Jammin’ Jams Fruit and Nut Tree Adoption, put on by San Antonio Parks and Recreation, gave away pear, plum, lemon, and orange trees. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Jammin’ Jams Fruit and Nut Tree Adoption, put on by San Antonio Parks and Recreation, gave away pear, plum, lemon, and orange trees. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The second annual Sustainability Summit comes at a crucial time for San Antonio’s environmental policy.

As part of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive planning process, City Council unanimously passed a Sustainability Plan which outlined policy goals. The broad strokes approach of the planning process earlier this year left the fine details of the 54 proposed policies to be worked out in the future.

That work starts now. 

The free summit will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 1, from 5-8 p.m. at The Grotto in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. The City aims to bring together residents from all over San Antonio to explore ways to make the city’s environment more resilient and the Office of Sustainability has put together a docket of diverse programming intended to engage attendees at all levels of expertise.

“For the SA Tomorrow plan to succeed, it requires continued driving and course-correction by the public,” said Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who led the comprehensive planning process as co-chair. “The Sustainability Summit – the second annual – is an important forum to do just that.”

Members of the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on broad strategies, suggest implementation techniques, and connect to stakeholders who are helping shape the proposals that will eventually go to the mayor and City Council.

Emily Bowe (middle) listens in during a creative brainstorming session. Photo by Scott Ball.
Weston Urban Project Manager Emily Bowe (middle) and Tech Bloc Executive Director Marina Gavito (right) listen during a creative brainstorming session during the City’s first Sustainability Summit in June 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Beyond the Sustainability Plan, specialists in the fields of energy, water, food systems, and light pollution will give short presentations and be available to residents interested in getting involved. Representatives from San Antonio Water System, CPS Energy, the San Antonio River Authority, Eco Centro, the International Dark Sky Association, Green Spaces Alliance, Earn-a-bike, and VIA Vision 2040 will speak to various sustainability initiatives proposed and possible.

Disclosure: As the founder of LocalSprout, I will be among the presenters.

In addition to contributing to City policy, attendees will be tasked with proposing “personal commitments” to become more sustainable in their own lives, and then given information and planning strategies to help execute those goals. Awards in Sustainability will also be presented for leaders in industry, policy, and advocacy.

The bulk of the event will be characterized by celebrating the Sustainability Plan and confronting the challenge of implementing it properly.

“This is the official launching pad for the community to embrace the Sustainability Plan by learning, sharing ideas, and taking action,” said Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick.

Ron Nirenberg (right) moderates a panel Terry Bellamy (left), Douglas Melnick (middle), and John Dugan (right). Photo by Scott Ball.
Council member Ron Nirenberg (right) moderates a panel with (from left) TCI Director Terry Bellamy, Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick, and Planning and Community Development Director John Dugan at the City’s first Sustainability Summit in June 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Sustainability Plan can be found in full here, with the stated goals of creating a healthy environment, a thriving economy, and an inclusive and fair community. There is a huge volume of goals and strategies contained within the plan – here is a small sample:

  • To increase sustainable local food, incentives could be created to use vacant lots as commercially viable urban farms.
  • To facilitate renewable energy, there is a proposal on the table for a PACE program which finances the cost of energy efficiency and renewables upgrades through a loan based on the revenue from an increase in property taxes. Many other counties and states have offered it already.
  • To improve green building, the City could offer technical assistance for developers to use high performing building standards that maximize energy and water efficiency and low impact development on their property. The City can complete converting all streetlights to LEDs.
  • To strengthen pollutant-free transportation, the City could pilot a Priority Bike Facility Action plan to connect bike infrastructure to trails, neighborhoods, and places of employment.
  • To protect the city’s water resources, the City could encourage gray water use in landscaping to prevent potable water from being wasted.
  • To improve air quality, the City is considering a program that identifies significant point source emitters and coordinates with them to both reduce emissions and alert them during high ozone days.
  • To help pollinators, the City is brainstorming options to conserve and create habitats for Monarch butterflies by increasing the amount of milkweed planted throughout the city.
  • To boost public health, the City is considering mobile health clinics that would reach underserved areas.
  • To reduce waste, there is an opportunity to develop markets for waste materials such as organics and recycling, to be sold and bought for the creation of new products.

These are just some of the plans that are still being filled in with details and approaches, and they may all be influenced by public input. The Sustainability Plan itself was partially created from last year’s event.

“Last year’s summit was a tremendous event,” Melnick said. “We had about 400 people attend who provided input into the development of the SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan and learned about all of the tremendous work already underway by the City and other partners.

“(At this summit) there will also be the opportunity for participants to continue to provide input on the plan and specific projects that are in the development phase, such as climate action and smart cities.”

The lack of a formal Climate Action Plan has been a noticeable gap in San Antonio. Cities throughout the country have directly addressed their efforts to lower greenhouse gases and increase their resilience to extreme weather. In June, during an initial briefing of the Sustainability Plan proposal, three council members – Nirenberg, Cris Medina (D7), and Alan Warrick (D2) – passed a motion requesting the next steps for a Climate Action Plan.

The Office of Sustainability decided to decouple such a plan from SA Tomorrow, thus avoiding embroilment of less politicized goals like clean water with climate change, the latter of which many Republicans deny entirely. Climate Action Plans can come with business and industry-limiting goals to reduce greenhouse gases – another politically sensitive topic.

CPS Energy’s power system is already compliant with President Obama’s flagship Clean Power Plan because of its investments in renewables, but the City has many other sources of emissions it could directly target. At the summit, environmentalists will have the opportunity to push for more action and direct strategies for a local Climate Action Plan.

Globally, the the progress made by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and the historic Paris agreement has signaled a huge shift toward the shared sacrifice of cutting emissions, though that progress is still in danger of repeal by future court decisions and elections.

Generally speaking, San Antonio has accomplished a great deal for the environment in recent years. Between 2005 and 2015, total landfill waste decreased by 30%. Now, every household will have composting options in addition to recycling. Between 2009 and 2014, the City decreased energy usage by 352 megawatts, or the equivalent of about 60,000 homes.

Still, the City has ambitious goals that require focused pressure and direction from the public. Environmental controversies still swirl, including public discontent with the Vista Ridge water pipeline, resistance to pollutant regulation like the anti-tar coal ordinance, and fish fatalities in the urban core from contaminated storm water runoff.

The Sustainability Summit is an opportunity for members of the public to partake in communal discourse and make a difference in the city’s environment. Registration is here.

Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.