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PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE ARDITO A BEAUTIFUL PLACE CALLED THEM BACK — Jim Ardito revisits a favorite spot near a former residence: Englischer Garten in Munich. The bicycle at left belongs to his wife, Maggie Ardito.

We have the tools to do it; do we have the will?

What makes a town stand out as a place where we want to live and visit? It’s not strip malls, parking lots, private developments and faster streets. What matters is a variety of well-connected and memorable public places.

<p><p><strong>Maggie Ardito</strong></p></p><p></p>
Maggie Ardito

Great towns around the world feature a large car-free central square like one in Haarlem, Netherlands. That’s probably not feasible for most Florida towns. But we can easily imagine a pedestrian-friendly downtown complemented and enhanced by a variety of well-connected public places, including a large serene park.

One of our favorite previous homes is Munich, Germany, with its beautiful Englischer Garten. The Garten became a destination we could easily walk or cycle through en route to work, downtown, or other destinations.

We’d often drop by to meet with friends by the iconic Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower). These simple but memorable routines left their mark that decades later lured us for a return visit.

When we retired, we searched for a new home with character, history, a charming downtown, a university, trails, and positive vibes.

DeLand was the clear winner. Artisan Alley and Georgia Avenue have blossomed into our small but cherished walkable center. We have pocket parks, art, murals.

We love the “interrupted grid” pattern of the historic districts. This people-friendly, traffic-calming urban design was ubiquitous in the U.S. until the 1950s, when car-centric policies took over. Now urban sprawl is threatening everything we hold dear.

What can we do to preserve and strengthen the character and heart of our beloved town? Is it possible to take a page from the world’s great cities that offer well-connected public places that encourage outdoor activities like walking, cycling and social interaction?

Can we imagine a park that fills the gap for a serene public destination near Downtown? It would need to be large — 150 acres or more — with mature trees, and an easy distance from town.

An impossible dream? Ray Johnson says there’s one “last great opportunity for a meaningful park in DeLand. … The city should purchase the Southridge Golf Course and create a park/botanical garden (like Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park), with sculpture.”

Great idea — but how do we pay for it? That’s where public-private partnerships come in — the subject of next week’s article, so let’s table that for now.

Close your eyes and imagine: a serene, green 160-acre park dedicated to beauty, contemplation, social interaction and the unique character of our region. A park with gardens, winding pathways, shade trees, inviting seating, water features, works of art.

Imagine interpretive panels and displays featuring history, environment, sustainability. Imagine a place for meaningful experiences that rejuvenate, replenish, restore, increase understanding, build community and leave a mark in our memories.

Imagine walking or riding your bike along our existing Charles Paiva Greenway with a connecting trail through a beautiful oasis just a mile from Downtown, a half-mile from our Intermodal Transit Facility, and on the route to many destinations.

DeLand has the ingredients and tools to turn imagination into reality. Do we have the political will? What do you think? Post your views on Facebook @smartgrowthdeland.

— Ardito is St Johns Alliance president and River of Lakes National Scenic Byway board member. She sees policies, infrastructure and attitudes that enable safe and equitable active mobility as a key to sustainable life quality.

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