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25th Anniversary Issue

Current 25: Legacy of coal, sprawl, and asphalt giving way to a 'greener' way of planning in SA

2006-2011

Mayor Julián Castro’s enthusiasm for reanimating downtown, expanding the city’s greenways, and putting bicycles back on the map were preceded just a few years ago by a man destined to go down as San Antonio’s first “green” mayor. Phil Hardberger’s vision of Mission Verde, an economics-heavy sustainability plan unanimously adopted by the City Council in 2010, was somewhat controversial inside the business community when first announced at 2009’s State of the City Address. And yet several years later — and two years into a new administration — it reverberates still in the way our leadership, utility, and economic development interests pursue its core principal of clean-technology development. Last week, I spoke with Larry Zinn, Hardberger’s chief of staff and now president of the Tejas Verde Group, a clean-tech development company, as he was preparing to travel to Curitiba, Brazil, to address an international conference on sustainable development in the Americas.

 

How did Mission Verde get started when it did?

The time was right. One thing I learned during my time at City Hall is that cities, much like people, have life cycles. They age, they decline, they rejuvenate, and there are certain moments in a city’s history where a decision made during that time decides its fate for generations to come. This was such a time. We lived in such a time in San Antonio both then and now. That’s because, not so much that there’s such a big environmental movement, but that it’s going to be such a huge economic [movement]. These things only come along about once every 100 years. And cities that don’t catch those big economic movements get left behind. History is littered with cities, and states, and regions, and countries that did not embrace the future at a time of dynamic change and as a result are left behind. We were a little farther behind than a lot of other people. Some were early adopters.

 

New York, Chicago, Seattle?

I’m thinking of Berkeley, possibly Chicago. Take a look at Portland: Portland made a decision in the 1980s and ’90s that instead of building a large interstate network to move traffic around their city that they were going to go to a multi-modal, public transportation system with dense urban development. They made that decision. And I would call Portland today one of the most sustainable cities in the country. I’m going in a couple weeks to a city called Curitiba in Brazil, it’s about the same size as San Antonio. They had a mayor in the 1970s and ’80s that made a decision, the same kind of decision that Portland made, and they now have a built-out rapid-transit system, lots of green space, and they’re considered one of the most sustainable cities in the world. San Antonio could not have made that decision 20 years ago. Politically it would not have been viable and the outside world was not ready to embrace that.

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