Florida has always had a strained relationship with the concept of urban living.
Even back in the 1950s when the state’s population started to swell, people from up north were attracted by the weather and the elbow room. People were looking for lives that were free of snow and ice, and free from having to live so close to their neighbors in crowded urban neighborhoods. That’s why they came, and that’s why they kept coming.
Because of all that, Florida has developed over the years a very suburban orientation that continues to strongly influence how we approach land use and urban planning. When I was growing up here in the 1980s, for example, urban living was not considered desirable, unless you were talking about the super-rich who lived in gleaming condo towers on the water. Desirability was determined by the amount of square footage (more was better) and the size of the lawn (ditto). Any neighborhood that even looked slightly “urban” was considered suspect at best, ghetto at worst.
So it may seem a bit contradictory that New Urbanism got an early foothold here in Florida, with the development of the town of Seaside, up in the Florida panhandle in 1985. Then about a decade later came the town of Celebration, also based on the principles of New Urbanism and (unlike Seaside) developed by and for the Walt Disney Company, on land near the Disney World theme park in central Florida. Interest in Celebration was high from the time the project was first announced, though I think this has more to do with the Disney connection than with Floridians’ enthusiasm for walkability and human-scaled urban design. But other developers saw the prices people were paying to move into Celebration and quickly ramped up plans for their own “New Urbanism”-based designs. One of the first of those I was aware of was Longleaf, in Pasco County near New Port Richey, mainly because one of my best friends lived there for several years.
These communities were sold as walkable places based on the template of the 1940s midwestern small town. Implicit in most of these pitches was the idea that you wouldn’t need a car for a lot of your day-to-day life, because so many things would be located within walking distance.
And sure, they’re walkable – within the confines of the developments themselves. But beyond that? Not really. You cannot live a car-free (or even a mostly-car-free) existence in these communities, because none of them offer anywhere near enough of the day-to-day necessities of life within walking distance. For a person walking around in downtown Celebration, the one thing that really stands out about it is that it seems to have been designed more for tourists than residents. Longleaf has only a single retail-specific building, containing only three or four businesses – the last time I was there, these were a cigar bar, a boutique clothing shop, a pizza place, and a very small corner convenience store. No hardware store. No grocery store. And very few actual jobs are located within the development itself (Celebration apparently does a little better in this regard): Most residents still have to get in their cars and drive out onto the traffic sewer that is SR 54 in order to get to work.
In that very important sense, all these so-called New Urbanist developments are indistinguishable from traditional subdivisions. Yes, they look prettier and are much more expensive to buy into (though Celebration in particular seems to have had problems dealing with the collapse of the real estate market), but living in Longleaf doesn’t facilitate a less car-dependent lifestyle, because the only way for Longleaf and its residents to interact with the rest of the world (which they must do, pretty much every day) is via their cars.
It’s true that there’s nothing unusual about building expensive subdivisions in Florida. Been happening for decades. But what makes these subdivisions so insidious is that they encourage residents to think that they’re changing their behavior in ways that are beneficial to themselves and to the environment (i.e., walking more and driving less). But that’s just not the case. And because the developers often want to encourage people to perceive these overgrown subdivisions as towns, they tend to use up a lot of land. The principles that New Urbanism was founded on – environmentalism, smart growth, pedestrianism – are simply not reflected in the design and function of these communities.
The idea that a school of thought in architecture and design is somehow being betrayed by builders and developers is, of course, utterly unimportant on its own. But Florida needs planning and development that reflect precisely those values that are being shunted aside by the faux urbanist subdivisions that are so common here. For one thing, a low-density, car-centric, subdivision-based lifestyle will stretch our fresh water supply to the breaking point before long. Not only that, in a truly urbanist environment, it would be both greener and less expensive to provide public services. For example, in denser neighborhoods, garbage trucks don’t have to drive as many miles, so there is less air pollution and less fossil fuel consumption.
It seems clear to me that New Urbanism has the potential to change things for the better when it’s applied in infill projects. The Oaks at Riverview, over in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood, is a good example. It’s right smack in the middle of one of the most urbanized parts of the city, with easy access to transit on Florida Avenue and Sligh Avenue, so residents don’t have to be car-dependent. It’s also a small development, covering a few square blocks, so it wouldn’t require the extra levels of DRI (development of regional impact) permitting.
But what’s most interesting about the Oaks at Riverview is how it takes on one of the most stinging criticisms of New Urbanism in general, which is that it’s almost exclusively a white, upper-middle-class lifestyle. The Oaks was apparently built on the site of a couple of old, outdated public housing projects, and is aimed at the same socioeconomic class that the demolition of the Riverview Terrace and Tom Dyer Homes projects would have displaced. In other words, not very white, and nowhere near upper-middle-class.
That’s how we need to do urbanism here in Florida. Greenfield development isn’t any kind of urbanism, old or New. Urban living is greener living, and while not everyone wants to (or should) live in denser neighborhoods, we should absolutely do more in trying to encourage them. But if all we’re going to do is build them like subdivisions and drop them in greenfields on the urban fringe, well, we’re doing it wrong.