Eons ago in college I was an urban planning major. We talked about revitalization projects for cities that had seen better days all over the country. The teacher mentioned San Antonio enough that when I visited a few years ago I made my perfunctory visit to the Alamo and then I explored the entire River Walk.
In one word, WOW. This city took a run down area prone to floods and turned it into one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in the city. But it took quite a while….decades!
The river had long been a loved part of the city life, providing drinking water through acequia (canals) and swimming holes for bathing. When deep wells started being drilled to access the acquifer in the area, the level of water in the river started to drop. And then there were the seasonal floods that affected the area, especially the neighborhood where the bend was. In 1929 architect Robert H. Hugman envisioned a plan connecting the two ends of the river loop with a canal and installing a flood gate at each end of original river loop. This would protect the area inside from flooding. He based his concept on cities in Spain, where narrow winding streets that were barred to vehicular traffic contained the best shops and restaurants with similar development.
The city then hired the St Louis planning firm of Harland Batholomew & Associates (I worked for them for several years, of course a little later!) to come up with a master plan for the city. Bartholomew urged retention of natural areas, especially in the neighborhoods that tend to flood. This was not what Hugman had hoped to hear. The Great Depression restricted any action more than some plantings and things sat that way for several years.
By the late 1930s another plan was developed with more commercial development but proponents of the natural plan started protesting after a year of work. The fresh white limestone of the arched bridges, the concrete walkways, and the new theater stood in sharp contrast to the natural setting that had existed before. Finally, by 1941 the City had its River Walk but it was not appreciated and servicemen were not permitted to go there!
Finally, during the HemisFair in 1968, the image of the River Walk began to be transformed and it became an international sensation. Today the world-famous San Antonio River Walk is the crown jewel of Texas and a major tourist attraction. Beautifully landscaped along its winding course through downtown, it is still most beloved by residents of the city. For decades, the entire dry weather flow was derived from wells but in June 2000 the San Antonio Water System began augmenting the River’s flow with recycled water, reducing potable Edwards Aquifer water use. Today the River flows stronger and cleaner than it has in decades.
The San Antonio River Walk is a proven example of how a determined person with vision can provide an economic rebirth of a depressed area…..listen up City Planners of today!! Provide access to water….add pedestrian only places for shops and restaurants and visitor accomodations…..and this can also happen for you!