Special Issues » 25th Anniversary

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



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.


The 1970s, ’80s, the big movement then was into the fringes. It was more profitable to develop outside the city proper.

Oh, yeah. And so many other cities did the same thing. We had cheap oil, land was cheap, and people wanted to spread out. You know in 1930 our city was basically six miles by six miles and we had something like 100 miles of electric streetcars. But most cities dismantled theirs. We were one of the first to do so (laughs). It was a 20th-century economy based on cheap oil and fossil fuels. Now we’re into what [international sustainability planner Jeremy] Rifkin calls the Third Industrial Revolution, what [U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven] Chu calls the next industrial revolution. It’s happening as we talk, and it’s going to be based on clean energy.


What were the signs during your time in politics that there was a new economy burgeoning?

Back in 2008 we had record gasoline prices. At the same time we were having an internal debate at CPS, a little bit at City Hall, about what we were going to do to produce electricity. At that time our demand was increasing at three-and-a-half percent per year. And if you looked out to 2020 we were going to have some real deficits. So where were we going to get that? We looked with nuclear and other things and it was enormously expensive. It was just billions, and billions, and billions of dollars. Then at the same time, clean technology was starting to be embraced around the world by developing nations like China. It was clear this was going to be the next big economic movement. And it was going to be driven by major global factors in the 21st century such as scarce resources, globalization, technological innovation, and climate change. And all these things were coming together to create this new industrial base. San Antonio had a history of missing those movements, it was evident in our GDP and our wealth (even compared to places like Houston and Dallas and Austin) and that we could not afford to do that again. That if we missed this movement we would fall behind as a city in this 21st-century global economy in a way we’d never be able to catch up.


Was there a lot of resistance to bringing Jeremy Rifkin and his round table here?

He was controversial, but his message was actually quite consistent with where we were going with Mission Verde. He was then an advisor to the European Union and we were the first U.S. city he was actually engaged with at this point.


How would you describe San Antonio today compared to, say, 1985, as far as its place within its own life cycle?

I think we’re starting a new life cycle. It could be a very exciting one for the city and one in which we take a lead in biotech and water. We’re in many ways a young city, so we have a lot of promise if we can now just realize it.