The City’s Parks and Recreation Department has released a draft of a system plan that aims to guide development of and programming for San Antonio’s public parks over the next 10 years.

The plan lays out four overarching goals, which Parks Director Xavier Urrutia called the four “Rs”: the parks department would be responsive to the community’s needs; make the most effective use of its resources; make parks restorative to benefit the community’s health; and ensure parks provide resilience and sustainability for the city.

The proposed parks system plan was written after 18 months of research and public outreach, said Larry Clark, designer and vice president of Bender Wells Clark Design, the landscape architecture company behind Pearsall Park and Nessie at Tom Slick Park.

“It’s a very broad look” at the next 10 years, Clark said. Read the plan in full here.

The City asked BWCDesign to formulate the new plan after the last parks system plan expired in 2016. The delay allowed for the completion of SA Tomorrow, the comprehensive plan that aims to guide San Antonio to sustainable growth through 2040, off of which several elements of the parks plan are based.

“We really want to benefit from SA Tomorrow’s work,” Clark said. “They have a larger budget than we do, and they have [to consider] more issues than parks. All of the questions and issues brought into the SA Tomorrow plan have some bearings on parks – transportation, growth, sustainability, energy use.”

In addition to its annual operating budget ($53 million in fiscal year 2019), the parks department can glean additional funding for designated projects through five-year, voter-approved bond packages (more than $187 million in the 2017 bond). The department may also apply for various grants to fund projects.

The more system plan goals a proposed project meets, the stronger the argument is to fund it, BWCDesign President Beth Wells said.

The previous parks system plan listed specific goals that lent little flexibility when applying for funding later on, Wells said. For example: if a bond package was written to fund a basketball court because the system plan called for building one in a certain neighborhood, but community members no longer needed or wanted that basketball court, that money could not be used for a different purpose.

Designers tried to keep the new plan much broader than the previous one to open up more funding opportunities, Wells said.

“If we say we need more things that will help with people being outdoors, or children being exposed to nature, or educational opportunities with nature, that opens up all kinds of possibilities, [such as] building trails to little centers where they can learn about plants,” she said. “It gives a much broader range of projects we may be able to fund.”

The previous plan quickly outlived its usefulness, Wells said.

“The last system plan had really specific points,” she said. “By 2014, it wasn’t really relevant anymore.”

Objectives listed in the new parks plan proposal include ensuring that parks become an equitable and accessible part of City infrastructure; guiding the parks department in the development of indoor and outdoor spaces while keeping rising temperatures in mind; and pushing the department to partner with other entities on projects and programming to maximize funding.

One of the plan’s more immediate goals would make all parks tobacco-free zones. That proposal came from a few council members and the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, its Director Colleen Bridger said. Not only does keeping tobacco out of parks limit children’s exposure to unhealthy habits, but people surveyed about the proposed policy also largely agreed it would improve overall public health, Bridger added.

A sign indicates that smoking is not allowed in Travis Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“There is a lot of research that shows even in an outdoor environment, inhaling cigarette smoke is bad – for especially kids with asthma,” Bridger said.

At a public input meeting on the draft system plan last Thursday, more than 40 people asked questions and provided feedback, though many of the comments focused on specific parks and programs where residents wanted to see change. The system plan is very broad, Wells explained, so she understands why people’s feedback was more granular.

“It’s really hard to get people to think globally, about the whole city,” Wells said. “We always have people at these meetings [who say], ‘Well, I have this issue in my park’s bathroom.’

“We’re looking at all the parks’ bathrooms, not just yours.”

Asking people to not only think of the parks system as a whole but also project needs 10 years into the future is challenging, Wells said.

Clark said it’s difficult for planners to think far ahead as well. It’s hard to predict how technology will continue to shape residents’ lives in the future, for instance.

“In 10 years, what are we going to do to get people into a park? How will they interact with the park?” he asked. “Instead of having a map panel every quarter of a mile, would it better to have a QR code that you can open up and look at a map of the park [on your smartphone]? What’s going to happen in parks in the next 10 years?”

The parks department wants this system plan to be a guiding document, not a prescriptive one, Urrutia said.

“The former system plan really looked more from a needs-perspective basis,” he said. “When it came to budget or bond programs, it really may not [have] reflected what the public wanted.

“When we’re making our professional recommendations, [this plan will ensure] it’s coming from the public.”

Urrutia expects to present to City Council a final proposal by April or May. If Council approves the plan, it will serve as the guiding document for parks decisions through 2029.

The public comment period is open until Feb. 8, and San Antonio residents can leave feedback on the Parks and Recreation website. There will also be a “Telephone Town Hall” meeting on Thursday, Jan. 31, where residents can dial in to learn more and ask questions. You can register for the meeting here, or call in at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Dial 1-888-400-1932 for English, and 1-888-9342 for Spanish.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.