As San Antonio approaches its 300th anniversary in 2018 and prepares for 1 million more residents by 2040, a panel of urban experts analyzed ways in which communities can better influence how development proceeds to the benefit of all socioeconomic groups.

“The form and shape of a city isn’t what we always want it to be,” Antonio Petrov, assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, said Monday, “and a lot of is determined more by logistics and optimization, and less on what’s in the public interest.”

Petrov hopes that he and likeminded architects, designers, and decisionmakers can change that mindset in San Antonio. His research and design think tank, Urban Future Lab, has partnered with the Witte Museum to host a series of panel discussions entitled “On the Edge of Future: Narratives of the Making of a City.”

The discussions explore how the community at large can have a more of a say about how the built environment evolves in a growing city. The four panelists taking part in the first program, “Constructing Infrastructure,” agreed that big ideas have a place in San Antonio’s future.

But Petrov and the two other local panelists, Christine Drennon and Siboney Diaz-Sanchez, added that San Antonio must confront a long history of disenfranchisement and distrust in vulnerable communities in order to design and develop neighborhoods that benefit all people – not just a privileged few.

(From left) UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning Assistant Professor Antonio Petrov, Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon, Overland Partners Architectural Designer Siboney Diaz-Sanchez and UrbanLab Co-Founder Martin Felsen speak at the first "On the Edge of Future" program at the Witte Museum on Monday.
(From left) Antonio Petrov, assistant professor at UTSA’s College of Architecture, Construction and Planning; Christine Drennon, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University; Siboney Diaz-Sanchez, architectural designer at Overland Partners; and Martin Felsen, co-founder of UrbanLab, speak at the first “On the Edge of Future” program at the Witte Museum. Credit: Edmond Ortiz / San Antonio Report

In the last couple of years, Petrov has proposed ideas about reconstructing San Antonio’s public transit and public space, including reviving a sky ride in the central part of town.

Petrov said he has “made an argument for San Antonio” and its existing public spaces as platforms where more San Antonians can have input into processes of designing and developing projects that impact a whole community.

It’s vital to keep in mind local cultural sensibilities, heritage, and characteristics while imagining the City’s future, he said.

“How could we think or reconstruct infrastructure through a San Antonio lens?” Petrov asked.

Panelist Martin Felsen, a Chicago-based architecture professor, co-founded architecture and design firm UrbanLab.

Felsen talked about the importance of outcomes when designing infrastructure projects that both perform their basic function and become an amenity for the community.

He briefly outlined one project that physically re-envisions an existing Chinese city as a wholly sustainable community where people live in concert with functional get eco-friendly structures and the natural environment.

Drennon, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, asked Felsen how San Antonio could even begin to imagine such grand ideas given the city’s socioeconomic challenges.

“One of our indisputable facts is that we’re one of the most economically segregated cities in the country,” Drennon said. “Can a social condition ever be alleviated by physical infrastructure?”

Felsen explained that providing widely beneficial, sustainable aspects of a built environment through complex infrastructure of waterworks, roads, bridges, drainage, and buildings is not an easy task.

“It’s almost like we have to sneak in social goods into the planning [and] technical realities of infrastructure,” Felsen said. He added that many infrastructure designs generally result from the priorities of the people engaged in the design process.

Workers of Waterfilled Barrier Systems assembly a fence and barrier along Travis Street.
Workers of Waterfilled Barrier Systems assembly a fence and barrier along Travis Street. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Diaz-Sanchez, an architectural designer at Overland Partners, said many San Antonians have long struggled to ensure the right historic and cultural narratives, priorities, and representation are in place when a community faces a new development or potential infrastructure improvement.

The planned Tricentennial celebrations in 2018 and the celebrated designation of the Spanish colonial missions as a World Heritage site may tend to overlook certain peoples, cultures, and histories across San Antonio, Diaz-Sanchez said.

“Understand that there are contradictions and narratives that are not being recognized, and there neighborhoods that are not prioritized,” she said.

Felsen said he subscribes to the notion of transactional urbanism. While private developers may seem to care more about making money on a project that benefits only a few people who can afford to use it, community members must try and convince private developers that such sustainable, widely beneficial projects are viable investments, he said.

“How do we talk about projects that won’t have a return on investment immediately, but do have a long-term return on investment that is quantifiable … that do show the health of a community absolutely benefits the bottom line?” Felsen asked.

Drennon said she fears the newer design and development concept of placemaking may backfire because only a relative few people would be able to enjoy the resulting developments.

“We have to wonder who is this for,” Drennon said. “So often those projects are not for us, they’re for our visitors. They’re for someone who’s coming from the outside, and trying to make them feel happy and safe during their short stay.”

Diaz-Sanchez echoed Drennon’s sentiment, adding that all people should be represented and heard when it comes to imagining how their neighborhood should look and feel.

“Antonio, when you say you make an argument for San Antonio – make an argument for San Antonians, right?” Diaz-Sanchez suggested to Petrov. “It’s about the people.”

Claudia Guerra, cultural historian in the City’s Office of Historic Preservation, encouraged the crowd, particularly the urban design and architecture students, to use the resources of her office.

“You can come in and engage us all of the time,” she said. “Approach your City officials, approach your City Council, approach your planning department.”

The second part of this speaker series, “Urban Transformations,” will be held Feb. 5 at 6 p.m., focusing on how the Guggenheim Museum catalyzed the transformation of Bilbao, Spain.

The final dialogue, “Water,” on April 9 at 6 p.m., concentrates on the relationship between water and human geographies and how the synthesis was key in the shaping of San Antonio. All events are free and open to the public at the Witte’s Prassel Auditorium.

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