“We’re not trying to think inside of a box, or outside of a box, but no box,” says Dr. Antonio Petrov, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Downtown Campus and founder of the Urban Future Lab. His think tank, made up of undergraduate and graduate architecture students as well as visiting fellows from around the globe, is changing the way communities and local leaders are envisioning the future of San Antonio.
As a boy in Macedonia, Antonio excitedly poured over construction documents his father brought home from work. Around the age of five, he began to dissect and sketch the buildings himself. This began his educational and professional journey in architecture, which led him from Macedonia to Germany to the United States.
Dr. Petrov has lived and worked in several U.S. cities, but San Antonio actually reminds him most of his native country. He sees similarities between the cultures of South Texas and Macedonia. In addition, they are both defined by similar built spaces that, in many ways, have historically been bypassed by globalization.
“In San Antonio we are exposed to a historic substance and a very strong understanding of history,” he explains. However, Dr. Petrov notes that San Antonio is undergoing a great deal of change, adding, “As we move forward in a city that is transforming, we need to have these moments of reflection.”
Dr. Antonio Petrov, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Downtown Campus and founder of the Urban Future Lab. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
That is what Urban Future Lab is all about. While often described as a think tank, Dr. Petrov emphasizes its role as a sort of a “Do Tank” through various projects. Urban Future Lab takes a different approach to data, design, and community engagement.
A recent example would be their Southside project, which engaged Southside First Economic Development Council, CityFlag, and Local Initiatives Support Corporation. In developing new data collection techniques, Urban Future Lab and its partners have discovered that in specific communities, “What we see is not what it is,” as Dr. Petrov puts it.
New data revealed economic insights into the Southside, such as the function of Highway 90 as a geographical barrier between a credit based economy to the north and a cash based economy to the south. The data also shed light on the interaction of rich cultural and economic assets (e.g. the World Heritage sites and Brooks City Base) with systemic issues of mobility, inequality and economic segregation.
This metadata will be turned over directly to the community, so that they can work with business and city leaders to plan for their future. Work like this is helping to facilitate those “moments of reflection” Dr. Petrov refers to.
“Sometimes architects, we think too much about the physical environment… that we forget about the importance of the human environment,” he explains. A specific experience a couple years ago reminded him of the way humans connect with their cities.
UTSA students walk through the courtyard on the way to class. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
One day, Dr. Petrov’s car broke down, which meant he had to find a way to get from his home along the Broadway Cultural Corridor to his office at the UTSA Downtown Campus. He decided to walk the route. The experience changed the perceptions he had of his own city.
He describes traveling from the booming construction on Broadway to the quiet River Walk, which descended deep into the core. What most differentiated the experience of walking from that of driving was the fact that not only was he interacting with the city through sight, but also through sound, smell, and touch. “I was able to experience the different layers that we have that are actually making, and shaping, and defining the city,” he explains.
“We have to make sure that we can create spaces like this consciously,” he continues. That’s why the work of Urban Future Lab is important. It’s a collaborative space for students, faculty, experts, and local leaders to put their heads together and ideate for the future. There are definitely big questions surrounding our urban spaces.
How will the human, physical, and political environments find balance?
How will the city move forward as one, lifting up all residents?
How will we experience our shared spaces as we continue to see exponential growth?
Dr. Petrov is encouraged by the work of the lab in dealing with profound questions like these, which has left impressions on its visiting fellows from around the world. They have taken lessons they learned here back to their own cities. He says his students were shocked to see the impact they had made on these global professionals.
Moving forward, Dr. Petrov believes it’s of the utmost importance to preserve the central qualities of what make us a city. “We have a core ethos as a city,” he explains, ““We try to live in the now. But we understand the now is formed and shaped by the past.”