This speaks to a bigger problem. Sarasota is a coastal city whose primary economic driver is tourism. Yet public access to the water is scarce, particularly on Sarasota Bay, which the urban core fronts. (The Gulf of Mexico is separated from our downtown and core neighborhoods by the bay and a set of barrier islands.) Early leaders made a huge, historic planning mistake when they sold off most of the waterfront to private buyers.
(This decision was not just bad for public water access; it was bad for the community’s financial wealth. Data-driven research by Urban3 has found that preserving shoreline for public use delivers more of a boost to total property values than privatizing it, because the benefits of water proximity then transfer to everyone within a reasonable distance, instead of only being enjoyed by the owners of waterfront property.)
Over time, city leaders have come to recognize this historic mistake—somewhat. That’s why the park requirement was there in the Quay’s development agreement. Absent, however, was any insistence that the site be developed in a way that actually: (a) creates a compelling and active public space, or (b) creates a significant landmark for the public befitting such an important, central intersection.
This is a huge missed opportunity, and one that’s likely familiar to you if you live pretty much anywhere in America developed (or redeveloped) in the last 70 years. Sadly, the norm across this country is that public space is disconnected, fragmented, incoherent. The city is reduced to a collection of individual tracts of private property that exist alongside each other, but in little meaningful relationship to each other.
It wasn’t always like this. It shouldn’t be like this.
If the Revolution Came to Your Town, Would People Intuitively Know Where To Gather?
A few years back, we published a “Strong Towns Strength Test” meant to get readers thinking about the indicators of a place that’s making the right moves toward resilience and long-term prosperity. Item #2 on the test was, “If the revolution came to your town, would people intuitively know where to gather?”
What this question was getting at is whether your town has a vibrant and legible public realm. By vibrant I mean, “Do people habitually gather, meet, and spend time in public places?” By legible I mean, “Does the design of the community lead them to specific centrally or prominently located public places?” Is there some sort of town square or central plaza? Is there an obvious route along which people would walk before or after gathering there? Are there streets that people intuitively understand as destinations or central axes of the town?
This used to be a core concern of urban planning: not preparing for revolution per se, of course, but certainly creating public spaces with some grandeur and centrality that were intended to act as focal points for the community. This has been done throughout human history because a well-designed public realm is a magnifier for value-generating activity, and thus ultimately for the wealth that sustains a community over generations. It draws people in, and it sends a powerful signal to private property owners: “This place is permanent. Invest here.”