In the Fall of 2018, the Latinos in Architecture Committee (LiA) was asked by City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzáles and San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department to assist with community meetings in order to better understand how allocated funds for Plaza Guadalupe could be utilized. Plaza Guadalupe is a historic site located on the west side of San Antonio. The plaza, owned by the City of San Antonio and Managed by the Avenida Guadalupe Association (AGA), is a vital and valued space. It is the location of night markets, local festivals, and where Julián Castro chose to announce his presidential candidacy in 2019. In response to an alleged increase in criminal activity and lack of maintenance funding to support upkeep operations, AGA proposed permanent fencing and gates around the plaza. Many communities were opposed to any fencing or barriers of any kind.
The AIA San Antonio Chapter LiA committee was founded in 2014 with the goal of connecting communities, architects, designers, students, urbanists, and policymakers. We advocate for design professions in community settings and support communities within our architecture and design environments. We work to create safe spaces for Latinx communities. We often facilitate discussions on how their surroundings and infrastructure affects them, their elders, and how they can better own what happens in their futures. We understand that growth in design professions relies heavily on mentorship and sponsorship. Therefore we strive to bring people together who are at different phases in their careers and educational journeys. LiA highlights local architects and designers in an annual exhibition, and we offer scholarships to locals interested in pursuing design related degrees.
For Plaza Guadalupe, LiA prioritized listening into the community meetings. The committee was there to absorb and record what we heard. We reported back and provided two conceptual plans based on the information collected. We included recommendations for physical, operational, and programmatic improvements. Partial fencing was approved by the city’s Historic Design and Review Commission in April of 2019. Disagreements of the locations and extents of the fencing continue. The committee remains committed to the future of the plaza, not because it is outlined in a contractual scope, but because we care about this space.
Community engagement processes are challenging. They should be. Community conversations should be informing the processes, and public discussion prompts. People are processing inherited trauma and responding to generations of systemic issues that have created built environments. We, as designers, should not romanticize these histories/ herstories/ their stories. Often community discussions occur, information is recorded, but conversations do not lead to policies or implementation. Follow-up is commonly absent.
NCARB’s definition of an architect is a “licensed professionals trained in the art and science of the design and construction of buildings and structures that primarily provide shelter. An architect will create the overall aesthetic and look of buildings and structures, but the design of a building involves far more than its appearance. Buildings also must be functional, safe, and economical and must suit the specific needs of the people who use them. Most importantly, they must be built with the public’s health, safety, and welfare in mind.”
It is our role as architects, designers, urbanists, and creatives to build for the public’s health, safety, and welfare. We can only truly do this if we talk and listen to the people we are designing for. We need to make our work more accessible, and we need to initiate public conversations sooner about projects that affect people’s lives. We also need to be cognizant of national policies that affect the safety of communities. Organizations like San Diego’s Pueblo Planning and CityMakery out of Laredo, Texas are working to make comprehensive change possible with communities versus prescribing change for communities.
In response to what we heard last fall and our committee’s mission, LiA is planning Family Design Day for September 21st at Plaza Guadalupe. We want to activate the plaza, bring multiple generations together to learn from each other. To that end, we are bringing together over 20 local organizations and committees in the plaza to facilitate activities focused on architecture, art, design justice, cultural preservation, youth empowerment, engineering, and environmental sustainability. Civic engagement voting exercises and murals are being organized for the day by Move Texas and Blue Star Contemporary. Local universities, schools, community organizations, artists, and non-profits are coming together for Family Design Day. San Antonio businesses are being highlighted, and local talent is being celebrated. It is a free event, for all ages, with live music and food. There is hope that the event could assemble information that groups could use to advocate for funding for westside spaces.
Family Design Day will not solve a fence disagreement, but we need to make differences where we can. We need to use collective effort to make change, create opportunities to empower people not being heard. It is crucial we commit ourselves to the health, safety, and welfare of people we design with.
For more information about the Family Day Event please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Siboney Díaz-Sánchez, AIA, is an architect and co-chair of Latinos in Architecture in San Antonio, Texas. She insists that creative fields are viable vehicles for social change and is committed to prioritizing community voices in design processes.