Carl Wernicke: What Makes A Vibrant City

Oct 8, 2015


Credit IHMC

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Ireland and Scotland. There was no surprise in discovering that the countryside in both is green, beautiful and abundant. But a more pleasant surprise was discovering just how vibrant and busy the cities are. Whether in Dublin, Glasgow or Edinburgh, we found lively streetscapes crowded with pedestrians, restaurants, pubs and retail stores. And clearly one thing has happened since our last trip to Ireland, 10 years ago: the food has greatly improved. The food scene across Ireland and Scotland rivals anything I have seen in the U.S. 


Because Europe remains more densely centralized than the United States, people tend to be packed more into the cities, with less suburbanization, although that is a growing blight. But even smaller cities like Londonderry have lively city centers because life is still focused on the city, and people walk a lot. However, traffic is often bad, despite the much greater reliance on public transportation and sidewalks. Sitting at breakfast one morning at our hotel on Princes Street in Edinburgh, I counted no less than a dozen city buses on just one block, and most of them were double-deckers. The buses all advertise free wi-fi, and watching through the windows of the restaurant we could see that most riders were using their phones or pads. Also evident was the modern new electric tram system.


The traffic is worsened by the fact that Europe’s roads are narrow by U.S. standards; in the cities, throw in the ubiquitous buses driven hard by aggressive drivers and it’s easy to see why people favor public transportation. And of course, for an American, having to adjust to driving on what for us is the wrong side of the road, driving becomes ultra stressful.


Not to mention expensive. Filling less than three-quarters of a tank before returning our diesel rental, a small VW van, cost $62.


But overall our experience in European cities was wonderful, and it’s hard to overstate how energizing a vibrant city is. That came back to me when, just days after our trip, I drove through downtown Pensacola. It’s not news at this point that downtown is undergoing a renaissance. But what’s rewarding is to see that this rebirth appears to be entering an extended phase. 


In a short cruise through downtown I saw, under construction or about to begin, a new bank, the apartment/retail development on the old News Journal site, the new YMCA, a “coming soon” sign on a hotel site, a multi-story condo on South Palafox and the three-story IHMC building. I also passed sites that should soon host Bubba Watson’s ice cream store and some long-promised commercial development on the edge of the Aragon neighborhood. And new houses continue to spring up all around the periphery.


Downtown is showing a vibrancy unsurpassed in my lifetime, or at least since I was a small child following my parents on shopping visits to downtown, which 50 years ago was the center of things.

With the automobile still dominant, and the suburbs well established, I don’t expect downtown to regain its previous centrality. But clearly it remains on the upward bounce of its rebound.


 I’m just glad I’m still around to see it, and eager to see what comes next.