Lessons Learned Abroad

Posted On 07/29/2019 by Matt Lettelleir

I recently returned from an extended trip to Europe where I visited 9 countries in 25 days. While travelling, I took care to study and learn from my experiences in hopes I could bring back insights to share with our community so that we might continue to make St. Pete an even better place to live, work, and play. 

While there are dozens of things I learned, I will focus on 3 themes: Transportation, Public Areas, and Development.

Transportation

I had the opportunity to use multiple modes of transportation including buses, trains, tramways, ferries, ride-share, e-scooters, river boats and bicycles. I used all of these in cities where cars continue to dominate the roads and yet the systems co-exist in harmony. 

This shuttle is used on France’s Mont St. Michel to transfer visitors from the parking lot on the mainland along the causeway to the island monastery and village.

During my visit to Paris, the city was experiencing a record heat wave as well as increased air pollution due to the stagnant air. In order to combat this, the city instituted reduced metro fares to encourage public transit use. This resulted in thousands more transit users over the weekend than normal and a severe decrease in car usage.

I used the subway (or metro) in Paris, Barcelona, Vienna, Amsterdam, Brussels, and London and each system is different. Some cities require you to scan in AND out of the system while others require a validated pass if requested by staff. Passes are generally priced to coincide with cost of living with London at the top at $4.00 per trip and the bus in Budapest at $1.20. I never waited more than 5 minutes for a transit service to arrive and rarely was I able to sit down due to the high ridership.

The systems are subsidized by the local governments, often using property tax dollars. The theory is that the increased value of property in proximity to the transit stations should subsidize the existence of the transit. This applies to tramways and bus stops as well. 

Experiencing firsthand various robust transit systems makes me even more convinced that Tampa Bay needs reliable, short headway (time between service stops), and efficient transit options. The BRT service from Downtown St. Pete to St. Pete Beach will be a good first step. 

Public Areas

The single unifying feature of every city I visited was hyperactive public spaces and not just in the “touristy” areas. Town squares and large plazas, always bustling with action (including street performers, artists, large restaurant terraces, and other activities) attracted the tourists but even the small parks and squares, frequented by locals, were constantly packed after regular work hours. People, young and old would sit on park benches and blankets with small picnics and bottles of wine and beer just enjoying the weather and each other’s company. 

This bridge in Budapest is closed to vehicles every Sunday during July.

The more activity and activated space, the more people came to experience that space.

Barcelona’s Magic Fountain has 30 minutes light shows in the evening set to music and viewed by thousands.

A regular fountain during the day would be transformed into a Bellagio-esque lighted water show, set to music, that attracts thousands every night. Even the plainest parks would have kiosks selling desserts and drinks and be teeming with people. Artists would set up shop, offering their crafts to passersby, children would be playing while their parents nearby engaged in genuine conversations, hands devoid of cell phones, and couples would laze in the grass simply enjoying each other’s company. 

A non-descript park in Berlin filled with locals on a Thursday evening.

This trip has fueled my excitement for the new St. Pete Pier and the potential it has to create public space our residents will flock to regularly. I look forward to seeing this space and more public areas in our city activated. 

Development

St. Petersburg has a rich history but our 120 plus years of existence pales in comparison to that of Europe. It was fascinating to see how the cities I visited have developed while maintaining their historical characteristics and charm. 

New apartments under construction while maintaining the historic and beautiful facade.

I found instances where historic facades would be maintained and artificially supported while new construction would be built behind and then connected seamlessly.  

Modern residential development featuring ground floor retail focused to an interior pedestrian promenade in London.

I discovered quaint row houses facing the street that would mask modern mid-block promenades with ground floor retail and residential units above. 

One of the more impressive adaptive reuse examples I found was a parking garage roof top that was converted into a bohemian style food and drink courtyard co-op. 

The top floor of a parking garage in Berlin is repurposed as a Bohemian food and drink courtyard.

Lastly, the walkability of these cities during a record a heatwave was wholly dependent on shade. The sunny side of wide streets and areas with low rise buildings were devoid of foot traffic while areas with abundant shade provided by tall buildings or tree canopies were well travelled. St. Pete’s walkability will be dependent on protection from the sun as much as on activated storefronts. 

Closing

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit so many amazing communities and experience their cultures. I look forward to traveling to St. Paul, Minnesota in September for the Chamber’s “Thinking Outside the ‘Burg” benchmarking trip and I invite you to join 50 St. Pete leaders as we discover and learn how we can make St. Pete an even better place to live, work, and play. Click here to learn more: Thinking Outside the ‘Burg 2019

Category: Advocacy, Featured