- Visions of Eden: Environmentalism, Urban Planning, and City Building in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1900–1995 *
Among American cities, St. Petersburg, Florida, boasts a most unusual history. Commerce and industry played virtually no role in the town’s initial development; from the beginning, developers and boosters envisioned the peninsula jutting from the western Florida coast as a tourist destination. Here, amid palm trees and sandy beaches, surrounded on three sides by the placid waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, it was not hard to imagine an American Eden that might rival the great Mediterranean resorts of Europe. If any city held forth the promise of environmentally sensitive urban planning, surely it was St. Petersburg. How curious, then, that a century after its founding, its strip malls, superhighways, convenience stores, and condominiums projected a nondescript landscape and its polluted waterways ranked among the most degraded in the nation.
As R. Bruce Stephenson explains in his concise survey of land-use politics in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, the region’s descent into environmental [End Page 806] hell resulted less from ignorance than from a series of poor choices made by shortsighted civic leaders, politicians, and voters. Visions of Eden is a tale of squandered opportunities. In a chronological narrative, Stephenson documents the repeated failures to implement sustainable urban planning, and he outlines the adverse environmental consequences.
Of all the lost opportunities recounted in the book, none looms larger than the 1923 referendum that rejected the comprehensive regional plan devised by the nationally renowned planner John Nolen. For Stephenson, the Nolen plan emerges as the standard against which all subsequent plans and building practices are judged and by which they invariably fall short. In many respects, the plan was remarkable. In it, Nolen called for a series of interconnected nature preserves, strict land-use controls to limit the city’s spatial growth, and tree-lined boulevards and pedestrian arcades to add character and charm to the more urbanized sections of the city. The electoral defeat marked a major setback for the planning impetus in St. Petersburg, giving developers license to plop subdivisions willy-nilly across the landscape without regard for their aesthetic or environmental implications.
Why did politics doom the promise of an environmental paradise on the shores of Tampa Bay? The reasons were varied. In some cases, voters were led astray by greedy developers and shortsighted politicians. On other occasions, city planning was victimized by broader political upheavals. What remained consistent, however, was a popular veneration of private property rights that could not abide collective efforts to regulate land use. Through the mid-1920s, rapidly rising land values turned the most ordinary settlers into avid speculators for whom paradise lay less in the fertile mangrove swamps and hardwood forests than in the hordes of tourists and prospective residents looking to purchase property. A vigorous defense of property rights continued to infuse antiplanning rhetoric into the postwar era, although it remains somewhat of a mystery why St. Petersburg’s citizens remained wedded to the growth-at-any-cost ethos when they no longer profited directly.
If Stephenson lavishes most of his attention on the political machinations that foiled rational urban planning, the most compelling sections of the book are those that detail the ecological disasters that unfolded as a result. Stephenson is at his best when describing how drained wetlands exacerbated the flooding of surrounding areas and how dredged waterways depleted the once abundant fisheries. By juxtaposing what might have been with cogent explanations of what actually went wrong, Stephenson makes the failure of planning all the more tragic.
Despite the dour tone that pervades most of the analysis, Stephenson concludes the book on a note of cautious optimism. Reviewing developments of the last twenty-five years, Stephenson detects the emergence of a more sensible approach to land-use planning. In 1975, the St. Petersburg City Council adopted planning guidelines that revived several of the ideas proposed by [End...