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Nicolas Rivard and Allison Hu, urban designers in San Antonio and members of Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, learned about an upcoming street construction project that lacks walkable streetscape elements in their largely Latino neighborhood, and decided to act. The urban designers mobilized and empowered community members to get involved and request walkable streetscape elements, and the city responded by adding street trees, separated sidewalks, and landscaping. Today, through their recent project, Place Changing, the designers use “design activism” or “participatory design” processes to build urban literacy and equip residents with strategies to continue to get involved in city planning and development projects.
Walkability Low in East San Antonio Neighborhood
Nicolas Rivard and Allison Hu, urban designers at the San Antonio architectural firm Overland Partners, have learned over their careers that the built environment (the human-made surroundings that provide the setting for activity including buildings and green space) affects a community’s economy, safety, and physical and social health.
Rivard and Hu are concerned with inequities in the built environment, such as low-quality streetscapes and lack of sidewalks and bike lanes, because these environmental factors influence the real and perceived safety and accessibility of public spaces contributing to health disparities, such as Latino childhood obesity.
They recently moved into the same neighborhood, Dignowity Hill (75.16% Latino), a diverse, up-and-coming neighborhood east of downtown San Antonio, Texas (63.06% Latino). However, compared to the rest of the city, it is a disadvantaged neighborhood with limited functioning public space and surrounded by physical barriers like a freight rail line and industrial uses.
A young girl mentored by Hu through Big Brothers Big Sisters program recognized the lack of opportunity to recreate outdoors in 2014. She perceived that the local parks were “boys parks,” which led Hu to informally investigate public use of public spaces in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood, including sidewalks and green space. She observed that teen boys were the group most predominately out-and-about in the neighborhood, which led Hu to form a group to investigate the usage of two of the primary parks in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood. The action group observed that girls and the rest of the neighborhood’s population were missing out on multiple health benefits of physical activity, although the Martinez Street Women’s Center was working to change that.
Rivard and Hu grew concerned that other parts of town face similar health-unfriendly environments, and that relevant stakeholders lack the relationship to discuss making healthy changes to the built environment.
Place Changing focuses design, journalism, and activism on one neighborhood at a time to improve communication among stakeholders, foster social, cohesion, and, ultimately, to improve livability.
The first neighborhood targeted by Place Changing project was Dignowity Hill. Rivard, Hu, and their team used a variety of GIS tools to “dissect” the neighborhood from a spatial perspective, looking at transportation infrastructure, infill, and vacant lots. They also conducted interviews and used multimedia journalistic storytelling to understand relationships that residents have with their neighborhood from an individual perspective, looking at relational, social, and physical health.
Dignowity Hill is disproportionately burdened by railroads, crime, homelessness, vacant lots, and lack of green space, as well as disparities in health, income, and education.
In May 2015, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association alerted Rivard and Hu to a street improvement project in the neighborhood.
City Meeting Reveals Unacceptable Street Plans
In fact, the city scheduled a public meeting in May 2015 to discuss upcoming construction projects on the neighborhood’s Cherry Street as part of a $2.6 million bond project that was approved in May 2012. The street runs parallel to the railroad, and is light industrial on one side and residential on the other side.
Rivard and Hu, along with Juan Garcia, a previous president and current board member of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, and other neighbors attended this meeting and immediately became alarmed by what they learned.
Certain design elements, such as landscaping, lighting, and other walkable streetscapes that were part of the original plans previously discussed and approved by residents had been “value-engineered” out of the project, Hu said.
Neighbors were alarmed by the city’s updated plans for Cherry Street because of inequities facing Dignowity Hill, where more people live in poverty (38%) and commute to work (24%) than in San Antonio overall (20% and 3%, respectively), as well as the value of walkable neighborhoods.
Studies show that walkable neighborhoods provide many economic, safety, environmental, health, and social benefits. They are designed to include environmental elements, such as protected sidewalks and bicycle lanes, shade trees and landscaping, access to public transportation, and traffic-calming devices.
Cherry Street plans did not meet these walkable standards, and appeared inferior compared to design plans for projects in wealthier neighborhoods in San Antonio, according to Rivard, Hu, and other Dignowity residents and business owners.
“It was easy for some people to pick up on this feeling that they might be getting shortchanged, because, in particular, the overhead utilities was kind of new news,” Hu said. “You don’t really see them that much on the Northside. Or, not at that monumental scale.”
Rivard, Hu, Garcia, and other concerned residents wondered how they could get the city to go back and reinstate landscaping and other walkable streetscape improvements.
“Functional public space is really vital to public health,” Rivard said.
Neighborhood Association Calls for Improvements
Through Garcia and the Dignowity Neighborhood Association, Rivard and Hu reached out to many local residents and business owners to discuss the Cherry Street improvement project.
“We created awareness through personal social networks, social media, the neighborhood association, and by approaching local businesses and community centers and asking them to write letters of support,” Rivard said.
Although the city has a “Complete Streets” policy to provide safe transit for all modes of travel, the street design process tends to neglect streetscape elements, such as landscaping and divorced sidewalks, especially in areas of town that lack educated and engaged residents, resulting in continued inequities and health disparities, Hu said.
“The way the city tended to frame it was that landscape was an accessory or a luxury,” Hu said. “I think that if I was a community member and not part of this discipline [urban designer], it would have been very reasonable sounding that landscape is a luxury. But we and our peers called for an alternative definition of the ‘bare minimum’.”
And those preconceptions included evidence-based built environment walkable design elements, such as underground utilities, divorced sidewalks, and landscaping. “Divorced sidewalks,” for example, separate pedestrians from the street with four-feet of landscaped space between the street and the curb.
“A lot of unexpected benefits come from street trees,” Rivard said. “[There is a] 12% decrease in crime for every 10% increase in street trees per block. The air gets cleaner. More water is absorbed into the ground rather than running off into our storm sewer system. There is a cooler temperature. Trees are on the east side of the street. In the afternoon the sun is beating down from the west. In Texas, you can imagine that this is unpleasant. People just won’t walk if that is what you give them.”
Money became the “hardest part of the puzzle,” Rivard said.
He and Hu met with San Antonio City Councilmember Alan Warrick and other council staff members. They learned about a savings “pot” of funds at the end of the municipal bond cycle, which can be used at the discretion of the city.
“Where that money goes is a political negotiation,” Rivard said.
Rivard encouraged Dignowity Hill residents to talk with city leaders and build “urban literacy,” the process of learning how the city functions, and how to get inside the system and operate effectively.
“Try to get to know [city leaders and developers] as people”, Rivard said. “Be a link to the larger community and help the politician understand the community’s desires.”
Petition Started for Cherry Street Improvements
In June 2015, Rivard created an online petition to the Mayor of San Antonio, Ivy Taylor, District 2 City Councilman, Alan Warrick, and the Director of Transportation and Capital Improvements, Mike Frisbie.
The petition stated: “Put simply, the Dignowity Hill community is unhappy about the design direction of the Cherry Street improvements project. The project keeps unsightly utilities above ground and lacks the bike lanes, street trees, and landscape bumpouts discussed at the initial community design meeting. We do not accept this ‘bare minimum’ response in our neighborhood where we already lack sidewalks, curbs, street gutters, and even paving in some areas. With more street improvement projects in our neighborhood’s near future, this project makes an important statement about the quality of public space our residents expect. A sidewalk without trees and underground utilities would never be allowed on the city’s Northside, so why should it be acceptable here? We demand the reintroduction of street trees and landscape elements into the project for the sake of our neighborhood’s health, safety, and welfare.”
“People in the community are pretty perceptive,” Hu said. “As soon as the petition went out, everyone related.”
Rivard and Hu also interviewed with news media outlets and organized a walk of Cherry Street where neighbors pointed out their concerns and suggestions as they walked with local business owners, District 2 City Council staff, and city street project managers and staff.
Local Support Leveraged Request for City Funds
In August 2015, Rivard and Hu, joined by landscape architect and neighbor, Herminio Griego, redrew the Cherry Street Project plans to include the design elements that the community members initially requested: a divorced sidewalk and landscaping.
They asked the city how much these updated plans would cost.
The answer? $250,000 or more.
Although they were hopeful to receive funds from the bond savings, Rivard and Hu knew they needed to seek additional funding options and approached local business owners and landowners.
Local support came in the form of in-kind resources. For example, the city would not approve funding for future landscape maintenance costs, but Alamo Beer Company owner Eugene Simor agreed to partner with the community and take over maintenance of the landscaping near his property in order to ensure that landscaping remained in the final plans, and investigate opportunities for pollinator landscapes.
The group got the city to include the request for $250,000 on the city council’s agenda for February 11, 2016.
On February 11, 2016, the City Council of San Antonio approved the request for $250,000 for Rivard and Hu’s improved plans.
Under direction of city street project managers and engineers, the Cherry Street improvements project will be constructed to incorporate ideas originating from plans drawn by Rivard, Hu, and Griego. Divorced sidewalks will get phased in incrementally, with landscaping between, as well as eight trees per block.
“Hopefully, by the end of next year , we will have a walkable, shaded street,” Rivard said.
Cherry Street Improvements Soon to Come
Preliminary construction, including underground sewer and water pipes, and electrical and gas lines began in early 2015.
The majority of construction is scheduled to begin in early 2016.
The Cherry Street project improvements will be implemented in a low-income, Latino-majority neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. These improvements are accessible for all area residents to take advantage of.
The process of identifying a problem and developing a solution has also created local health advocates.
Place Changing’s process of “design activism” or “participatory design” empowers community members, while building urban literacy and equipping residents with strategies to get involved.
“During the design research process, we are ALL able to be advocates for changes to the built environment or to the social structure of the neighborhood that we think will make it a healthier overall dynamic for everybody,” Rivard said.
Policy and built environment changes have the most impact because they have the potential to reach a large portion of the population for a long period of time. Additionally, quality improvements to transportation infrastructure and walkable streetscape elements are positively associated with increased physical activity and reduced obesity.
“If Overland hadn’t endorsed us [Place Changing], we wouldn’t have been looking at the neighborhood in the same way, even though we live there,” Rivard said. “We wouldn’t have realized what was going on until it was too late and the [Cherry Street] project would have been built inferior and unwalkable.”
Garcia is excited about the future of Dignowity Hill with more advocates and more change.
“It’s fun mentoring these young motivated people,” Garcia said. “Showing them how to navigate the system, and work with the city and with elected officials. My wife and I really appreciate Nicolas and Allison’s attitude. They are highly trained people with a strong sense of community to better the neighborhood in the long run.”
1. U.S. Census Bureau. (2008). American Community Survey (ACS). 2009-2013. U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC. Available.
2. U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). County Business Patterns. (CBP). 2013. U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC. Available.1
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, USDA – Food Access Research Atlas (FARA). (2010). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC. Available.1
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP). 2012. Atlanta, GA. Available.1
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). 2005-09. Atlanta, GA. Available.1
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Area Health Resource File (AHRF). 2012. Washington, DC. Available.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.