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Cultural Benefits from Metropolitan River Recreation -- San Antonio Prototype

C. A. Gunn, D. J. Reed, R. E. Couch

This study analyzes the response to an outstanding design and development of a park-business complex along a natural river in the heart of a major city, The San Antonio River Walk. The research includes both those who visit and those who control or influence its development.

The River Walk refers to a horseshoe bend in the San Antonio River covering an area about four by six blocks in size in the central business district. This portion of the river lies in a deep cut, about 25 feet below street level, and is flanked by huge trees, lush plant growth and many shops, restaurants, and hotels. A continuous promenade parallels the river on both sides and the fifty-foot river is bridged many times providing both automobile and pedestrian crossing.

The research flowed along several lines in order to obtain full understanding of this unusual site. Because designed environments are seldom evaluated after construction, this project sought to obtain results on the following objectives:

  1. to sketch the present trends in river development for recreation in U.S. cities,
  2. to analyze the landscape character of the River Walk, and
  3. to obtain the opinions and attitudes toward the use and characteristics of the River Walk from: a) the visitors at all seasons, b) the voters of San Antonio, c) the organizations and agencies controlling and influencing development, and d) the property owners contiguous to the River Walk.

To determine the status of urban river development in the U.S., a survey of the fifty largest cities was conducted in addition to a review of literature and visits to ten cities with urban water development. Data from these sources revealed the following:

There is at present very little use made of urban rivers and most have been badly abused. Many plans are being made in most cities for the realignment of policies governing their waterfronts. A few cities are beginning the implementation or redevelopment that incorporates the open space, esthetic and recreational values of their waters.

Generally, the following attitudes were obtained from urban planners and leaders:

  1. An increasing concern over the deterioration of urban centers,
  2. Pressure from conservationists, preservationists, and historic restorers to redevelop urban river corridors,
  3. Continued concern over flooding problems of urban areas,
  4. New development in urban areas along waterfronts that ignores the esthetic and visual amenities of the water.
  5. Some new, low-quality downtown river development that perpetuates an already serious problem because the land is low-priced,
  6. Little acceptance by business that waterfront has value in an urban setting.

A landscape analysis was conducted to identify the primary characteristics of the River Walk. These include:

The River Walk has emerged as an esthetically unified area due to the integration of engineering, architectural and landscape design. At the same time, enough variety exists to provide diversity of user activity and to stimulate environmental interest.

The River Walk is in the vicinity of several other features that add to the strength of its attracting and fulfilling powers.

Because of its unique microclimate, plants abound that will not survive at the street level in the hotter air in summer and colder air in winter. It represents an extensive collection of flora and offers the visitor pleasant relief from the low-grade amenities in the normal urban setting.

The informal landscape design gives the impression of being in a wild setting of great size; yet there is provision for many activities.

Excellent control and maintenance is provided, always offering a neatand clean setting although used by many people.

It represents a unique mix of business enterprise and park, each one complementing the other to produce an identifiable urban feature of high quality.

The visitors use and image of the River Walk was surveyed through visitor response to interview using social survey techniques at nine stations along the River Walk. The survey was conducted on weekends for a full year.

Results of the survey reveal a single encompassing conclusion-the River Walk design and development are evoking an unusually strong positive response. This response is consistent over a wide range of ages, incomes, and occupations of visitors. Visitors describe the River Walk as very beautiful, moderately large, passive, uncrowded, safe, very interesting, cool, and uncommercial. At the same time, they make diverse leisure uses of the area. Some find solitude and others find excitement and gregariousness. Some shop and others do not. Some prefer to walk and others like the specially designed sightseeing barges. A wide range of personal satisfactions appear to be coming from a relatively small development.

In order to gain some insight into the strength of the voter support of the San Antonio River Walk, the registered voters of the city were surveyed. A statistical random sample of 2,001 of the 216,100 registered voters was drawn and was mailed questionnaires. A total of 414 usable responses were returned and constitute the basis for the following analysis:

76.6% have visited the River Walk in the last year.

96.6% consider it to be a tourist attraction; 80.7% consider it to be of economic benefit to the city; 74.9% consider it to be of benefit to them as residents of the city.

42.5% consider downtown traffic to be a problem; 64.5% consider downtown parking to be a problem; only 15.7% believe that the entrances to the River Walk are difficult to find; 11.6% say that they could not get a ride to the River Walk if they wished to go there.

76.6% consider the buildings on the River Walk to be attractive; 50.2% consider the River Walk to be lighted well enough at night; 47.1% consider the River Walk to be safe; 48.3% do not consider the river water to be clean.

62.3% would favor increased recreational use of the River Walk; 55.1% favor a man-made channel connecting with the Alamo; 79.7% favor improving the remainder of the San Antonio River northward to the Brackenridge Park while 62.8% favor improving southward

45.4% would be interested in living in an apartment along the river if available in their price range.

56.0% would vote for a bond issue to expand river development even if it raised taxes slightly; 25.6% favor if it would not raise taxes; 4.8% against if it raised taxes; 2.7% against even if it did not raise taxes. (10.9% were undecided.)

The survey of controlling agencies revealed a unanimity of policy toward the River Walk even though they are not bound officially. A high degree of collaboration and cooperation is taking place. When questioned, not one was interested in greater power, believing that the present management was working well.

The contiguous owners of property did not reveal future plans but generally were in favor of the present River Walk development. Some were in favor of land use and building controls and others believed them to be overly restrictive. About 70% of the owners do not have land uses that face upon or utilize the amenities of the river at the present time.

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