San Antonio, TX: Public Space / Public Transit / Public Art

Group of people participating in drawing up ideas on a large easel page
Photo courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit

How can a university help a city to expand the way it thinks about public art, public transit, and public spaces – and how can the three come together to create a more livable city?

San Antonio is a city with the many opportunities and challenges of similarly sized Southern cities: a fast-growing population, a revitalizing downtown, low density development, and a strong need to connect everything together through public transit. Seeing an opportunity to create a larger conversation on how public space, public transit, and public art could influence the development of the city, the project partners created a series of public speaking events and a student architectural studio that would help captivate public’s attention and explore the needs and opportunities that present themselves when the three are brought together.


San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the United States. Named after Saint Anthony of Padua, it is known both for its Spanish colonial missions, the historic Alamo, and its famous River Walk that meanders through the downtown attracting residents and visitors to the area’s shops and restaurants. Today the city is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. Experiencing both unprecedented levels of population growth and strong redevelopment within the downtown core, the city is “beginning to come into its own,” says Taeg Nishimoto, Professor of Architecture (and Associate Dean at time of project) at the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Architecture. To address these challenges, the city adopted a city-wide comprehensive community engagement effort called SA2020. Along with addressing the issue of the area’s rapid growth, these planning efforts are also fostering conversations on the importance of public transit and public space to residents.


San Antonio is diverse, with a 60% Hispanic or Latino population, according to the 2010 US Census. Deeply rooted in the city’s founding by Spanish Colonials, its history is visible today in five well-preserved missions. When settlers arrived in 1731 they created a city layout with the Main Plaza at its center, which remains the center of downtown activity. Today however, with an estimated population of nearly 1,500,000 people, and low-density development patterns, the city has become dispersed over a 400 square mile area. To connect residents, VIA Metropolitan Transit, the local public transportation agency serving the City and greater Bexar County, offers 91 regular bus routes and three downtown circulators. However, transit is not sufficient to connect residents in these outer areas of the city to the jobs, services, and cultural amenities located downtown and throughout the county.


Given the unprecedented level of population growth, San Antonio city leaders recognized the opportunity to find integrated solutions that could address the integration of public space and public transit with public art. This need was paralleled within VIA, where the agency was wrestling with a new amenity program that would respond to their diverse ridership, including tourists, daily commuters, students, occasional riders, young people, and “choice riders,” those who are formally “auto dependent” yet who saw the environmental and economic benefits of public transit. To address these diverse riders, VIA was focused on defining a new design for their transit shelters that could potentially add value to the public realm.


With an overall comprehensive planning effort underway, and the public transit agency looking amenity program, the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Architecture saw an opportunity to create a larger community dialogue process that could help tie the different threads of conversation together. Project partners worked to “develop a larger conversation around the idea of how the city could bring art, public space, and transit together as part of a larger strategic vision,” said Nishimoto. The partners hosted five public presentations and the university created an architectural studio that would generate ideas and graphics that could serve as the foundation for future interventions in the downtown area. For the studio’s focus, they chose to develop a series of prototypical shelters for several transit stop locations to serve the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Originally the 1920’s Municipal Auditorium and having undergone a $200M+ renovation, the Tobin Center is set to open in the fall of 2014, and will become the most significant civic space that San Antonio has received in recent decades.

AS A TRANSIT AGENCY, THE COMMITMENT TO GREAT PUBLIC REALM DESIGN EXTENDS TO THE REALM OF PUBLIC ART AS WELL. - Christine Viña, project manager aand urbaan designer at VIA Metropolitan Transit


The project team consisted of three primary partners: The University of Texas at San Antonio College of Architecture (UTSA); the City of San Antonio Department for Creative and Cultural Development - Public Art San Antonio (PASA); and VIA Metropolitan Transit (VIA). UTSA professor Taeg Nishimoto coordinated the five public sessions and integrated the transit design challenge, communicating with studio instructors at the graduate and undergraduate level. PASA assisted with the planning and execution of the project as well as helping to stage exhibitions and events at PASA Studio. VIA participated through the involvement of agency staff from all levels, including the then Interim CEO who provided a comprehensive overview of the role of public transit in a downtown community. VIA’s urban design staff also worked closely with university professors to coordinate studio exercises, conduct research related to transit, and educate the students on the regulatory, environmental and sensory conditions to be considered when planning for public transit, and helped develop the students’ conceptual designs.


Organizing such an extensive line-up of speakers and drawing the public to the series of events was a challenge. “There was a lot of figuring things out while we went along,” said Nishimoto. Each event was targeted for a large general audience of city residents and professionals. To help attract a diversity of audiences to the larger conversation, the talks were organized around a specific theme. The symposium drew ten local and national experts to talk not only about public space, public transit, and public art, but also about how the city itself could be used as a laboratory for new ideas on how the three elements could come together. While the symposium was unfolding, students were also looking specifically at transit from the perspective of both urban design and the individual passenger. “In an architecture studio sometimes the scale is very large and not focused on the human experience itself,” said Nishimoto. “With this partnership, students were able to explore San Antonio from many different perspectives.” As they worked through different iterations of their designs for bus shelters and displays on the buses themselves, staff from VIA would come in to assist the students by offering ideas and critiques.


In the end, project partners were able to create a series of public exhibits at PASA Studio that showcased the student work and their explorations into the nature of urban life in the downtown area. Through these events and the symposium, a larger public conversation got underway about the potential for creating connections between the downtown area, public art, and public transit, and how that connects the city’s many residents to the social and cultural amenities of the city. “In a city that has previously been labeled as a very vehicular- centric community, the ability for projects to link resources together is rare,” said Christine Viña, project manager at VIA. Attendance at presentations was more than anticipated, averaging between 75-100 members of the public and school community for each event. “The community discussions were really quite inspiring,” added Viña. “People began to make the connection of how urban design intersects with transportation.” Jimmy LeFlore added “there was a point in the process where the students’ designs became a background to the more important education purpose of connecting partnerships.”


At the beginning of their efforts, project partners aimed to foster a larger public conversation about transit and its relationship to public space and the arts. What they did not anticipate was the extent to which their work and the larger public conversations would impact VIA. Today, the organization has embraced the idea of implementing a larger public art policy and in 2014, VIA was in the final stages of adopting an Art in Transit program. To help their process, the agency has hired a consultant to look more closely at the creation of a formal public art program that will allow them to partner with public and private entities. “As a transit agency, the commitment to great public realm design extends to the realm of public art as well,” said Viña. “We’re now looking to integrate art into many different parts of our transit facilities – from paving, to surface materials, to fabrics to lighting. We want to create better, more delightful experiences for our riders.”


NEA awards Our Town grant to UTSA, City of San Antonio and VIA
UTSA Today (July 13, 2012)

  • David Green, Interim Managing Director – Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
  • Mary Bartlett, AIA – Marmon Mok Architecture
  • Jimmy LeFlore, Public Art Manager - City of San Antonio Department for Culture and Creative Development
  • Jeffrey A. Arndt, President and CEO – VIA Metropolitan Transit
  • Jorge J. Pardo, Director, Art & Design Metro Creative Services – Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
  • Felix Padrón, Director - City of San Antonio Department for Culture and Creative Development
  • Ian Caine, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, UTSA
  • Cecilia Alemani, Curator/Director of High Line Art – New York City
  • Cath Brunner, Director of Public Art, 4culture – King County Cultural Services, Seattle
  • Rochelle Steiner, Professor - Roski School of Fine Arts – UCLA
  • Jan Liesegang, Principal, raumlaborberlin – Berlin, Germany


  • Mary Miss, Public Artist – New York City
  • Sharon Johnston, JohnstonMarklee – Los Angeles
  • Antonio Petrov, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, UTSA.