At 1,500 acres, The Presidio of San Francisco is one of the largest and arguably one of the most unique urban national parks in the country.

“[Brackenridge Park] is a cultural park of the same complexity and layers of history that would rival The Presidio,” The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) President and CEO Charles Birnbaum told the Rivard Report during a phone interview Thursday.

At 343 acres, Brackenridge is San Antonio’s largest urban park and has incredible natural, archaeological, and architectural treasures that date back 11,000 years, Birnbaum said. “It’s entirely possible that this [park] is a sleeping giant.”

The Brackenridge Park Master Plan is slated to go before City Council for a vote in February, but the conversation about the future and value of the park will continue on March 3 when city leaders, architects, historians, and the community gather at the Pearl Stable for a full day of panels during the conference Leading with Landscape III: Renewing and Repositioning Brackenridge Park

The event is co-sponsored and co-produced by TCLF and the Brackenridge Park Conservancy and aims to get visiting experts and locals to “look at this park with fresh eyes,” Birnbaum said. The conference is also supported by the Pearl, the John and Florence Newman Foundation, Mote and Margie Baird and the City of San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation. The Rivard Report is a media partner.

Admission for San Antonio residents is free, but online registration is required.

Birnbaum likened the conference to a kind of Antiques Roadshow for landscape architecture. Brackenridge Park is something that has always been in San Antonio’s “attic, [but] “I think we’ll find out it was actually a rare work of art.”

Founded in 1899 with a land donation to the City by George Washington Brackenridge, Brackenridge Park and its neighbors draw nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, led by the San Antonio Zoo and the growing Witte Museum. Only about one-third, 115 acres, is considered open space, including parking, trails, and pavilions. The Brackenridge Park Golf Course, for perspective, is also 115 acres.

Architects tour the Japanese Tea Gardens in Brackenridge Park.
Landscape architects tour the Japanese Tea Gardens in Brackenridge Park. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Updating the park’s master plan has taken several months longer than expected after the initial draft received strong criticism from the community that didn’t want to see vehicle access to the park limited by removing parking and closing down roads. The goal of the conference isn’t to come up with a new plan, but to “build a bigger tent” for discussions surrounding the park’s past, present, and future, Birnbaum said. 

“I am excited that The Cultural Landscape Foundation selected San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park as the topic for a national conference on how parks and green infrastructure can best serve residents and help cities be globally competitive,” Mayor Ivy Taylor told the Rivard Report. She attended and spoke at the second Leading with Landscape conference in Houston last March and will participate in the March 3 event as well.

“This event will help us continue the dialogue about the importance of Brackenridge Park and how it represents the common heritage of our community,” Taylor added. “I think it will draw attention to the roles that cultural landscapes in general play in a great city like San Antonio.”

Two panels are scheduled so far. To prepare for their respective panels, several teams of landscape architects from all over the U.S. have already begun to research how Brackenridge fits into San Antonio’s history, culture, and park inventory.

A team with Cambridge-based Reed Hilderbrand came for rapid-fire tours of the city and its parks last week. The Rivard Report caught up with them towards the end of their trip, before their tour of San Pedro Springs Park and flight back to Massachusetts.

“It’s a lot to absorb,” said Douglas Reed, principal of the landscape architectural firm and founding board member of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “Our task over the next few weeks is to define three issues or challenges that we see in the park and complement it with relevant experience [from our work with other parks] … which is a challenge in itself because the park is so rich.”

The Reed Hilderbrand team – (from left) Principal Chris Moyles, Senior Designer Christina Sohn, and Principal Douglas Reed, explore Brackenridge Park.
The Reed Hilderbrand team – (from left) Principal Chris Moyles, Senior Designer Christina Sohn, and Principal Douglas Reed – explore Brackenridge Park. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Reed Hilderbrand’s landscape project list includes the Buffalo Bayou Gardens and Arboretum in Houston, Long Dock Park in Beacon, New York, and Half-Mile Line in Massachusetts.

“There are intriguing and unusual things about the park,” he said. “That story is going to come out in the conference in a number of different ways.”

This is the first time the Leading with Landscape conference series will focus on a single park, but it will look to the parks of the entire city for context, Reed said.

The first panel will include representatives from other parks and stakeholders involved with open space including Hemisfair, the San Antonio River Authority, and the San Antonio Conservation Society. This conversation is aimed at exploring what works and what doesn’t in terms of local park management, funding, and use.

The second panel is for representatives from other cities, including Friends of the High Line Co-Founder and Executive Director Robert Hammond, to discuss what San Antonio and Brackenridge Park can learn from other cities.

“The real purpose is for this to be helpful and to shed light on the breadth of values that the park embodies,” Reed said.

Open space is one of the values that has been ignored in the park’s history, said Brackenridge Park Conservancy Director Lynn Bobbitt. While it is surrounded by cultural institutions, the park itself seems like an afterthought instead of an asset.

Bobbitt would like to see the park become part of a “cohesive destination” instead of separate entities – the zoo, museum, park, golf course – that visitors come to one at a time. Part of the master plan is to make the park more porous and interconnected so park users can seamlessly include open space into their itineraries.

“We’re not going to walk out of this conference with a new master plan,” she said. “The objective of the summit on Brackenridge is to continue the conversation about the importance of Brackenridge Park to this city at a higher level. We’re not talking about picnic tables, we’re talk about broader concepts like cultural and economic impacts.”

Because Brackenridge wasn’t designed by a famous architect like Frederick Law Olmsted, credited with founding landscape architecture, or Roberto Burle Marx, or Alice Recknagel Ireys, the park isn’t really in textbooks, Birnbaum said. It lacks “ownership” in the architectural world.

“Because of that, the park was treated as a sort of second class citizen,” he said. “It wasn’t of interest to people interested in history of park landscapes. … Brackenridge Park was never on my radar.”

With conversations like Leading with Landscape coming to town, however, park advocates hope Brackenridge Park will be pinging everyone’s radar.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org