(Sanford, Florida) Demonstrations in support of Trayvon Martin are filling parks and streets in Sanford.
The green spaces in the central Florida city usually attract residents from around the area for a bit of recreation, but now they’re functioning as a stage for civic expression.
Sanford has more than 30 parks, many of them on the aptly named Park Avenue. Planners view the city’s linked green spaces and walkable streets as an inspiration for a back-to-basics approach to urban revitalization.
In the last two decades, more than $20 million has been poured into the renewal of streets and parks, and it's something visitors notice.
Even Reverend Al Sharpton took a moment at a rally to praise the city.
“In the days that I’ve been down and back, Sanford is a beautiful city," he said. "It’s on the side of the water, has great potential for tourism."
Sharpton went on to lambast city officials for not pushing for the arrest of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, saying the reputation of Sanford was not worth risking for his sake.
Founded in the 1870s, Sanford was conceived as a transportation hub, where steam ships disembarked and rail lines carried freight and passengers to the far reaches of Florida.
Orlando leaped ahead as central Florida's commercial hub in the 20th century, but Sanford’s economic development director Nicholas Mcray says transportation is again starting to play an important part in the city’s growth.
“We have connections to Interstate 4 and State Road 417, so we are a hub for that exchange," he says. "We have an international airport which also services 40 domestic destinations. The passenger count last year was north of a million and on target for 2 million this year. So we are coming full circle.”
Mcray says the arrival of the SunRail commuter line will also give the city a lift.
“The development opportunities around Sanford SunRail station, I guess you could say the sky’s the limit," he says. "There’s a lot of green space still left around there for transit-oriented design.”
Bruce Stephenson, the director of the Masters of Planning and Civic Urbanism program at Rollins College in Orlando, says the division of public and private space also plays a part in the Martin case.
He says parks were originally conceived as places where people of different ethnicity, class and religious background could mingle in a natural setting. “The supposition is that being in that environment would enhance stability," he explained.
Stephenson is following the Sanford protests closely: he sees this moment as a case of good urban planning helping to shape people’s behavior. “The telling experience is that we’ve seen amazingly well behaved people in an engaging atmosphere in the public spaces.”
He contrasts the protests with the violent act that got them started. “The shooting was in a private space that was gated, guarded, and I think there’s a lesson to be drawn in what happens when we shut ourselves off from other citizens.”
Paul Harris, the chair of psychology at Rollins College, is an expert in the links between physical settings and human response. He says there are neighborhoods, not always gated, where residents don’t see their home territory ending at the house.
“They see it extending out into the yard, the street. And in that case you’re going to have people more zealously protecting those spaces.”
Harris thinks it’s a stretch to attribute the peaceful nature of the protests to the design of the parks and streets where they’re being held.
“Frankly, I think the issues that are going on are so charged that the impact of the environment is probably minute,” he says.
However, Bruce Stephenson says there are some bigger urban design lessons to be learned from Sanford. He says some of the poorer neighborhoods reflect the downtrodden history of the city's African American residents. Yet Sanford's revamped downtown and public parks have been a resounding success.
“A key concept is connectivity. That’s the test for the nation: can we connect white and black neighborhoods in an equitable manner?” Stephenson says the crowning achievement of Sanford's redevelopment is Riverwalk, a park running alongside Lake Monroe which attracts people from every background, to fish, run and relax.
“What’s important about that space is that it’s connected and linear, it runs along the water. Its whole concept is to move people and connect people. Those are the steps in creating community, and Sanford has made tremendous leaps, but there is an historical legacy to overcome.”
Stephenson says the city would do well to redouble its efforts in revitalizing its streets and parks.
Nicholas Mcray is proud of what Sanford has done to improve its cityscape. He believes the 40 percent growth in population in the last decade is a testament to the charm of the city.
“We’re an open, welcoming community. We have quality of life amenities that frankly most other communities are envious of and we think that will be shining through once all of the cameras leave.”
The parks will still be there after the crowds go home, and Sanford has plans to continue its improvement program, including a $7 million extension of the popular Riverwalk promenade. Construction could start as early as this fall.