As you may know, Pensacola is currently one of eight finalist cities in Strong Towns’ fourth annual “Strongest Town” contest.

Strong Towns is a non-profit organization which encourages cities to change the way they think and focus on things like resiliency over efficiency and building cities based on what citizens need now instead of abstract theories.

I am a proud Pensacolian. I was born here and I have lived here for all but six years of my life. This place is in my blood. I love this city with every fiber of my being, flaws and all.

So believe me, it comes from a place of love, not malice when I say this:

Pensacola is not a strong town.

Not yet, anyway.

The Strong Towns approach. (Graphic by Strong Towns)

We’re a town whose street network is so poorly engineered and poorly lit that hardly a week goes by without a pedestrian or cyclist being hit or killed.

We’re a town whose drainage infrastructure is so substandard that our neighborhoods and downtown often flood with anything more than light rain.

We’re a town with a dysfunctional public transit system, a dismal shortage of bike lanes, and a disconnected network of sidewalks which seem to start and stop at random.

We’re a town that, despite these critical infrastructure needs, continues to invest hundreds of millions of dollars not into our infrastructure but into pie-in-the-sky “economic development” projects like ST Engineering.

And in doing so, we perpetuate the cycle: spending all our money on big, risky economic development project means we can’t afford to properly maintain the infrastructure we have, much less upgrade it. Our community becomes less and less desirable, less and less competitive, until the only way we can compete for jobs is by spending more and more on incentives.

And that’s not even touching on issues like generational poverty, race relations, and inequities in our criminal justice system, all issues on which we have much work to do.

Projects like a proposed cycle track on A Street are the kind of small, low-risk, high-return efforts that strong towns should invest in. (Graphic by City of Pensacola)

I love my city like you should love family: unconditionally. But that kind of love also means being honest and willing to have tough conversations. Pensacola is not a strong town. But we could be. Our city is blessed with as much potential as any city could ever hope to have. We have amazing people, incredibly history and culture, the prettiest beaches in the world, a good quality of life and low cost of living. All we really have to do is make a few changes, and we’d be on the right track.

CivicCon has been a great start, but it’s not enough to bring in these experts and hear what they have to say. We have to put the best practices we’re learning into action. When CivicCon speakers like Jeff Speck tell us how important things like walkability and transit and historic preservation are, that means build crosswalks and fix transit and save buildings. When Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn tells us to focus on small, low-risk, high-return projects instead of massive, high-risk, questionable-return projects, that means don’t spend $175 million building hangars to attract a multi-billion dollar foreign company like ST Engineering.

Until we learn the lessons from CivicCon and actually begin to put them into action, Pensacola can’t call itself a strong town. Building a strong town is hard work. It takes time. It’s not enough to host some guest speakers and throw around buzzwords. If we’re not willing to do the work, then we’re just playing pretend.

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