In the seventeen years since my last visit, Florida's Pinellas County hasn't much changed. It's still a low-grade carpet of commercial junk space from coast to coast, and the edges - where the value really lies - aren't very different than they were in the 1990s. There's more, but not better. A county that has consistently avoided growth regulation, Pinellas could have been a model for cooperative public/private real estate development, unimpeded by pesky government regulations. Instead, it is a living example of the atrocious results when leaders focus on quantity, not quality.
Situated midway down Florida's west coast, Pinellas County has become a kind of garbage can for America; a place where trash culture and trash capitalism trickles down, finally pooling in this subtropical peninsula. The people of Pinellas, like many other Americans, aren't dancing in the festival of urban triumphalism. Instead, they're largely left out of the hip, cool class of places celebrated by the rich. Pinellas’ population largely serves as service workers for wealthier coastal tourists and local financial operations, struggling on low income and unsteady work. The residents seem to have passively accepted the traffic-choked commercial strips, poorly planned subdivisions, and low-performing schools without asking for more. And this is a shame.
The peninsula's tragedy is that man replaced nature with something considerably worse. Since its discovery in 1528 by Panfilo de Narvaez, man has graced this natural environment with enough paving, concrete blocks, chemicals and steel to completely cover it up, but none of this handiwork is particularly good, or even well thought out, as most all the county's residents will grumble when asked.
Raising their living standards isn’t about adding urban lofts and coffeehouses; instead, the average resident would like safer neighborhoods and roads, and better jobs and schools. These are the important struggles on the suburban frontier, and Pinellas is emblematic of much of America’s population today, left out of the luxury star system to which so many of our urban centers aspire. The hotels and condos erected on the coastline have added quantity, but not any overall quality to the waterfront. The peninsula's interior remains a patchwork of squabbling municipalities, unable to unite. America's parade of brand names dominates the Pinellas County experience, with few independent businesses and few distinct, legible places.
Pinellas County produces nothing whatsoever. It offers some moderately valuable beachfront real estate. It has no natural resources and no endemic industry, and thus it remains about 280 square miles of cannibalistic economy that contributes little to the overall net productivity of Tampa Bay, Florida, or America.
At the peninsula’s tip, St. Petersburg — “God’s Waiting Room” — sits like a grinning old grandmother, Florida’s original retiree community. This ephemeral location offers a quality of life, and a place to just be. Unlike most of the peninsula, St. Petersburg has art museums, shuffleboard stadiums, and a gorgeous waterfront park. Around Tampa Bay, its superb set of commons is widely acknowledged. All of this was OK for a few generations, as we gratefully acknowledged and respected those who endured the Depression and fought the war. But this Sybaris of the South may no longer be able to feed off of itself.
As a retirement community, St. Pete led the pack with an economy that fabricated its identity out of balmy sea breezes, and it has slowly diversified its demographic to include families and young couples; it's also created a sports-oriented industry out of its baseball team, the Rays. Yet age, class and race divisions still underlie this city, and its economy seems tenuous, with little to go on but distinguished good looks.
Is it time to call Pinellas County a failed experiment in laissez-faire government? A lost cause that would be best returned to nature? Nothing man has done has made it better, and the sooner this is recognized, the sooner Pinellas residents can begin the process of resculpting the county into something worthwhile.
Blaming government for over-regulating us into mediocrity is certainly in vogue, but that is decidedly not the problem. Here, the built environment fails to deliver an uplifting quality of life, and this failure must be laid at the feet of the private interests, not the public guardians.
For the government consistently turned its back when private companies wanted to build more and more and more. In a sad, multigenerational litany of subverted growth management rules, unregulated development approvals, and corporate relocations, one town off of another in a quest for the least-costly, least-regulated place to put a low-wage, back-office workplace. Firms got exactly what they wanted in Pinellas. We must now all live with the result.
One possibility is for Pinellas County to start buying up the substandard, stucco-smeared construction that litters the landscape, grind it up, and sell it for fill. City-building requires copious amounts of gravel and sand, both in abundance in Pinellas County's vertical material, much of it unmaintained, underused, or abandoned. The land that is uncovered beneath all this hardscape might then be ritually cleansed, and, as in some parts of Detroit, returned to a more naturalized state.
Where seawalls haven’t destroyed coastlines, Pinellas' soft edges are blurred. Estuaries vary by inches in elevation, and the whole of the land is a complex, marshy mosaic. Like a miniature Florida, freshwater sheets flow over some parts. Salt water from the warm Gulf of Mexico undoubtedly has shaken hands with briny Old Tampa Bay more than once during hurricanes and floods. The indistinct boundaries — not quite solid ground, not quite wetland, not quite navigable water — has begotten a human-made environment that is not quite city, not quite country, and not quite suburb.
The lost potential makes one shudder: the beauty of beaches tragically wasted by cheap condos and crappy hotels; the miserably hot and humid interior beaten into submission by a million buzzing air conditioners, separated by tiny, seared lawns and cracked pavement. Ordinarily, the hum of a city — street traffic, planes taking off, and other forces marking its rhythm — inspires a sort of thrill, a localized dance beat. In Pinellas, the beat is an annoying headache. The coastal communities aren't quaint or attractive. In comparison, even the junky mess of Venice, California qualifies as a higher-order vernacular made of cheap cloth. Here, the architectural character has lower aspirations, a charmless sea of mobile homes, apartments, and small houses.
The people elected leaders who rallied for a higher quality of life, only to give in too easily to quantity. Once that trend began, there was no turning back, and the result is an urban form that looks like everybody threw in the towel and just quit. As the next generation begins to take hold, some big questions can be considered for its future.
Pinellas County could try to stand up on its own two feet, and actually produce something of value. Geriatric medicine might be a good start. Such coordinated effort, however, has eluded Pinellas in the past, and it is not likely in the future. A tech hub might attract a new industry, but there is not much to lure people here, especially when competitors can offer beaches and sun without the high crime rate and poor schools. Tampa has long used Pinellas County as a dumping-ground to house its low-wage service sector, and like much of metropolitan Florida, it suffers as a peripheral zone around the higher-income financial center. Its multiple small towns remain weak and tribal, benefitting Tampa the most.
But, suggestions aside, it's high time for the tribes to get together and create their own future. This could take the form of some kind of super-council to re-establish their rights. Other places, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, formed a multi-town metropolitan council to break the stalemate between feuding municipal entities, and take control of growth. The Metro Council has been credited by writers such as Anthony Orum for redefining the Twin cities during an era when Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit failed miserably at reinventing themselves.
Such a council would need extraordinary power to succeed. In Minnesota, the Governor nominates council members to provide authority over the small towns and county politics. Whether this would work in Florida is questionable, but some kind of direct, participatory democracy must be considered if the county’s destiny is to be something other than a garbage can.
Could any of this happen? Ultimately, compassion is in order. Until Pinellas begins rejecting growth in favor of quality development, all we can do is treat it like a terminally ill patient: make it comfortable, give it the low-quality growth that it wants, and let it slide. Perhaps Pinellas County can become a better place, but it is more likely that it will evolve into a kind of Dark Ages suburban favela…and share the fate of so much of America's sad, confused landscape.
Richard Reep is an architect and artist who lives in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and he has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.
Flickr photo by JM Barxtux: In Northern St Petersburg.