City Council plans to meet April 11 to vote on the plan and on a proposed ban on smoking and tobacco use in its parks, as well as public spaces including the River Walk. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The City Council spent Wednesday afternoon getting briefed on a final draft parks system plan, which will emphasize the different ways that local parks, trails and recreational facilities benefit the community, City infrastructure and the environment.

The Council plans to meet April 11 to vote on the plan and on a proposed ban on smoking and tobacco use in its parks, as well as public spaces including the River Walk.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Xavier Urrutia briefed the Council about the plan, which has four overriding goals for all City parks, green spaces and recreational facilities: responsiveness, restoration, resilience, and resourcefulness.

“It’s a guide, not a prescription, for expanding our green space, on how to do capital projects within our parks system, and for (recreation) programming,” Urrutia said.

Each goal includes several objectives in the parks plan. Responsiveness, for example, features objectives such as ensuring the City provides equitable access to park and recreation activities and a diversity of user experiences.

Under resourcefulness, the City aims to capitalize on partnerships to expand or enhance parks, green spaces and recreational facilities in the existing parks system.

The Parks and Recreation Department has spent more than one year working on the draft plan with help from consultants Bender Wells Clark Design, MIG, and Ximenes and Associates.

The City did community outreach through meetings, surveys, and multimedia outlets to get the word out about the parks plan and to gain public input.

Urrutia said the parks plan is not just about developing new parks or green spaces in the future. It’s also about improving existing parts of the parks system and ensuring they are maintained in a more holistic manner.

“We’re not just acquiring land for parks,” Urrutia said. “We’re looking at the land we have. Are there sensitive features? Is there an ability to look at this from a natural resource perspective? Is there a habitat in the parcel of land that we need to protect and be sensitive to?”

With the restorative goal in the parks system plan emphasizing public health, the City seeks to ban smoking in all City parks, trails and public squares, such as the River Walk, La Villita, and Market Square. The ban, which would apply to all tobacco use and e-cigarettes, would become effective June 1 if approved by the Council.

San Antonio already prohibits smoking in certain outdoor public spots, such as bus stops, but it’s still the only major Texas city that allows smoking in public parks. Right now, smoking in City parks is prohibited in playgrounds, athletic fields and natural areas.

Urrutia said the proposal for smoke/tobacco-free parks has overwhelming support from stakeholders, parks system visitors, and other parts of the community.

“What we really see is a change in behavior and a change toward acceptance of a healthier lifestyle, and we think now is the time for our green spaces to completely be smoke- and tobacco-free,” Urrutia said.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said he hopes the City will enhance its parks to be more friendly to pollinators.

“I think there’s an important conversation to be had about the role that we play (with pollinators),” Pelaez added.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said he and many of his constituents, including downtown businesses, support a ban on smoking in City parks. He added that the parks plan should highlight the things that parks and recreation facilities have to offer to senior citizens.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he likes the parks plan but disagrees with the proposed smoking ban. Perry said it would be unfair for residents who pay taxes to fund City parks to not be able to smoke if they so wish.

If the Council approves the ban, the City would allow for a temporary smoking area in a park during special events.

“I’ve never been a smoker, but like it not, there’s a lot of people who still smoke and those people are taxpayers in San Antonio,” Perry said. “Now we’re telling them you can’t go into this park and smoke a cigarette or cigar or even take a dip of Skoal. I’ve got a philosophical issue with that.”

Jennifer Herriott, interim director of San Antonio’s Metro Health District, responded by saying it is vital to consider the public health impact of tobacco use and how prohibiting it in public parks positively affects the community.

She also said cigarette butts not only create litter in parks but could prove dangerous if a young child were to stumble upon them.

“From our perspective, we feel this is an important move. We’re trying to continue to create that culture of health in our community,” said Herriott.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.