Gil Penalosa, Founder of 8 80 Cities.
Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities, speaks at San Antonio CityFest on Saturday at the Southwest School of Art. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

We can build a better San Antonio. We really have no choice if we want to join the ranks of cities that focus on the people who live and work there instead of on cars. The alternative is to join the ranks of cities that settle for mediocrity.

The most important piece of infrastructure in any city is its network of sidewalks and parks, the places where people walk, recreate, stay healthy, and meet across the socio-economic spectrum as citizens, neighbors, and equals.

That’s the message and the challenge the urban visionary Gil Penalosa, founder of the Toronto-based nonprofit 8 80 Cities, brought to San Antonio as the keynote speaker at the inaugural San Antonio CityFest. It’s a message he shared Thursday with a sold-out audience at the Pearl Stable, with students at Texas A&M University-San Antonio Friday morning, with a millennial-dominant audience at the Alamo Brewery Friday evening, and to help kick off the daylong programming at the Southwest School of Art on Saturday.

Penalosa has worked with more than 350 cities from around the world, from Brownsville and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley to Singapore and Melbourne many time zones to the east. This was his first visit to San Antonio. If we are smart, we will bring him back – not as a keynote speaker, but as a working consultant to help local leaders accelerate the pace of change and the philosophy of development in San Antonio.

Many of our elected leaders were in Los Angeles for part of the week to attend the National League of Cities conference, an important annual gathering of mayors, city managers, city council members, and urban professionals. That conference comes to San Antonio next year and offers an important opportunity for the city to showcase its most impressive urban accomplishments and amenities.

I wish, however, that those same officials could have been inside the Pearl Stable to listen to Penalosa’s TED Talk-style presentation, an evangelical call to action: “Stop talking. Start doing.”

You can watch Penalosa’s presentation here.

Penalosa pointed to San Antonio’s anticipated population growth of 1 million people over the next 25 years and asked how the city had grown to accommodate the 1 million who are here now. If we had it to do over again, would we do it differently? Would we have managed sprawl more intelligently? Or are we on a path to continue developing over the next 40 years the same way we developed over the past 40 years?

More than 600,000 people in San Antonio can reach the closest park only by vehicle, he noted, comparing us to San Francisco, where every child lives within a 10-minute walk of at least a pocket park.

The city’s hike and bike trails and the 13-mile linear park along the San Antonio River drew praise from Penalosa, who spent four days walking the city, taking his first scooter ride, and exploring our best and worst features.

“Are we still in San Antonio?” he asked me at one point as we passed the 10-mile mark leaving downtown and driving along Interstate 35 and Loop 410.

He pointed to city statistics on the web touting San Antonio’s growing network of 200 bike lanes.

“Where are they?” he asked me as we drove the length of Broadway and meandered into adjacent streets. “A white stripe on the street under parked cars is not a bike lane. I don’t see many people on bikes. Most people are afraid to ride a bike in traffic. They need a connected network of protected bike lanes, and every street needs a sidewalk.

“The right to walk safely in any city, on a well-maintained sidewalk, with a good tree canopy, with good lighting, without being attacked by stray dogs, should be a human right,” he said. “If you want to be a city of happy, healthy people, you are going to have make that commitment and make it now. You can’t afford to wait.”

CityFest closed Saturday evening with a panel titled “The Decade of Downtown: An Early Assessment.” Former Mayor Julián Castro, who sparked that urban renaissance, shared the stage with Weston Urban CEO Randy Smith, who oversees the ambitious public-private partnership with the City to redevelop a large part of the western side of downtown, a project that includes the new Frost Tower. SA 2020 CEO Molly Cox, who oversees the goal-setting agenda citizens shaped also under Castro’s watch, and UTSA Provost Kimberly Espy, who talked about the coming $200 million expansion of the university’s Downtown Campus that is expected to add about 15,000 students to the mix, rounded out the panel.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the impetus of the decade of downtown.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to the impetus of the decade of downtown. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

There was much to celebrate looking back over the past decade. San Antonio is on track to surpass some of the goals set in 2010, while it lags in other categories, including public health, pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and economic segregation, which are all related.

Penalosa, with a fresh look at San Antonio and global experience on the subject of the connection between healthy cities and economic development and competitiveness, sounded a clarion call. Will the right people listen? And if they do, will they act? The emerging generations of young San Antonians expect nothing less of us.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.