I grew-up in the Maryland suburbs east of Washington, D.C. It was just my mother and me, and when we went out for a fun afternoon we almost always went into historic downtown Annapolis. It’s here that I learned lessons about how our streets and buildings shape our lives—lessons that today I bring to a better future for Pensacola Beach.
What made the historic seaport town of Annapolis so delightful was that we could walk everywhere in such pleasant surroundings, with shops and restaurants with interesting storefronts nestled along wide sidewalks full of pedestrians. Side streets were graced by leafy street trees and little pocket parks, and there was a boardwalk around the waterfront where we could watch boats come and go.
What made it so enjoyable was that it was a place designed for people. And that is to distinguish it from a place designed for cars.
The core area of Pensacola Beach is a product of its time, being built at the height of the automobile age following World War II. At the time all of our design energy went toward building ever-wider streets and ever-larger parking lots to accommodate what was envisioned as a society where we would happily zip around by car to all of our destinations.
It’s difficult to imagine all of the impacts of a particular choice until that choice is fully made. Now, after 70 years of car-centric planning, those impacts are well-known.
There is a primary and overwhelming dilemma in building for cars. It is that places built for cars are ugly and unpleasant for people.
I was reminded of this when a friend took her 80-year-old mother for a lovely ride on the Pensacola Bay Ferry from downtown Pensacola, stepping-off at Quietwater Beach. But when they tried to walk away from Quietwater, they found a chaos of idling cars, exhaust in their faces, hot sunshine baking the blacktop, and a lack of clearly dedicated pedestrian space.
It was awful, she said, and not the kind of experience anyone wants written-up in travel blogs or websites. The natural beauty of Santa Rosa Island, that of a blue-green Gulf of Mexico and white quartz sands across our beaches, deserves better than this.
From the current chaos we can envision a reborn core area that is more of a town center, increasingly designed for people. That would mean reclaiming some of the parking for pedestrian paths that more directly connect between Quietwater Beach and Casino Beach, lined by trees for shade. There could be small park spaces with shaded sitting areas, places to throw a ball or walk a dog, framed by temporary booths for local vendors, food trucks, and perhaps even some permanent retail or restaurant space.
Such a redesign also offers the chance to help solve the long-term issue of how to get more people to the Beach without destroying it. A more attractive and walkable core area can be paired with a rapid shuttle service (and fully protected bike lane) from Pensacola and Gulf Breeze, allowing visitors to step off the shuttle into a pleasant environment that would attract more than just those who want to hit the sand.
Places designed for people perform much better environmentally than those designed for cars, with less air and water pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. A reimagined core area would bring us a healthier, greener, more attractive and more environmental Pensacola Beach. In the same way that walkable downtown Annapolis shaped my life for the better, the lives of a new generation of kids and families can be shaped for the better by a new Pensacola Beach designed for people.
[Christian Wagley works for Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico and the waterways and communities along its shores. He has been exploring Santa Rosa Island since his days as a graduate student in the mid-1990s.]