For much of my life on San Antonio’s North Side, Southtown was a place I visited only on rare occasions. I envied the access residents had to Beethoven Meannerchor, El Mirador, and all that I saw contributing to what I deemed a “vibrant” community. Now, as a Southtown resident, seeing how cherished local businesses are suffering during the pandemic, I am searching for ways to support the spaces I and so many other San Antonians value.

In a recent commentary, San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott illustrated how essential creeks, rivers, parks, and green spaces are to the San Antonio community’s social and economic vitality. The Howard Peak Trail system and the River Walk’s extensions have spurred massive financial investment – an outcome in line with former Mayor Julian Castro’s Decade of Downtown centered on expanding commercial opportunities along the River Walk. 

One of the clearest examples of the riverside development boom was in Southtown, the heart of Fiesta, encompassing parts of the neighborhoods of Lavaca, King William, Lone Star, and Arsenal. Undoubtedly, the residents of these neighborhoods have varying opinions on the new residential and commercial development. 

The central tension in this variance in resident opinion is whether development, which solely follows profit, is consistent with the essence of a place. Out of this debate arise essential questions: What makes a place valuable outside of its economic potential? Who are the gatekeepers of a place? 

A place can be both a commodity and a public good. The economic and social values of each play an essential role in how we build cities. While developers easily capture and quantify the financial costs, social value is harder to determine. Every individual interacting with a place ascribes value to it, but so far, our government has not been able to reflect those values in their decisions.

Sure, Zoning Commissions and Development Boards listen to residents in public sessions. Still, without a method to weigh community preferences against economic values, decision-makers are forced to look only at developers’ numbers, written in the language of profit. Prioritizing profit in planning has a storied history in San Antonio – choosing economic expansion over the preferences of mostly minority groups resulted in a segregationist highway system and a mostly privatized HemisFair.

City leaders should use the language of profit to quantify how special some spaces are to residents – how communities may value a public good whose value is not captured fully by the market. 

Researchers in Joensuu, Finland, surveyed residents’ willingness to pay for the urban forests surrounding the city and found that the additional social value of the parks far outweighs the costs associated with their management and the most profitable alternative uses like timber production. A study in Guangzhou, China, raised the price of accessing the city’s urban green spaces and found that “Aggregate monetary value of urban greenspaces attained … outstrip[s] Guangzhou’s annual expenditures on urban greenspaces by six times.” In both case studies, researchers were able to ascribe social value to urban places, compare that value to management costs, and show substantial public support for these green spaces. 

Bringing in the best ideas from around the world is a goal inextricable from San Antonio’s political leadership. Similar methods for valuing the world outside of the market could be fine-tuned and used to support Southtown.

In the eventual development of the Lone Star Brewery, city planners should not merely seek to copy the Pearl. Instead, they should use valuation methods to better reflect the preferences of the Lone Star and Lavaca communities and the value they place on the rapidly gentrifying area. Before the city allows developers to extract wealth from residents, city leaders should engage thoroughly with those residents, testing their tolerance for new development and building policies to fight displacement.

As the city expands the Howard Peak trail system, determining potential trails’ values in different areas of San Antonio could help city leaders better plan the implementation of the trail network. Instead of touting a “development boom,” as city leaders did on the 10th anniversary of Museum Reach, they should focus on who these trails serve, how it enhances their lives, and expand trails where residents have been historically underserved

While these examples illustrate a pre-pandemic populous, valuation calculations can reflect residents’ shifting post-virus values. While many of San Antonio’s most significant tax-subsidized places are now empty, such as the AT&T Center, the Henry Gonzalez Convention Center, and the Alamodome, others are seeing record usage, like our world-class trail systems.

City leaders should see these shifts as an expression of residents’ shifting values during and after the pandemic and expand trail networks to meet new usage. And as the city faces the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, subsidy preference should be given to those local businesses on which residents place value.

Too often, state and local government uses its powers to segregate affordable housing development, prevent local organizations from serving the public good, or gentrify areas with rising land values, perpetuating San Antonio’s historically racist zoning practices. Too often, the city’s power is seen only in blocking people from a place, valuing land over those it could support. But if it is people who make a place valuable – the more people in an area, the greater its value. And there are cases when San Antonio’s Zoning Commission listens to those it serves and fights against the aims of the profit-driven, proof that leaders can and should fight against turning land into only tax revenue. 

If we leave the market to its devices, treasured local businesses will continue to suffer, and developers will buy the land for their profit-focused ends. We need our city leaders to hear the voices of the people they serve, find ways to accurately gauge the value of place outside of the value of the land on which it stands, and protect our beloved institutions from their unseen enemy, the invisible hand of the market.

David Bemporad

David Bemporad is a second-year Master in Urban Planning Student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is a Bloomberg Harvard Summer Fellow, a former Archer Fellow, and a native San Antonian.