Thursday, August 26, 2010

Will this visionary landscaper/urban planner be Florida's next governor? Fat chance

Michael E. Arth wants to be governor of Florida. Fat chance. Visionaries rarely become governors, and especially in Florida. The Sunshine state chooses its chief leader from that small group of insiders firmly entrenched in party politics, possessing absurdly fat war chests and predictably bereft of vision. The lack of vision is an unspoken qualification. The latest polls have the candidate from the Democratic Party with a small but significant lead over the Republican. Arth has no party affiliation.

(In light of what we’ve been experiencing this past generation in terms of political leadership at both the state and federal levels is it any wonder the tone of this post? My guess is you feel the same way. But I digress.)

I want to acquaint you to Arth for several reasons but mostly because of his vision of urban landscapes. About 10 years ago Arth (an artist, author and landscape/urban planner) founded a movement known as “New Pedestrianism.” Essentially, Arth envisions clusters of small communities with our urban centers, neighborhoods with trees, walkways and bikeways in front of homes, and tree-lined automobile streets behind homes. The centers of these "villages" would be populated with stores and other amenities, all within easy walking or biking distance within these neighborhoods.

I'm sure other urban planners have promoted and, to one degree or another, executed similar plans. But none of them (to my knowledge anyway) has run for governor in a major state and then bicycled its length and breadth promoting his candidacy and his progressive ideas. But, not beholding to any particular special interest (Florida politicos have historically been joined at the hip to powerful moneyed interests, be they developers or sugar growers), Arth doesn’t have the finances to buy the name recognition necessary to be taken as a serious threat in the race. . .But he has the imagination and drive to get things done. Impressive things.

A decade ago, while writing a book, “The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems,” he bought 32 homes in the worst part of DeLand, FL, a neighborhood known as “Crack Town.” Arth rebuilt the dilapidated neighborhood into a pleasantly landscaped, award-winning community within a community, DeLand’s Historic Garden District.

While I’ve never met Arth and only know of him and his political ambitions through newspaper and online accounts, I do know DeLand. I know it quite well from frequent visits to my brother's home there. He and his then-young family, seeking a small, quiet city with "old Florida" charm moved there decades ago. His two daughters, my nieces, both earned degrees at Stetson University, which is in DeLand, located just west of Daytona.

Arth is a fascinating person and my guess is that we will hear more about him even after this November’s election. His ideas about urban planning and safe, sustainable neighborhoods are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his vision for a safer and cleaner society.

Google his name and check him out. You might find him to be kindred spirit — in a political and environmental sense. Or maybe not. — Ron Hall

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