Recently I had the pleasure of visiting St Augustine, Florida. It was my first time visiting and I had a lovely time. This is the oldest city in North America having been founded in 1565 or so after Ponce de Leon claimed it for the Spanish crown in 1513. I Stayed there with some friends so I got a bit more than the tourist experience and was exposed to a small taste of the day to day life in St Augustine. This is a small town of roughly 13,679 according to the United States Census Bureau. It is a conceal carry state, And it appears to be Trump country. There were definitely more Donald Trump signs than Hillary Clinton signs in the area. So what can Halifax possibly learn from St. Augustine? Have I lost my mind? Well possibly, but there is a lot these cities have in common. St. Augustine was very laid back and very warm and friendly. It definitely seemed more like Canada than what many folks pictured a typical US town to be like. Halifax is a very historical town and while its age does not compare to St Augustine its focus on historical buildings as a tourist attraction is something they very much have in common. There are few points I want to briefly touch up with regards to how St Augustine approaches urban planning and has succeeded in doing a few things that Halifax currently struggles with.
The friends i stayed with in St Augustine lived in the suburban outskirts of town. There were highways seemingly everywhere connecting the different parts of town before they transitioned into smaller roads as you got closer to the downtown core. The thing that stood out the most was that nearly every road had a bike line painted on both sides of the road on nearly every road connecting the different parts of the city. And there were always sidewalks for pedestrians on top of that. I found this very intriguing as in Halifax we can’t seem to install a single bike lane anywhere without starting world war three. Now my friends were not living in St. Augustine when these bike lanes were installed but they did mention that down there no one driving a car was comfortable sharing the road with cyclists and so installing bike lanes seemed like a no brainer to keep everyone happy and safe. Now I have to mention that St Augustine is very flat and their roads are noticeably larger than ours. This gives them more room to install a bike lane without removing parking or lanes of traffic for cars. There are many places in the Halifax and Dartmouth area that already do something like this. Painted bike lanes were installed on the #2 highway and Main Street in Dartmouth without hampering traffic in any way. And there is the path along side lake banook that is frequently used by both pedestrians and cyclists alike running parallel to traffic. In St. Augustine these lanes were far more common than they are here in the Halifax Regional Municipality, a city of 400,000 or so. There are many places around town we could easily accommodate bike lanes to better encourage cycling between the suburban and urban areas of HRM. Now I am not in any way an urban planner. But If they can make that work so easily in Florida I don’t see why we can’t do the same here.
Urban Sprawl Or Green Space or both?
The next point I wanted to touch up on was Urban Sprawl. If you hate urban sprawl St. Augustine will give you nightmares. However they have no choice. There are I believe geological reasons for the lack of tall buildings as well as the fact that there are almost no buildings with a basement in this part of Florida. What they did in regards to green spaces and urban sprawl was impressive. In many Canadian and american cities nearly all the green space was bulldozed for endless sprawling suburbs and shopping centres and highways. What is it they did differently in St Augustine? They didn’t bulldoze all the trees and green space. Everywhere you go in town there are trees. Obviously you see less of them right downtown but outside of downtown everything is seemingly built around trees and green space. Every road is lined with trees. Every shopping centre has trees nearby. The spot where suburbs end trees instantly appear. They built their urban sprawl to accommodate trees and nature rather than just clear cut everything and I found that very impressive. There are many small ponds and lakes all over town which helps to add to the ambiance of the area. Although I was warned by the locals to be careful whenever i’m near any body of water as there could be alligators nearby even if it doesn’t look like it. In the end, St. Augustine did not have the choice between density and sprawl so its residents found a way to make sprawl work without completely killing nature.
The main attraction in St Augustine is their historical downtown. The best way I can think of to describe it is to picture historic properties or the Hydrostone area but built in a mostly Spanish style and comprising 6 or 7 square blocks instead of the small area on the waterfront. Did I mention that this historical downtown is pedestrian friendly had does not allow cars except on a few small streets criss crossing the downtown area and even then they have to travel extremely slow (at around 10km per hour) because the entire area is intended to be pedestrian only, including the few streets cars are allowed on. St. Augustine’s downtown is all local shops, and restaurants, and with the exception of a Ben and Jerry’s outlet does not have a single chain store. Cafes and restaurants have tables outside for you to dine and drink at that did not appear to be venue specific. How do they accommodate people needing to drive downtown? Well they have a very large parking garage next door to downtown encouraging people to leave their cars behind and walk everywhere. The area is immensely popular not just with tourists but with locals as well. There are hotels right in the district as well. Halifax keeps talking about how they can try to get pedestrian only streets to work well this might be one way we could approach it. What if Historic properties or the Hydrostone could be expanded into a multi-block community? It would be easy to both close that area off to traffic and convince locals and tourists alike to spend their days and evenings hanging out down there.
I won’t tie up too much more of your time. As I mention above I am not an urban planner. I’m just a tourist who was fascinated at how another North American locale was able to be so successful in the design of its urban areas in areas that we here in the Halifax area struggle with and felt that HRM could learn a thing or two from them. Feel free to let me know in the comments below what you think and have a great day.