R. Bruce Stephenson. Visions of Eden: Environmentalism, Urban Planning, and City Building in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1900-1995. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997. ix + 234 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8142-0726-0; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-0725-3.
Reviewed by Susan Holbrook Perdue (College of William and Mary)
Published on H-Urban (November, 1998)
Visions of Eden is a provocative and somewhat sad account of the urban metamorphosis of the Pinellas Peninsula and the city of St. Petersburg, Florida. Stephenson begins with a description of the region which was, before its twentieth-century population explosion, a complex environment of marine terraces, barrier islands, mangroves, and the premiere feature, Boca Ciega Bay. As an environmental scientist, Stephenson is especially interested in the changes occurring within this ecosystem through time, and as the title implies, the changes are tied in directly with the evolution of St. Petersburg. As an environmental scientist, Stephenson finds the changes devastating.
Beginning in 1901 with the efforts of newspaper editor William Straub to promote the importance of tourism and the natural beauty of Pinellas, Stephenson follows a century of tremendous growth when the best efforts of environmental advocates were at odds with the advocates of free enterprise and profit. Using the St. Petersburg Times as his mouthpiece, Straub waged a one-man war to convince the city to acquire the waterfront, which it did in 1909. As the lone spokesman for the City Beautiful Movement, Straub welcomed any reinforcement, which came in the form of architects and landscape architects from the northeast. The firm of the Olmsted Brothers was brought in in 1914 to develop a parks plan. James Frederick Dawson was sent from the firm to execute the plan. His initial impression of the city was not good, but when he toured the "hinterlands" of Pinellas County, he saw something quite different. It was, as Stephenson describes it in nearly poetical terms, "the essence of subtropical Florida. Giant live oaks encased in resurrection ferns and draped with Spanish moss marked the boundary where land and water met. As the elevation dipped the humid microclimate of the cypress dome produced a green, surreal world of knobby cypress knees emerging from a carpet of ferns. The nutrient-rich waters supported a host of such colorful plants as pickerel weed and duck potato, while countless pineapple air-plants decorated the ever present cypress. Above, the towering canopy of the bald cypress was punctuated by an occasional tupelo gum, a deciduous tree, with a bulging, bell shaped trunk" (p. 25). There is no question that this is the Edenic landscape in the author's mind. Unfortunately, it is a landscape of pure imagination, which no longer exists, having been subdivided into oblivion.
The Dawson Plan of 1914 was a comprehensive plan for a system of parkways linking together neighborhood parks, greenspaces, and preserves. Despite the fact that enabling legislation was passed, property owners and businessmen could not stomach the necessary tax increases. The tremendous population growth of the 1920s in St. Petersburg and Miami, in particular, resulted in a "Great Florida Land Boom." In the decade of 1910-20, St. Petersburg saw a 245 percent population increase (pp. 30-31). This was due, in part, to the natural beauty of the region. It also arose from the state's unabashed boosterism and the efforts of many to promote the new South. Just as Ponce de Leon sought the fountain of youth in Florida, twentieth-century explorers were drawn by promises of the "Eden of the South." Descriptions such as the following lured visitors to its beaches: "'Picture bits of South Sea Islands, Palms on Golden Beaches, swaying to the trade winds, the sweeping shore of the French Riviera, Italian sunsets, glowing on a community of perfect homes and hovering overall is the atmosphere of ancient Spain. This is Beach Park on Old Tampa Bay'" (p. 37). The reality of the situation was very different. A rapid pace of subdivision and no planning guidelines to direct it resulted in a disorganized street plan and lack of infrastructure. The need for a city plan was increasingly apparent. Enter John Nolen.
Stephenson might well have subtitled this book "The Nolen Plan for the Land and Urbanscape of St. Petersburg." Nolen's comprehensive approach to city planning which bound together the natural beauty of the city with its man-made features was an approach that came to fruition in the years 1910-1920, but never went out of style. As Stephenson points out again and again, the powers that be in St. Petersburg continued to return to features of the Nolen plan in the years that followed their first rejection of it in 1923. In fact, the 1990s have witnessed what Stephenson calls a "Nolen Renaissance," with a renewed interest among academics in the work of Nolen and most importantly, among designers such as Duany and Plater-Zyberk at Seaside. Unfortunately, the Nolen plan (titled St. Petersburg Today, St. Petersburg Tomorrow), was not accepted _in toto- when it was first introduced to the local populace; once that critical juncture was passed it became impossible to regain the delicate ecosystem that was the basic palette Nolen's scheme was predicated upon.
The intervening years as discussed by Stephenson were characterized by conflict over zoning rights, property owners' rights, and resistance to centralized planning. The majority of citizens in St. Petersburg were unable to embrace Nolen's call for a collectivized basis of city planning that delegated the planning power to municipalities and regulated the real estate market. City planners, in general were viewed with suspicion. The Nolen plan was revised by Nolen's associate Justin Hartzog in 1927, a time when the economy fell flat. Harland Bartholomew executed a plan for St. Petersburg in 1943, which focused on the urban core and placed limits on growth, but was aesthetically uninspired. Once again, it never made it beyond the drawing-board stage, largely because it made false assumptions about the population growth of Pinellas. An ever-increasing population and continued suburban sprawl led to problems of water supply, pollution, and land shortages. As Stephenson points out, these problems were not confined to Florida. A growing awareness of ecosystems and a movement to preserve them took hold in the U.S. beginning in the 1950s. There was widespread opposition in St. Petersburg over the dredging of its primary natural feature, Boca Ciega Bay. Despite heroic efforts by individuals such as Governor LeRoy Collins to thwart such dredging, it went on. Even in the 1970s, there was resistance to planning but there was an equally strong lobby in favor of environmental protection. In 1974 a Conceptual Plan boasting a "man-made environment in harmony with nature" was adopted. It was "hardly new," bearing many similarities to Nolen's 1923 plan (p. 154).
There have been some recent successes including preservation of over 4,000 acres of wetland in the East Lake Tarpon area, the Pinellas Trail a biking and walking trail, and an effective regional planning agency the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). None of these achievements offsets, in the author's estimation, the irrevocable damage imposed on the environment in the name of "progress," nor the number of missed opportunities, especially the inability to adopt the Nolen plan.
Stephenson deals with the topics of American planning history and architectural history adeptly, albeit briefly. He provides enough context to set the stage for his story at a local level, and has obviously done a good deal of work with the Nolen Papers at Cornell. The reader gets a firsthand sense of Nolen's thinking on the project as well as his disappointment that the plan was never executed. The author's background as an environmental scientist provides him with perhaps the best vantage point to see the way in which the history of urban planning in St. Petersburg had a detrimental impact on the ecosystem it should have been intent on preserving.
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Susan Holbrook Perdue. Review of Stephenson, R. Bruce, Visions of Eden: Environmentalism, Urban Planning, and City Building in St. Petersburg, Florida, 1900-1995.
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