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December 2015

Student Spotlight: Sarah Esserlieu

Sarah Esserlieu
Sarah Esserlieu

Urban and Regional Planning major using knowledge to revitalize Downtown San Antonio

Meet Sarah Esserlieu. The education she's gained as a UTSA student is helping revitalize downtown San Antonio.

Esserlieu works for the City of San Antonio's Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO). The office is helping redevelop neighborhoods, business and cultural centers in downtown San Antonio.

"I live, work and study in downtown San Antonio," said Esserlieu, 28. "My perspective of San Antonio is very downtown-focused, which is why I'm so excited about working to bring positive change to this part of the city."

A graduate student in the Urban and Regional Planning program in the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, Esserlieu has a love for urban atmospheres – something that stretches back to her time in Busan, South Korea. After graduating from the University of California San Diego with her undergraduate degree, Esserlieu moved to South Korea to teach English.

"South Korea was my first real experience living in the middle of a bustling city," Esserlieu said. "It really shaped how I came to view urban centers and how they can bring people together."

While there, Esserlieu said she was amazed at how the city coped with its dense population despite not having much free land in which to sprawl outward. The city had to be structured in such a way that allowed growth, so it grew upward in creative ways. Having grown up in the suburbs in the U.S., she said she'd never seen anything like that before.

"I saw how urban design had benefitted major South Korean cities," Esserlieu said. "I mean, a fifth of all South Koreans live in Seoul; that's approximately 10 million people living in close proximity with one another, and the people in charge of the city had to find a way to make this sustainable. Seeing that, I became fascinated by how planning had made such a thing possible."

In her free time, Esserlieu began studying demographics, how cities function, and how the world has changed with increased urbanization. Once she moved back to the United States, she decided to study urban planning in a more academic setting. Ultimately, she wanted to be a part of the process to create better, more livable cities.

"Urbanization fascinates me," said Esserlieu. "It's not something people typically think about: how the cities in which we live have evolved from the small communities they once were to modern metropolises. Today, over half of the world's population lives in an urban center."

In 2013, Esserlieu moved to San Antonio from San Diego and enrolled at UTSA to attend its Urban and Regional Planning program, under the direction of faculty member Richard Tangum.

"I chose to attend UTSA for several reasons," Esserlieu said. "The fact that its Urban and Regional Planning program is so tied to the city and so open to letting its students do research was a big draw. But I also couldn't pass up the opportunity to study in a downtown setting."

With CCDO, Esserlieu manages two incentive programs that encourage building and development in the inner city. According to her, the knowledge and skills she's gained at UTSA have made her the go-to academic in her department, something of which she's particularly proud.

"The point of urban planning is to provide a blueprint for where the city is going," Esserlieu said.

Esserlieu plans to stay with the City of San Antonio after graduation. Her goal is to ultimately increase the vibrancy of downtown San Antonio. She wants more people living, working and breathing the city in, just like she does.

"This is exactly what I want to be doing with my life," Esserlieu said. "I'm helping a beautiful city like San Antonio bring its downtown back to life, revitalize inner city neighborhoods, and evolve beyond what it once was, and it's thanks to the things I've learned at UTSA."

– Jesus Chavez

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