves. For that to happen, San Antonians must be clear on and committed to those priorities that are important to them over the long term.
A topic related to our future city that I write about often is the connectedness and walkability of the neighborhoods and districts throughout San Antonio, not just within the core. San Antonio is well known as a national model and leader in many areas (ex, renewable energy and water conservation), but the connectedness, cohesiveness and walkability of our city's neighborhoods and districts is not one of them - at least not today. While the health, economic, energy and general quality of life benefits associated with walkable and connected communities are impossible to argue against, we have not made this a high priority as a community in the past.
There is no shortage of approaches to the measurement of a city's walkability and connectedness, and none of them are perfect. Street geometry, block length, block area, intersection density, accessibility and walking distance to parks and other community facilities, and quality of sidewalk infrastructure are examples. Add to that the proximity, availability, and mix of surrounding land uses, lighting, animal control, and access to public transit and the list gets a little closer to completion. I have read (slept through) enough exhaustively foot-noted, peer reviewed academic studies on this subject to know that some people take this stuff really seriously!
Regardless of the measure, San Antonio and too many other major American cities fall short of even registering as marginally walkable cities today. It is my hope that through opportunities like the SATomorrow effort and others, we will begin to hold ourselves to a much high higher standard as it relates to the walkability and connectedness of our communities. I am not of the opinion that creating policy that solves for a higher level of walkability and connectedness is a zero sum contest to be played between urban San Antonio and sub-urban San Antonio. It is about insuring that the entire city can be a more cohesive place to live, work, and play, while retaining the diversity of character and uniqueness that makes different parts of the city special. Policy, incentives, design standards, etc. that keep the densest of areas in the city connected may not work in those areas that are less dense and have a different and unique character of their own. That means San Antonians will have to don our "thinking caps" and be creative in finding those solutions that do. As this city grows, so must our thinking on how to make it more beautiful, more connected, an more resilient for those who will soon call our home, their home.