Learning from St. Augustine

I found that this historic Floridian city has a lot of lessons packed into a tiny footprint. While it’s tempting to write off St. Augustine as a tourist trap or an anomaly, this city demonstrates the durable attractiveness of human-scaled places.

This was my fourth trip to the city and the third in as many years. Each time I visit I find something new to appreciate. The historic core of St. George Street is without a doubt the main attraction. This pedestrian mall stretches about 1,500 feet and terminates into the Plaza de la Constitución. This is a nearly perfect distance for social strolling – or as its known in Spanish: un paseo.

Unlike other pedestrian malls, this corridor lacks many of the amenities commonly associated with this form of urban development. There is relatively little outdoor seating; street trees are sparse; almost all of the surfaces are hard. Instead, St. George Street sustains a consistent enclosure and a density of commercial activity. These features transform the street from a thoroughfare to a destination. The consistent facades establish the feeling of being in an “outdoor room.” Comparatively narrow lot sizes along the street facilitate a variety of businesses.

But if this is all you’ve seen of St. Augustine, you’re missing out.

We patronized a business called “The Social Lounge” on Cuna St. This is a nearly perfect example of the sort of a historic development pattern that has practically gone extinct in the United States. This clearly residential building accommodates a small pub and a vacation rental bedroom: two neighborhood uses that rank among the most controversial for any community. Yet this historic building absorbs both with grace.

The Social Lounge – an example of adaptive reuse that’s illegal practically everywhere in the US.

Cuna Street itself is a good example of a narrow historic street that handles mixed traffic surprisingly well. In Europe a shared space like this might be called a woonerf – a shared space where walking, biking, and driving can all co-exist safely.  The street lacks many of the features we normally associate with safety: curbs, signage, traffic signals, lane markings, speed bumps. The street does restrict automobiles to travel one-way (one is visible in the distance) but the conventional trappings of “traffic calming” are effectively absent.

Cuna Street – not your standard approach to traffic safety.

So how does it work? Scale and texture.

The building envelopes tightly enclose the space causing it to feel more confined. This impacts the driver’s psychology and decision-making. The narrow strip of bricks helps define a vehicular space that runs through the center of the street. Even at low speeds, the bricks produce haptic feedback to the driver to stay slow. A few protruding trees, flags, and second-floor balconies simulate the effect of driving in a tunnel.

On this trip to St. Augustine, I grew an appreciation for how the city’s hidden spaces stitch together public and private life gracefully. The city is sprinkled with semi-private courtyards and narrow footpaths. Too often these paths feel utilitarian and built to accommodate the mechanical detritus that attaches to all modern buildings. With the strategic use of greenery and the preservation of the sight line, Artillery Lane shown below becomes an inviting shortcut.

Even outside of the core historic district, St. Augustine has some wonderful gems of urban development. San Marco Street has a rich variety of commercial and residential buildings that many main street developers would do well to study. A good number of these structures were built inside the last century – some smartly fit as pedestrian friendly frontages while others have shoe-horned facades onto auto-era structures.

Shops on San Marco

While the city at times feels like a place that is overrun with tourists, it seems the visitors are mostly here to appreciate the city, its architecture, and its history. While some tacky attractions are impossible to miss, for the most part they fit into the fabric of the city. Even the miniature golf course near the public marina seems to blend into the background (we almost walked by without noticing it.)

Downtown Mini Golf

It may seem like I’m gushing about St. Augustine. I’ve decided to focus more on the inspirational lessons from this nearly 500-year old city and not its flaws. (Don’t get me started about this drive through bank.) Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the city is its age. As one of the oldest settlements in North America, it has experienced many cycles of growth and decline and rejuvenation. These cycles promoted incremental development within the city’s core.

There is also no doubt that the city has benefited tremendously from its strategic location through these cycles of development. The land that originally provided European settlers a defensible spot on the Floridan coast later became the logical terminus for Henry Flagler’s railway. The spit of land the city is built on is surrounded on three sides by water, creating a natural constraint to development after fortifications were no longer necessary.

Beach on Anastasia Island