The connection between the built environment and public health, and the good and bad decisions made by public officials that affect that connection were the subject of the City’s third annual Health and the Built Environment Conference held at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Friday.

The conference drew more than 250 city planners, members of the design community, safe street and cycling advocates, and urban core developers. Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilmembers Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Roberto Treviño (D1) participated as speakers, along with nationally recognized urbanists from Seattle and Durham, NC, as well as more than a dozen local community and neighborhood leaders who expressed a common goal of building a healthier, safer and more livable city.

Rackspace Co-Founder and Chairman Graham Weston was the featured guest for the luncheon program, appearing on stage for a conversation with Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard. The discussion centered on Weston Urban’s public-private partnership with the City to build the first new downtown office tower in 25 years and add hundreds of residential units, shops, restaurants, public spaces and other amenities to multiple blocks on the west side of downtown. Reducing vagrancy, drug dealing, aggressive panhandling and finding ways to deal more effectively with the homeless population were among the challenges faced by Weston Urban.

Metro Health organizes the annual conference, which is growing in interest and importance as urban core development continues to gain momentum in San Antonio, and more and more people in the community engage in issues ranging from infill development, affordable housing, walkable neighborhoods, safe streets, and the drive to make a San Antonio a Vision Zero city rather than one of the most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians and cyclists.

Mayor Ivy Taylor gives a keynote presentation featuring the cities growth at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor gives a keynote presentation featuring the cities growth at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Taylor welcomed conference attendees and spoke of her own education and professional experience as an urban planner before she sought elected office. She encouraged attendees to demand and create great buildings, sidewalks and walking spaces throughout the city.

“We need infrastructure that connects all San Antonians to opportunity,” Taylor told the audience. “Places that belong to all of us have to welcome all of us. It’s not just about green space, it’s about efficiency. Density is the best path to save resources.”

She recognized several challenges that San Antonio faces now and will face in the future including air and water quality, the diabetes epidemic, and the mountain of transportation infrastructure needs. Overcoming these challenges will require an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“The relationship between health and the built environment is a multi-disciplinary discussion — engineering, architecture, even economists — and it touches all of us in many different ways through the different roles each of us play,” Taylor said. “Most importantly, achieving a healthier built environment is about you: it’s about each of you being an advocate for change, letting your elected officials and your neighbors know that our future depends on realizing the very ideas and actions we’ll be discussing today.”

Taking it to the Streets

Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) described her experience as an inner city elected official in a district with a shocking record of pedestrian fatalities that has seemingly gone unnoticed by city leaders at large and the public.

“I was contacted by constituents in my district who had family members killed just crossing the street, going to the store, going to church,” Gonzales said. “There have been 26 pedestrians killed in my district since I took office. Decisions we make as policy makers create these problems, (and) we can solve these problems.”

She said 30 people have died along Zarzamora Street in the last decade, and nine people have died along Culebra Road in the last two years. She talked about how the state-owned roadways were engineered to efficiently move vehicles at the expense of the neighborhood fabric, leaving residents to risk crossing streets that are too wide to cross safely.

Gonzales led the efforts to pass a resolution supporting Vision Zero earlier this year, an international initiative which combines education, existing safety initiatives and future infrastructure to improve street safety and eliminate pedestrian and cycling fatalities.

Gonzales then introduced Cathy Tuttle, a well-known safe cycling advocate and the executive director of the volunteer coalition Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.

“I wanted to come to San Antonio to see a city with streets that kill people,” Tuttle said, noting that San Antonio is considered the 18th most dangerous of the Top 50 cities by organizations that track such data. San Antonio, she said, suffers from a high incidence of “traffic violence.”

“People should stop calling pedestrian killings by vehicle drivers an accident,” Tuttle said.

According to Tuttle, positive change in neighborhood and street safety starts with people. Tuttle encouraged San Antonio to use the coalition’s model for engaging residents and urging policymakers to create change. The coalition, formed by 19 micro-level neighborhood associations in Seattle, has directly influenced and implemented $40 million to improve neighborhood safety since 2011.

Seattle has been named as the safest city for pedestrians in the country, while San Antonio ranks among the most dangerous.

“You are doing (many) things really, really well, “ Tuttle told the audience. “So why are so many people being maimed and dying on San Antonio streets? Why are your streets failing to keep people alive?”

Cathy Tuttle
Cathy Tuttle

Tuttle described the number of walking, biking and driving accidents in San Antonio as “an epidemic,” nearly four times the number of accidents in Seattle. According to Tuttle, San Antonio traffic violence is most common in areas with wide streets, and residential areas with higher speed limits. Like many other modern American cities, San Antonio in the 20th century was built to move and accommodate cars, not people.

The Seattle coalition has brought attention to the victims of traffic violence through organized Memorial Walks, working with the victims’ families to push for improved traffic safety ordinances and engage community officials and media outlets.

These walks have led city leaders to add speed bumps, new traffic signals at intersections and narrowed residential streets with 20 mph speed limits. The result has been a drastic reduction in fatalities and an increase in the number of bike riders.  

“This was done in reaction to a tragedy, but a tragedy that has happened again and again,” Tuttle said. She credited local leaders, first responders and city officials with implementing the changes, but reminded the audience that change starts at the grassroots level.

“It’s all about getting people in their local neighborhoods, talking to people at the churches, talking to people at the schools, finding people that it really matters too,” Tuttle added. “You’ll find the elderly, the parents of young children – they’re going to be your natural allies.”

SA Tomorrow plans City’s future

Planning and Community Development Director John Dugan moderated the “Planning for a Healthy Tomorrow” session with City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick and Terry Bellamy, the assistant director for Traffic & Transportation Planning.

The session expanded on SA Tomorrow, a three-pronged initiative focusing on sustainability, city planning and multimodal transportation to help manage growth and sprawl in San Antonio. An additional 1 million people are expected move to San Antonio by the year 2040.SA Tomorrow is Mayor Taylor’s effort to prepare for that growth.

TCI Director Terry Bellamy
TCI Director Terry Bellamy

“What can we do to make it so that (the corridors) are multi-modal, a complete street that is able to serve anybody that wants to use those particular infrastructure?” Bellamy asked the audience. “Anything that you change is going to create opposition. In order to create change, you must have the will. In order to have a will, you must have information for the public so they can understand why you are doing it and you are doing it.”

SA Tomorrow committee members are working with other local government agencies, including VIA to hold workshops and information sessions to engage the public in the process.  Those efforts include a bike survey to gauge resident’s biking needs and expectations. Click here for the latest event updates from SA Tomorrow.

San Antonio: How to attract residents and keep them

Mayor Taylor introduced the luncheon program, “Vibrant Downtown: Vibrant Workforce,” with a presentation on San Antonio’s past, present, and future relationships with with health and the built environment.

She drew from her experience as a planner to give the audience a top-down view of how American cities became so car-centric and a brief history lesson on the influence of the Spanish Crown’s Laws of the Indies which provided a guideline for conquered territories in America and the Philippines.

“Within the town, a commons shall be delimited, large enough that although the population may experience a rapid expansion, there will always be sufficient space where the people may go to for recreation,” Taylor’s presentation quoted the 16th century regulations. Click here to download her presentation.

Robert Rivard has a conversation with Graham Weston Robert Rivard (left) speaks with Rackspace Co-Founder Graham Weston at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
Robert Rivard has a conversation with Graham Weston at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

Rivard followed with an in-depth discussion of contemporary city design needs with Weston, who also serves as the co-founder of Weston Urban and the 80/20 FoundationRivard praised the newly opened Yanaguana Gardens at Hemisfair, which have helped to revitalize and rebrand downtown San Antonio.

“For 50 years, which is longer than most of you have been alive, it’s been absolute dead space in the heart of our city,” Rivard said of the four-acre corner of Hemisfair Park. “It’s on the Eastside of downtown, (Weston’s) big focus is on the Westside of downtown, but it’s emblematic of how dramatically the city can be transformed when the public and private sector put their heads together and do something really cool and creative.”

Weston agreed that San Antonio was beginning to embrace real change in its urban core, evident in the range of new restaurants, revitalized historic buildings, young professionals moving into the inner city, and authentic cultural experiences that make the city a destination for jobs and Millennials.

“San Antonio is such a special place and it has so much going for it,” Weston said. “We need to learn how to market ourselves better and take this challenge to energize this urban core and build a community that mostly single, young people want to see.”

Robert Rivard (left) speaks with Rackspace Co-Founder Graham Weston at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
Robert Rivard (left) speaks with Rackspace Co-Founder Graham Weston at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

Weston’s influence is already seen in his purchase and renovation of the historic Rand Building on East Houston Street, where new businesses and organizations are located in open floor, collaborative workspaces, including Geekdom, Open Cloud Academy and The Rivard Report.

Weston Urban’s P3 deal with Frost Bank and the City includes acquisitions of a city square block of unused green space north of East Houston Street bounded by Soledad and Flores streets. Weston Urban is still exploring  uses for the space, but expects it will include a restaurant, more shade and seating, and other amenities to attract downtown residents and workers.

Rackspace Co-Founder Graham Weston speaks with Robert Rivard at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
Rackspace Co-Founder Graham Weston speaks with Robert Rivard at the 2015 Health and The Built Environment Conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We’re going to activate it,” Weston said. “I think it’s going to become a real critical part of downtown.”

One of the biggest concerns for the developing urban core, he said, is making downtown a safer, walkable environment.

“I’m not sure if it’s going to be addressed publicly, privately or a partnership between both entities, but I don’t think that private security is the answer,” Weston said.

He encouraged local residents to explore the growing city, and to show visitors that San Antonio is a desirable place to live, work and play.

“Go to the Yanaguana Gardens, even if you don’t have kids, go to the Pearl, go to Southtown, go to the Mission Reach, get on a B-Cycle, and see the great things that are already here,” Weston said. “There are a lot of things happening in San Antonio. … We actually have made a great start, we just don’t have critical mass yet.”

Real Estate Development in the Urban Core

Robert Chapman, the founding and managing director of Traditional Neighborhood Development Partners, LLC presented “Livable and Affordable Neighborhoods: A Real Estate Developer’s Perspective.”

Robert Chapman
Robert Chapman

Chapman hails from Durham, North Carolina, a city that has become a food and culture destination in recent years, largely because of tactical urbanism, which uses short-term actions to create long-term change. 

Chapman and his firm have been purchasing abandoned properties in downtown Durham and then redeveloped them as attractive eateries, walkways and galleries. Chapman cited successful examples like the abandoned Sinclair gas station that now houses Cocoa Cinnamon, one the most popular coffee shops in the country.

After Fullsteam Brewery moved into the Durham’s old 7-Up bottling plant, the town experienced “a brewery avalanche,” which has resulted in six or seven new breweries and related businesses.

These concepts are happening in cities throughout the country, he said, adding that San Antonio could use a tactical urbanism approach to structures like the Friedrich Building, or the abandoned and vacant homes found in some inner city neighborhoods.

“You guys are completely on the right path,” Chapman told the audience. “I’ve heard everything that I believe about urbanism and smart growth and walkable urbanism. You’ve got the right information. It’s just a matter of implementing it.”

Click here to view the recorded sessions from NOWCastSA.

*Top image: A group of cyclists cruise down South Alamo Street towards Southtown on the Fourth of July, 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.