San Angelo, TX: Concho River Trail

Night shot of a bridge over a river illuminated with purple light
Photo by A.J. Lopez

How can art be used to transform a central city open space from a basic amenity to a vibrant community destination?

For San Angelo, a city set in the arid plains of West Texas, the Concho River, which runs through the town center, is a vital civic and cultural amenity. When its river valley trail system began to fall into disrepair, there was concern that it would stifle the local economy and culture. Partnering with the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, the City of San Angelo set out to revitalize the trails, using the project as a way to enhance quality of life and to stimulate the economy. Public art would be a central component to the initiative.


San Angelo, a city of 93,200 residents, is a hub for a vast and sparsely populated region. Located in West Texas, San Angelo serves not only its local population but much of the regional population who come to attend events and programs in the city. The desert climate makes it challenging to maintain landscapes and shade, but the river corridor is a relatively cool and lush area. As a result, its banks have become popular gathering spots. Drawing over half a million visitors every year, the river runs through the entire length of the community, touching on virtually every economic and demographic, including lower, middle, and upper income neighborhoods and retirement communities.


Founded in 1867, the City of San Angelo sits as the county seat and today has a population of over 97,000, 40% of whom are Hispanic or Latino. Even though San Angelo has had lower unemployment relative to other cities throughout Texas and the nation, it has experienced the economic setbacks of many mid-sized cities with a low per capita income and a weak business and industrial tax base. The effect of the economy can be seen in the larger built environment, and today many in the community live in modest homes with very little yard space and scant access to shade and recreation opportunities, reinforcing the need to provide such things in the city’s public spaces.


Recently, more than six miles of river area has been improved with walkways, picnic areas, and other basic infrastructure. Simultaneously, the city was undertaking significant infrastructure work—dredging the river, stabilizing eroding banks, improving water quality facilities, and creating water recreation features. City leaders knew however that infrastructure and trail improvements alone would not be enough to make a vital and dynamic public space. Through exhibits, surveys, and other public input, city officials came to understand that the public wanted art installations included along the river that would reflect the city’s history and identity.


City officials wanted to restore and revitalize San Angelo's most noticeable downtown feature, the Concho River Trail. Because it serves as a civic gathering space, the project would need to welcome and attract residents and visitors regardless of income levels or demographics. For the traditionally automobile- centered community, city leaders also wanted the project to encourage increased pedestrian activity. As project manger Rick Weise says, “this project will allow us to unite many goals: greater focus on art, greater focus on the environment and water quality, greater focus on health—running, being outdoors—and greater focus on downtown redevelopment. It will bring it all together.” The project would also be positioned to enhance public safety by transforming bridges, whose underpasses had been dark and intimidating, into actively used spaces with public art.


The two primary partners in the project were the City of San Angelo and San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. City staff handled the majority of the logistics of project implementation, which included selecting and hiring both project Architect and Construction Manager At Risk, as well as paying all bills and managing project implementation and coordination. Project leaders also teamed up with “Art in Uncommon Places,” a coalition of local professional artists, to create the specific art works that were placed along the river trail. Working with project Architect Craig Kinney, artistic lighting schemes were implemented, the team chose site-specific works that could bring color and activity to several of the bridge areas. While the City served as the primary project lead, they knew the importance of having a broad range of organizational and community partnerships and established them in the early phases of project planning. As Weise says, “one of the most important factors was the establishment of a good working team that included City Staff, a Project Architect, a Construction Manager, and the assistance of outside agencies such as the Upper Colorado River Authority.”


To determine artworks suited for the different sites, “Art in Uncommon Places” proposed different pieces to the local Public Art Commission. The Commission consisted of city council-appointed members who are entrusted with recommending to which pieces would be commissioned and installed. Before the artwork could be installed, however, the infrastructure improvements of the Concho River Renovation Projects had to be completed. Portions of the river were dredged, riverbanks were stabilized, and ADA-compliant trails were renovated and added. Once this was completed, it was then possible to install new lighting designs and art works along the trail. As with any large infrastructure project, there were many regulatory hurdles to cross including the procurement of proper environmental and construction permits, which had to be put in place in order for the bank stabilization, and the artwork installation process to proceed.


The project sets the stage for future improvements within the area. It also establishes a high standard for future development. Private investment has already started to happen along the improved stretches, including a new restaurant, a new masterplan for additional housing, and a miniature golf recreation area that will be developing through a public-private partnership agreement with the city. In addition to the physical improvements, there has been an uptick in use. City staff report an increase in the number of people using the trails, and a new major event has started.This new event, called River Fest, began as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Santa Fe Park at the completion of the Concho River project. The event was so successful that it has now turned into an annual event.


San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts
Online home of the museum

Art in Uncommon Places
San Angelo artist group

  • City of San Angelo 1/2 cent sales tax funding
  • San Angelo Health Foundation
  • Texas Parks & Wildlife Trail Grant
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality 
  • City of San Angelo Storm Water Funding
  • Texas Park & Wildlife Outdoor Recreation Grant