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Decade of Downtown

In pursuit of a ‘better’ city, less tangible values become paramount

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

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Factor in a gathering seven-county conservation plan aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive areas and species to the rapidly developing north and west of San Antonio, and you’ve got the start of rapid revaluation of unpaved landscapes.

It turns out that cities don’t just need jobs and cash to be great: they need human creativity, transparent governance, and a dose of wildness, too. At least that’s what the global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers stressed in 2005 after surveying mayors and city managers from around the world, the findings of which were released in the report, “Cities of the future: Global competition, local leadership.”

In it, there’s much talk of knowledge-based economies and the need for imaginative leadership, and — of course — healthy environments.

In a none-too-romantic view of modern metropolises, William Rees, a professor in sustainability studies at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning, wrote last year in Scientific American: “Today’s land-grabbing, auto-dominated, fuel-inefficient metropolises have evolved into parasitic black holes, sucking in excessive megatons of energy and materials from all over the globe and spewing out volumes of (often toxic) waste.”

Attempting to reverse a legacy of sprawl and dirty energy, Castro declared last month that San Antonio is now officially seeking to become the nation’s clean-tech capital. Part of that involves research and development in both private and institutional settings — new partnerships with companies like energy-management company Concert, and LED-lighting outfit GreenStar, which Castro said are being encouraged toward the city’s center. It will mean trading sprawl for density, a key to effective energy management.

Though he entered his tenure in 2009 with downtown in mind, Castro said he’s been surprised by the public enthusiasm he has been met by. And so it’s become a time to “layer” on the amenities, he said, such as bike lanes, bicycle sharing stations, great art, and parks.

And while cities have evolved since the days of the Fertile Crescent’s centralized ziggurats into exercises of secular management, their success is also determined by less quantifiable measures, such as a common sense of place, community, and shared aspirations. “Without the notion of sacred space, it is doubtful that cities could have ever developed anywhere in the world,” Joel Kotkin writes in his sweeping work, The City: A Global History. And while the gods are still with us (blessed Manu, anyone?), the sense of ourselves as a community — perhaps today’s most “sacred space” — is what Castro wisely marks as our greatest asset. It’s one that, thankfully, remains creatively volatile. And increasingly wild. •

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