Considering the Pearl as an exemplary mixed-use neighborhood
When Bruce Stephenson walks from his condo in the Pearl to spend some time in the North Park Blocks, he always takes a notebook with him. He’s not writing a few stanzas of poetry or jotting down inspiration for a screenplay—he’s not even composing his next book, although he is an author.
Instead, he’s counting people.
As a professor of environmental studies and an urban planner at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, Stephenson is deeply interested in how people use and interact with public spaces in the Pearl. During an extended sabbatical from Rollins, Stephenson has become a full-time resident in the neighborhood in order to immerse himself in that research. “I have become a counter,” he says.
He tallies the number of people he sees who are sitting on park benches and those who are walking through the neighborhood. He counts who’s hanging out and who’s recreating. (What’s the difference between “hanging out” and “recreating,” you ask? Hanging out is just sitting on the grass, while “recreating” involves some action, often a sport, such as soccer or bocce.) He also counts the number of people he sees with camping gear, a possible indicator of homelessness. In addition to the North Park Blocks, he’s also conducting his counting operations in Tanner Springs Park, Jamison Square Park, and the Fields Park.
Insights gleaned from these counts, along with the rest of his research—which includes interviews with local residents and serving on both the Pearl District Planning Committee and the North Park Blocks organization—will go into his next book, Stepping into Sustainability: Living New Urbanism in Portland and Orlando.
Wait, what does Portland have to do with Orlando? From Portland’s perspective, perhaps not too much, but Stephenson points out that the city’s metro areas have a similar population size, are comparable distances from the ocean and national forests, and have NBA basketball teams. Plus, Orlando looks to Portland as a role model for its future—and is currently redeveloping a 68-acre area of downtown called “Creative Village,” which is closely modeled on the Pearl District.
“It’s obviously safer and just really civilized to be able to not depend on a car, and you can easily do that in the Pearl.”
Portland, and particularly the Pearl, adhere closely to the principles of New Urbanism, considered the lodestar of urban planning, explains Stephenson. Tenets of this approach include walkability, bikeability, myriad and varied public spaces, and dense, mixed-use development—a blend of residential and retail buildings in a close-in location that allows car-free living—among other attributes. Or, as Stephenson sums it up, “To an urban planner, Portland is Oz.”
The native Floridian has made annual trips to Portland every year since his first visit for a conference in 1990. (“It was like a Muslim going to Mecca. I saw the plans to protect open space and the plans for the bike trail. I was dumbfounded, Also, I’d never seen anyone with purple hair before,” he remembers.) He felt so strongly about the city that in 2004, he purchased a condo across from Jamison Square, which he describes as an urban planner’s dream.
“I’m going to buy here,” he remembers telling himself at the time, “and if it doesn’t work out I’m going to turn in my badge.” Soon after, a photo of his new building appeared on the cover of a book written by a couple of fellow planners, which struck Stephenson as a sign from on high that his investment would work out just fine. And so it has: he rented out the condo continuously during the intervening years until he was able to use it himself this past year.
While Stephenson’s research is still ongoing, he’s learned a lot so far. For one thing, people use the public areas in the Pearl differently—Tanner Springs is mostly for “recreating,” while Fields Park is for hanging out and walking through—and he’s still working on his conclusions on the North Park Blocks. For another, he’s observed that there are interesting planning challenges in maintaining a healthy mix of retail and residential development in a neighborhood, given that retail today faces competition from the Internet.
On a personal level, Stephenson has been using himself as a guinea pig for a lifestyle that might sound unthinkable in Orlando, or indeed in much of the rest of the country: he’s living without a car. And how’s that going? “In Portland, I walk five miles a day and have lost a belt notch,” he says. “Since I don’t have a car, I can go to all the farm-to-table restaurants because I’m not spending all of my money on a car.”
Indeed, he’s become quite passionate on the subject. On a recent evening, he took in a movie at Living Room Theaters, and a car commercial screened before the feature. “I heard someone shout, ‘I came here to see a movie, not be brainwashed by this corporate propaganda!’—and then I realized that person who was shouting was me,” he says with a laugh. Recovering his scholarly sangfroid, he concludes: “It’s obviously safer and just really civilized to be able to not depend on a car, and you can easily do that in the Pearl.” – Alison Stein | Photos by Ashley Anderson