Construction work begins on Cherry Street in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Scott Ball.
Construction work begins on Cherry Street in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Scott Ball.

All San Antonio residents have the power to create healthier, more walkable neighborhoods.

For evidence, look no further than Cherry Street on the city’s Eastside.

Local urban designers Nicolas Rivard and Allison Hu learned last year about a forthcoming city construction project in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood – which is 75.16% Latino – that lacked shade, trees, and other walkable streetscape elements on Cherry Street.

They decided to act.

They made Dignowity Hill and Cherry Street the first campaign of the Place Changing project, in collaboration with Overland Partners and the Rivard Report, which intimately looks at how history, culture, people, the built environment, and public investment influence the urban space surrounding an individual neighborhood in San Antonio. The goal is to build urban literacy and equip residents with strategies to talk about and get involved in city planning and development projects that affect their neighborhood.

Cherry Street before construction work. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.
Cherry Street before construction work. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.

Rivard and Hu, along with Juan Garcia, a previous president and current board member of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, and other neighbors attended the city meeting regarding the Cherry Street construction project. They learned that certain design elements such as landscaping, lighting, and other pedestrian-friendly streetscapes that were part of the original plans previously discussed and approved by residents had been “value-engineered” out of the project, Hu said.

The term “walkability” was coined to describe street design elements that make streets pedestrian-friendly or -unfriendly.

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A greater percentage of residents living in the Dignowity Hill area – estimated by census tract 1919 and by zip code 78202 in table above – use public transit to commute to work compared to city, county, and state averages. Thus, improving walkability in this neighborhood has the potential to benefit a large number of residents.

Street design and street conditions not only affect traffic flow, but also walkability, which consequently affects a community’s economy, safety, and physical and social health. Communities that lack safe, walkable streets are less physically active and are at increased risk for many chronic diseases that threaten more than just physical mobility and lifespan, but also affect one’s family, job, finances, and mental and emotional health.

Conversely, quality improvements to transportation infrastructure and walkable streetscape elements are positively associated with increased physical activity and reduced obesity.

Cherry Street plans did not meet walkable standards and appeared inferior when compared to design plans for projects in wealthier neighborhoods in San Antonio, according to Rivard, Hu, and other Dignowity residents and business owners.

“The way the city tended to frame it was that landscape was an accessory or a luxury,” Hu said. “I think that if I was a community member and not part of this discipline (of urban design), it would have been very reasonable sounding that landscape is a luxury. But we and our peers called for an alternative definition of the ‘bare minimum.’”

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Rivard, Hu, and their allies mobilized and empowered community members to build partnerships with local businesses and organizations and to speak up and advocate for more walkable streetscape elements.

“We created awareness through personal social networks, social media, the neighborhood association, and by approaching local businesses and community centers and asking them to write letters of support,” Rivard said.

Supporters of the project organized a walk along Cherry Street with local business owners, District 2 City Council staff, and City street project managers and staff. In addition, an online petition that demanded the reintroduction of street trees and landscape elements into the project was delivered to Mayor Ivy Taylor, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2), and Mike Frisbie, the City’s director of Transportation and Capital Improvements.

Rivard and Hu, joined by landscape architect and neighbor, Herminio Griego, redrew the Cherry Street Project plans to include the design elements that the community members initially requested: a divorced sidewalk and landscaping.

The City of San Antonio estimated that the updated plans would cost $250,000.

Rivard and Hu were hoping to receive funds from the 2012 bond savings, but knew they needed to seek additional funding options and approached local business owners and land owners.

Local support came in the form of in-kind resources. For example, the City would not approve funding for future landscape maintenance costs, but Alamo Beer Company owner Eugene Simor agreed to partner with the community, investigate opportunities for pollinator landscapes, and take over maintenance of the landscaping near his property to ensure that landscaping remained in the final plans.

City Council eventually approved plans to add street trees, separated sidewalks, and other streetscape elements on Cherry Street on Feb. 11.

The process of identifying a problem and developing a solution has created several local health advocates. Place Changing’s process of “design activism” or “participatory design” empowers community members, while building urban literacy and equipping residents with strategies to get involved.

To learn more about Rivard and Hu’s first Place Changing project, click here.

“During the design research process, we are all able to be advocates for changes to the built environment or to the social structure of the neighborhood that we think will make it a healthier overall dynamic for everybody,” Rivard said.

Rivard and Hu are perfect examples of how non-policymakers can step up and drive policy and system changes to benefit the health of local residents. Across San Antonio, other non-traditional partners are stepping up to drive policy and system changes. The Active Living Council of San Antonio, for example, is a collaboration among eight different societal sectors – such as business, education, public health, recreation, and land use and community design – to implement nationally recognized strategies and tactics from the National Physical Activity Plan, which aims to improve physical activity and benefit the health of the entire city.

We challenge you to become a Salud Leader today and get involved in helping create more healthy change in San Antonio.

Disclosure: Nicolas Rivard is Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard’s son.

Top image: Construction work begins on Cherry Street in Dignowity Hill. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Combatting Eastside Crime by Shooting Hoops and Revitalizing Parks 

Immigrating to Dignowity Hill: Empty Lots, Fixer-Uppers, and The Perfect Fit

Where I Live: Dignowity Hill

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Amanda Merck

Amanda Merck is a content curator/research area specialist for Salud America! at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also is a VIA board member.