Panelists (from left) Lord Mayor of Darmstadt Jochen Partsch, moderator Rick Casey, and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks to the future of their respective cities.
Lord Mayor of Darmstadt Jochen Partsch (left) and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg flank moderator Rick Casey as they discuss the future of their respective cities Monday evening. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The German city of Darmstadt, San Antonio’s “sister city,” has been named by Germany’s weekly news magazine as the top “city of the future” for four years in a row. So it seemed fitting that the city’s Lord Mayor Jochen Partsch sat down with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Monday near the conclusion of day one of City of the Future summit at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

The two cities are “sisters,” made official with a Sister City Agreement signed by leaders in 2017, and share similarities including an appreciation of research, educational, biomedical, cybersecurity, and technological institutions and companies.

Both cities are “looking forward to the future, not in fear of the future,” Partsch said. “We are both growing cities.”

What makes a city of the future? It depends on what you emphasize. While Partsch emphasized technology, Nirenberg emphasized demographics, noted the discussion moderator and Rivard Report columnist Rick Casey.

But Darmstadt and San Antonio are also very different. Darmstadt’s official title is “City of Science.” It has a population of roughly 160,000 compared with San Antonio’s nearly 1.5 million.

In many ways, Darmstadt has achieved a lot of the goals San Antonio has set out to achieve. It is home to the European Space Operations Centre and Merck, the world’s oldest pharmaceutical company, among other major employers. Darmstadt was recently named Germany’s first “Digital City” and boasts an average salary of $60,500 compared with $48,400 in San Antonio, according to PayScale.

In many senses, San Antonio is still a “city on the rise” (to quote city and business leaders) for many residents.

Darmstadt residents have always been “very curious,” science-minded people and the city is a “cosmopolitan place,” Partsch said. Several elements on the periodic table were discovered in Darmstadt – including the element Darmstadtium.

Nirenberg emphasized plans to improve affordable housing, transportation, and climate adaptation.

“How can we make that progress equitable for all citizens?” Nirenberg said. “That’s one area where San Antonio’s poised to lead.”

San Antonio looks like a city of the future in terms of American demographics, Nirenberg said. “Most American cities are anticipating looking like San Antonio a few decades from now.”

Casey asked each city leader what he would take back home from the other’s city if he could take just one thing.

“This is a tough question because Ron and we are not just colleagues, we are friends,” Partsch quipped. “So I don’t want to rob San Antonio.”

But if he had to choose, he said, he would pick land. Darmstadt has traffic and density issues as it grows into the 21st century.  “We are so narrow,” he said. “[Darmstadt is] so dynamic, but we don’t have a … chance to get new space.”

For San Antonio, that space has been a double-edged sword – encouraging suburban sprawl and disinvestment in its downtown that only in the past decade has returned.

“We can give you some, we can name it after you, but you have to come visit it,” Nirenberg said smiling.

(From left) Mayor Ron Nirenberg, VIA Board Chair Esperanza "Hope" Andrade, and Lord Mayor of Darmstadt Jochen Partsch attend a dedication ceremony for a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus designed in honor of Darmstadt.
(From left) Mayor Ron Nirenberg, VIA board Chair Esperanza “Hope” Andrade, and Lord Mayor of Darmstadt Jochen Partsch attend a dedication ceremony for a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus designed in honor of Darmstadt. Credit: Courtesy / Rocío Guenther

San Antonio’s mayor said he would take home Darmstadt’s unity and enlightenment.

“[Science] infuses everything that they do,” he said. “Darmstadters know that they are a City of Science and they are prideful about it.”

After their talk on stage, the lord mayor and mayor attended a dedication ceremony for a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus designed in honor of Darmstadt, including the Darmstadt name, coat of arms, and official colors. Meanwhile in Darmstadt, light-rail travelers might notice a Texas city’s coat of arms on one of the trams named “San Antonio.”

The summit and VIA dedication ceremony were part of a weeklong official visit to San Antonio by Partsch and a delegation of Darmstadt leaders.

The summit was hosted by Zpryme, an Austin-based research, media, and events agency focused on energy.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

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