The spirit of one of San Antonio's top tourist attractions is heading to China. San Antonio-based Overland Partners, which specializes in architecture, urban design, and master planning, is launching a series of River Walk-inspired projects around the globe, including China.
The work builds on the firm’s association with San Antonio’s River Walk and calls upon the best elements of river cities in Europe and around the world. Enhancing Alamo City’s connection to current projects in Lijiang, China, a UNESCO World Heritage City, and the Qinhuai River Walk Development in China’s historic Nanjing, Overland principal James Andrews says many vestiges of our very own River Walk are likely to show up on the other side of the globe.
“The attributes that make San Antonio’s River Walk so appealing to our own community, as well as to our Chinese clients and visitors from around the world, are continuous public access, authentic cultural landscape, wonderful shade, the intimacy and scale of the urban spaces, and the diversity of uses along the different portions of the River Walk,” Andrews says.
But at the same time, after 26 projects in China, he says that he and his firm have learned many things, especially how the Chinese have respected and utilized their rivers for century upon century. “The Chinese water towns like Suzhou and Tongli ... have thousands of years of history,” Andrews says. “They are remarkable examples of the power of the relationship between humans and water. The rivers and canals not only carry the history and culture to this day, but still provide a sustainable and livable urban community.”
It’s this respect for an ancient culture, along with the expertise and reputation that Overland brings, that has made the projects a success for the San Antonio firm.
Rivers running through history
There’s a lot of history to respect in China as Overland works in different cities across the country — particularly on the projects in Lijiang and Nanjing.
While San Antonio just celebrated the Tricentennial, Lijiang has been continuously inhabited for 800 years. The revered “Old Town” required the utmost respect if new development is attempted. Backed by Snow Mountain, the scenic riverfront project adds a vibrant new artery in the age-old town.
The client in Lijiang chose Overland with hopes “the firm’s own location in a city rich with legacy and a successful Riverwalk would give them the sensitivity needed to find an elegant solution,” the firm’s website says.
Similarly, the Nanjing project required the reintegration of a legendary river into the heart of a city that dates to the Ming Dynasty. Working with the local government, Overland’s new development plan respects the city’s ancient heritage while opening a chapter in commerce and riverfront living.
Andrews says he feels just as inspired by Chinese heritage as their clients are inspired by San Antonio’s River Walk. “My hope is to be able to share the lessons learned both ways,” Andrews says.
An introduction to ancient culture
According to Andrews, the relationship with the Chinese developer began about 10 years ago, when a former colleague reached out to senior principal Tim Blonkvist at Overland, believing the firm would have solutions for his developer clients across China. “Over the years, several of our Chinese clients have visited San Antonio and experienced the River Walk firsthand, while other clients have heard about our work involving rivers, canals, and waterways in China and have approached us with opportunities to help them solve their specific challenges by sharing our research and experiences,” Andrews says.
As our own River Walk inspires the work, Overland looks not just in its own backyard, but to the grand traditions of riverfront cities around the world. “We draw upon precedents from San Antonio, as well as the great ‘water cities’ from around the world, such as Venice, Bruge, Amsterdam, Suzhou, and Tongli to name a few,” explains Andrews.
Those traditions, combined with the local Chinese context and culture, helped the firm develop unique ideas within the guidelines Overland creates for each project — always with the firm’s historic connection to San Antonio built in to its DNA.
“San Antonio has a lot to be proud of. The rich heritage, cultural diversity, the Missions, and, of course, the Spurs!” Andrews says. “The San Antonio River, like many rivers, can start as a lifeline and develop into an organizer of land use, an organizer of cultural patterns, and mature into a true civic space accessible to all, celebrated by all.”
While he appreciates the lessons learned in China that influence their work right here, he also marvels that a firm based in South Texas has such a global reach. “When we are in China, we do feel that we are representing the city of San Antonio and all the wonderful people that have contributed over the years to the development of our river. Who would have thought the lessons learned here would influence and inspire people who live on the other side of the world?”