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  • Writer's pictureMichael Huston

What Can Downtown St. Pete Learn from European Cities?

This article originally appeared in St. Pete Rising in July of 2020. You can see the original version here.

St. Petersburg seems to be getting a lot of attention these days. And why shouldn’t it? We live in a city with good parks and trails, easy access to water, a bayfront downtown, and funky Central Avenue to tie it all together. And all of this without much traffic thanks to the well-connected street grid. Even though the city, and especially the downtown and Central Avenue, have made great strides in the last 5-10 years (as the long-time locals keep reminding me), the urban planner in me is always looking for ways to make a good thing better. And while some hesitate to look across the Atlantic for inspiration, I find there is much to learn from European cities and their immersive urban environments, especially as it relates to the downtown area.

Downtown St. Petersburg exhibits stark contrasts in the quality of the urban environment. At left, al fresco diners on Central Avenue. At right, a street that is dominated by asphalt and high-speed engineering. (Photos by M. Huston)

Like most cities in the U.S., the quality of the urban environment in St. Petersburg’s downtown varies greatly from corner to corner. Walk just a couple blocks away from a thriving café and you might find a vacant lot (or parking lot), unshaded sidewalks, and empty storefronts. Comfortable tree-lined streets lead to streets with wide expanses of asphalt and high-speed one-way traffic. Thanks to city efforts, things are moving in the right direction (Complete Streets Plan, “Missing Middle” zoning amendment, etc.), but there is still a lot of ground to cover - both figuratively and geographically – and I think we can aim even higher in our vision of a bustling city center that is beautiful and humanly scaled.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting several amazing cities in Europe on a 2,000-mile road trip through France, Belgium, Switzerland and northern Italy. The focus of the trip was not the usual capital cities but on cities of comparable size to St. Petersburg – including Ghent and Bruges in Belgium and Strasbourg and Nice in France. I encountered cities that were not only beautiful, but also full of life. While each city was unique, especially in architectural character, I found common attributes that made them great urban places:

  • Streets designed as much for people as cars.

  • People living in the center, with all the services and amenities needed for daily life.

  • Ability to easily get around without a car – many areas in the city centers prohibit cars.

  • Beautiful, moderately scaled buildings that are unique to the region.

  • Participation of all age groups and abilities in city life, from young to old.

  • Fun things to do in the city center, whether kayaking down a canal in Ghent or playing in the splash plaza in Nice (which happens to be over a parking garage).

Pedestrians are given priority in the city center in Nice, France. And when it’s too far to walk, there are other ways to get around comfortably and efficiently.

Of course, St. Pete already has a little European flair. The soon-to-be reinvented Pier, the bayfront parks, the downtown farmers’ market, the al fresco dining on beach-less Beach Drive, all give the city a certain “je ne sais quoi.” Even the name, St Petersburg, links it to a great city in European Russia (thanks to the toss of a coin between the two founders, as it was almost named Detroit!). So, why not take it a step further…

Why not take the best qualities of European cities and go all-in?

Let’s make St. Petersburg, and specifically the downtown (which we can loosely define as the area between I-275 to the west, the bay to the east, I-175 to the south and I-375 to the north), a truly immersive urban center in the spirit of the great cities of Europe; cities that prioritize human experience and quality of life over traffic movement. Pre-pandemic tourists flocked to such destinations and they will do so again someday, but if we commit to a bold vision, we can create an alternative that is a lot closer to home. What would this mean for downtown St. Pete? Here are some ideas:

  • Develop a plan to reduce the impact of vehicular traffic within the city center, and increase space for pedestrians, bikers, scooters, and all other forms of micromobility

  • Provide modern and efficient forms of transit that connect all corners of the city center. This might be in the form of electric autonomous shuttles that would circulate frequently at slow, pedestrian-friendly, speeds. Tip the scales to make it easier to get around without a car.

  • Increase the amount of housing in the center with buildings of moderate scale. Avoid high-rises that can create the “canyon effect” and cast long shadows over their neighbors. European cities have greater density and far fewer high rises than U.S. cities of comparable size.

  • Focus on quality of life and making it accessible to all.

  • Provide essential public services like good schools, libraries, and health care within the city center.

  • Create a degree of architectural harmony among buildings that is specific to the place and climate.

Left: Kayakers on a canal in Ghent, Belgium. Right: A carousel animates a wide sidewalk in Strasbourg, France. Note the consistent scale of the buildings which top out at about five stories.

Some of these ideas can be implemented in phases and without a great deal of cost (zoning changes), while others will require more investment and a commitment to the vision from city leaders. Cities and counties have spent hundreds of millions expanding roads, sewers, and highways to support low-density suburbs -- while vacant and underutilized land sits idle beside existing infrastructure in the city center.

Too often, it is the high-profile projects that get funded while basic civic infrastructure, like better streetscapes and bike lanes, go unfunded. Yet these projects are just as important to enhancing quality of life and catalyzing private investment.

European-style city living is not for everyone. But I believe there is a substantial portion of the population that would be drawn to a more urban environment where car ownership is not a prerequisite to be a functioning human. I say, let’s go “all-in” and create such a place in St. Petersburg!

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