The San Antonio skyline beyond rows of solar panels. Photo courtesy of UTSA.
The San Antonio skyline beyond rows of solar panels. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

Students from UTSA‘s graduate level Urban and Regional Sustainability class auditioned their best ideas before a crowd of seasoned environmental advocates from the Alamo Sierra Club at the Witte Museum Tuesday evening,

The class is required across several disciplines to promote sustainability as a mindset rather than a niche interest. Tuesday’s panel included students from the fields of architecture, urban and regional planning, real estate, geography, civil engineering. They were divided into five teams, addressing five major areas of sustainability: water, energy, transportation and land use, waste, and climate.

Bill Barker addresses the Sierra Club.
Bill Barker addresses the Sierra Club.

UTSA Adjunct Associate Professor Bill Barker, a Sierra Club member who recently retired from the City of San Antonio’s Office of Sustainability, was present as the students’ leader.  He also is the former executive director of Solar San Antonio and director of planning for VIA Metropolitan Transit.

During his career as a consultant, Barker served public and private clients across North America. His federal clients included the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Agency for International Development.  He also has consulted with the Houston Advanced Research Center, Environmental Defense Fund and the Gas Research Institute.

Now Barker is shaping the next generation.

Their goal was to present a realistic and effective plan for San Antonio achieving a high level of sustainability by 2040. The date represents the next generation of planners and designers taking the SA2020 vision to the next level.

The 19 students looked to other U.S. cities in the U.S. and globally for best practices and precedents as they sought solutions for San Antonio’s particular environmental challenges. Five team leaders presented conclusions to the audience and fielded questions from the astute crowd.

Jose Guerrero presented the groups findings and recommendation for water usage. The team’s goal was to bring daily water usage to 100 gallons per person, a 32 percent reduction from our current 147 gallons/person. Reducing reliance on the Edwards Aquifer was another highlight of the sustainability plan, encouraging the exploration of alternate water resources.

Conservation was identified as the key tool to meet the region’s intensifying drought conditions. The team focused on landscape practices as the key to water use reduction. To achieve the goal, the team recommended expansion of current incentive programs and increased enforcement of current water use restrictions.

For the energy component, Luis Zamora laid out the recommendations to reach a goal of 3,500 kWh per capita, with 50 percent coming from renewable energy sources. Current CPS Energy goals set renewables as 20 percent of the overall energy portfolio by 2020. Recommendations ranged from continuing CPS’s STEP program and increasing education programs to building neighborhood micro-grids, exploring geothermal energy from the Hot Wells site, and maximizing biogas use. The team wants to see the city’s IECC/IRC compliance updated to the more rigorous 2012 standards, rather than the current 2009 standards.

Sprawl was the main target of Transportation and Land Use goals. Ryan Kirby presented statistics on San Antonio’s sprawl that demonstrate the high cost of sprawl to commuters and taxpayers.

UTSA graduate students (l-r) Kyle Knickerbocker, Melissa Ramos, Ryan Kirby, Luis Zamora, and Jose Guerrero present their research to the Sierra Club.
UTSA graduate students (l-r) Kyle Knickerbocker, Melissa Ramos, Ryan Kirby, Luis Zamora, and Jose Guerrero present their research to the Sierra Club.

“Having a more dense city will increase improvements to the infrastructure that we already have,” Kirby said.

The group recommended increased funding for public transportation, revisions to the Unified Development Code, and more initiatives aimed at “smart growth.”

Later, in the question and answer period, the Millennial generation’s love of urban density was cited as its chief “green” quality. Millennials want the convenience of urban living, and the side effect happens to be good for the environment.

“With that convenience comes increased efficiency, even if efficiency is not the motivator,” said Kyle Knickerbocker.

Melissa Ramos presented the conclusions on waste reduction and management. The goal is to decrease landfill waste by 80 percent by 2040. This represents an annual reduction from 1,200 lbs. per person to 285 lb/person. The most innovative initiatives the group proposed were a Cradle to Cradle waste management system, and solar compactors to handle trash in high density areas.

Climate, perhaps the trickiest component of sustainability, was presented by Knickerbocker. The stated goal was 50 percent emission reductions by 2040. Increased density, decreased waste and energy consumption all would play a part. The challenges facing San Antonio are familiar: drought, urban heat island effects, flooding, and wildfires.  “Cool roofs” and an urban tree canopy are two tools cited to counter urban heat buildup.

Perhaps the most encouraging and valuable contribution to the sustainability conversation were the many voices of the next wave of professionals committed to building a better city, and committed to think about long-term policies designed to combat long-term problems.

Featured/top image: The San Antonio skyline beyond rows of solar panels. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.