Mayor says A&M studies
prepared him for job

Landscape architecture, land development
degrees were right choice for Mayor Garza

EDITORíS NOTE: San Antonio mayor and Texas A&M former student Ed Garza, LAND í92, told students participating in the American Society of Landscape Architectsí Spring 2004 Workshop that his studies in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning went far in preparing him to govern the eighth largest city in the United States.

San Antonio is the second-fastest growing city in the country. Its population is 60% Hispanic, most of which Garza said, are third- and fourth-generation San Antonians.

Below are edited excerpts from Mayor Garzaís presentation:


I would like to talk a little bit about what my landscape architecture degree gave me in terms of skills. There are so many things that you are studying today, that you probably donít see the big picture because you are involved in it on a daily basis.

For all of you that canít draw, I was probably the worst one in my entire class. This program certainly allows us to see our weaknesses, but it also allows us to see our strengths. I would like to touch a little bit about that.

It has been 12 years since I was an undergraduate and 10 years since I was in the masterís program. I have seen the evolution of different issues that students were discussing at todayís ASLA workshop. Some of the issues we were talking about 10 years ago have really begun to take on a life of their own. We are starting to see some of these issues revived in public policy all across the country.

And finally, I will talk a little how I have been able to apply the valuable learning experiences I received at Texas A&M in deciding public policy on a citywide level for the eighth-largest city in the country. We can certainly do better in terms of constructing our built environment and planning for the future.

On growing up in San Antonio

I grew up in San Antonio; was born and raised there. I am a proud San Antonian, native born, third generation. My father was the first in his family with a college degree and the first to receive a masterís degree. There was no doubt that my brothers and I were expected, not only to go to college, but also to achieve the same level of education that he did.

As an Hispanic American assimilating into the mainstream of San Antonio, I was fortunate to grow up in a historic neighborhood of San Antonio; a neighborhood that was built in the 20ís or 30ís; a neighborhood that was built for the merchant and business class at that time; and certainly in the 60ís and 70ís when I was growing up, a neighborhood in transition. That was the beginning of urban sprawl, the white flight to the suburbs. I was growing up in a pretty integrated multi-ethnic, mixed income community.

Today when I look back, I realize that neighborhood was built to last, and that is something that we kind of went away from long ago. I really didnít appreciate until later, the value of living in that kind of neighborhood ó not just the diversity of the people, but the richness of the community itself; the way it was planned, the architecture, the high school that I went to ó Thomas Jefferson High School ó have contributed to the many nationally registered historic places in the neighborhood. These wonderful places that were designed as part of the community form a strong foundation and a vision of sustainability that has allowed it to revitalize.

I saw some of the difficulties and the challenges. I saw the neighborhood hit rock bottom when the stores began to move out to the suburban malls, and many families that I grew up with were moving because they wanted something new.

Those were things I observed, but not until my years here (at Texas A&M) did I really begin to appreciate how important it was that elected officials develop policies that better utilize our resources. The mentality of building something new, certainly the market-driven approach, has social consequences that leave long-lasting impacts in many cities across the United States.

I attribute my interest in landscape architecture to my experience growing up in this neighborhood. I had neighbors next door, retired military; an older couple that spent a lot of time in the backyard. Just looking at our backyard, their backyard was like an oasis, another world. You could see the passion that they had in transforming something that was ordinary into something different. That left an impression on me and that was one of the reasons that I started doodling in our own backyard, transforming our backyard into something different. Of course it didnít look the same (as the neighborís yard), but the attempt was there. I think I found a niche, an opportunity to make a difference on the built environment in my own backyard.

From UT to A&M

I attended the University of Texas for my first two years, following my brother who was a year ahead of me. This was during a very difficult time because my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer my first semester in college. The few months after her diagnosis was a very challenging time for me personally. At the same time, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. I felt kind of lost because during those first two years at UT I changed majors five times. Finally, I did my research and found the landscape architecture program here at Texas A&M, and I really felt that that was for me.

I had never been to Texas A&M before. That and, of course, I had all of that stuff that was brainwashed into me about A&M. So, this was really a big decision. My first impression of A&M was actually at a football game in Austin. It was my second year there and I was still dressed in burnt orange, but I was just amazed that half of the stadium was filled with Aggies. Of course, that was during the height of some of our glory days, but it left a very, very strong impression on me. I knew that I needed to get to A&M, so I did. I canít say enough about my experience here in the program of landscape architecture.

Articulating a vision

I want to give you a little bit of background as to what motivated me to pursue degrees in landscape architecture and land development. I always tried to apply what I was learning to my neighborhood in San Antonio. How can I take this back to bring a positive change? Half of the time, I was involved in my neighborhood association. My parents were always involved in something growing up. My mother was always president of the booster club, the PTA, and always helping candidates run for office on the city council. When Henry Cisneros was elected, I was a young child, so I grew up around the campaign aspects about getting people elected.

At the same time I was pursuing these other interests. During my years at Texas A&M, I began to realize how elected officials impact the things that we all wanted to do ó the visions and dreams we have for our communities.

In the landscape architecture program I learned a number of things that I utilize today. I mentioned my areas of weakness, in terms of my drawing abilities and lack thereof, but what Iím talking about is being so bold as to report and present your ideas in front of your colleagues and to be criticized; especially when you are on the low end of the pole. That was the worst thing for me, to get up there and have to defend my vision.

Those public speaking opportunities ó doing it every week ó allowed me to mature as a person, and that wasnít an easy thing to do. But I think that it was very good in terms of building leadership skills. Each and every one of you is doing that today ó taking something from the beginning and imagining what it could look like. It may be a vision on a very small scale, but right now you are developing the skills it takes to develop a vision.

As mayor of a city, you have to be able to articulate a vision. That was something that was being taught to me here at Texas A&M on a daily basis. I learned how to develop a vision, in this particular case, for a grade. I didnít fail any particular course, so I guess I was OK in the visioning aspect of the landscape architecture program. But, this is a skill that, no matter what you do, you are going to utilize later in your career.

Not law, land development

NOTE: After graduating, Garza asked several San Antonio community leaders what advanced degree he should pursue. Most of them suggested law.

The more I though about it, a law degree required a lot of reading. Finally, when I came across the land development program, I noticed that very few schools in the country offered (such a degree). It really made sense for me because it connected to my undergraduate discipline. At the same time, it moved me into the areas where I wasnít that comfortable ó business, finance, real estate, and construction. Though those areas were pretty foreign to me, the program also included the design and planning aspects I was used to. The degree really complimented my undergraduate degree because it balanced the visioning aspects, which often had very little regard to the financial concerns of those wonderful ideas, and started getting me thinking about how developers look at projects.

Political aspirations

NOTE: After graduating, Garza became involved with a Senate campaign in Houston and later worked for the same person in Austin during the legislative session. Following that, the future mayor moved back to San Antonio where he bought a home and again became involved in the same neighborhood where he grew up.

Before I knew it, there was an opportunity to run for city council. I was fortunate to become the council member for the area where I grew up. The area also represented some of the fastest growing parts of our city. My background here certainly provided a wonderful base for dealing with some of these issues that were on the table. Then, when I ran for mayor, I really had to articulate a vision.

The South Side Initiative

NOTE: Since taking office Garza has played an integral role in promoting and planning the development of the south side of San Antonio ó an undeveloped area south of the inner loop and less than 10 minutes from downtown.

We had a concentration of jobs (on the south side), but no opportunity for housing or new neighborhoods. There was a bad perception of public schools, so why would anyone want to invest in this part of the city? My challenge to the community was, letís do something different. Letís create a plan for the next 50 years of growth in the southern sector, and letís think about all the things we have learned from how we have grown as a city and apply those lessons to a master plan of growth for this area. This project became known as the Southside Initiative (

The area encompasses 60 square miles, almost twice the 35-square-mile original grid of the city of San Antonio. The problem with the area was a negative public perception. So again, utilizing the skills that were taught to me at Texas A&M ó You have your problem, you have to identify what the constraints are, and identify what your plan of action is to create the new vision.

There were a lot of naysayers at the beginning of the project, but during the first year, an opportunity arose. One of the biggest economic development opportunities for San Antonio and the state of Texas was the construction, in the middle of this area, of a 2,000-acre Toyota plant.

NOTE: The plant will build the Tundra pickup and will be one of only two Tundra assembly plants to exclusively produce this model. It is scheduled to open in 2006 and promises to bring several thousand jobs to the San Antonio area.

I realized that the Toyota Plant was what we had to have (to garner support for the Southside Initiative). The opportunity was here, and this would be the engine to support this new vision of growth for San Antonio. There will be market demand for new houses. The lowest salary will be around 56K.

We are working very hard to make sure that as we begin to develop these communities, that we focus on all the important principles of urban design, planning, financial capabilities and partnerships.

NOTE: The mayor was criticized for taking on such a long-term project, instead of focusing resources on projects that will have a more immediate impact on the city.

I truly believe that (the Southside Initiative) will have a lasting impact for our community. The initial excitement from those who live on the south side, that ďfinally, someone is paying attention to me,Ē is more valuable than any quick project could be. We are shifting a culture; we are shifting a way of thinking, and that for me, as a policymaker, has been the most rewarding aspect of being an elected official.

You are all being trained today to be leaders. You are getting all of the skills ó public speaking, developing ideas, problem solving, working with colleagues, coping with criticism ó these are all the things that you need to be an effective leader.

- The End -

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