Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Most 15-year-olds don’t spend their spare time studying walkability and public housing. Dylan Gentile is not most 15-year-olds.
Most 15-year-olds, it is safe to say, don’t spend most of their spare time dreaming up urban planning projects, reading books about walkability, and watching documentaries about public housing. Dylan Gentile, however, is not most 15-year-olds.
“I’ve been interested in these things since I was born,” says Gentile, who got in touch with me on Twitter because he was interested in CityLab’s coverage of walkable cities and related issues. “I used to arrange my blocks by size and form.” Now, he’s dreaming of a future as an urban planner. Or maybe as a mayor. In the meantime, he’s trying to shake things up right where he is.
Gentile, a freshman in high school, lives in DeFuniak Springs, a small city in the Florida panhandle that markets itself as a bit of “Old Florida.” A railroad town built in the 1880s, it was developed as a resort, the Southern home for the progressive Chautauqua movement (the town is named after Frederick De Funiak, an executive of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad). DeFuniak is now home to just over 5,000 people. Its tourist attractions are few: the oldest continuously operating library in the state; a winery; some lovely Victorian homes; and one of the two perfectly circular, naturally occurring lakes on the planet (the other is in Switzerland).
In this sleepy setting, Gentile has started a group called Bike Walk DeFuniak, intent on organizing his neighbors to make improvements to his city’s streets. “DeFuniak has something special that the rest of the state doesn’t have, because it didn’t develop as quickly,” says Gentile. “It has a really nice downtown, with the historic buildings and the sidewalks and the street trees.”
He’s attracted some of DeFuniak’s most prominent citizens to the group: the mayor, Bob Campbell, has been attending meetings, as has city council member Mac Carpenter.
“I first met Dylan when he came to the city council to make a presentation about walkability,” says Carpenter, who grew up in DeFuniak and returned eight years ago after pursuing a career in real estate development throughout the Eastern United States. Carpenter currently works as the the planning manager for Walton County, where DeFuniak is located (Walton County is also, incidentally, the home of Seaside and several other New Urbanist developments). “I was quite impressed with the depth of his knowledge of city planning, and his familiarity with the principles of New Urbanism. Being a certified planner myself, he was speaking the words I wanted to hear. Dylan Gentile gets it. He really gets it.”
With Gentile in the lead, Bike Walk DeFuniak is working on several projects. One of the most pressing is a sidewalk on the street outside his high school. Gentile says the street, which is in fact a county road, is already an important pedestrian route, even if there is no infrastructure to accommodate people on foot. “I walk home from school every day, and there’s like 60 other kids that walk home, and we’re trampling through the dirt and high grass.”
Carpenter says he thinks that getting a sidewalk built, despite the inevitable red tape, “is a very realistic goal. That’s what we’re working on: a safe route to school.”
Despite a lifelong interest in the way places are built, Gentile wasn’t an activist until he moved to DeFuniak with his family a year ago, after living nearby in northwest Florida. The city’s frozen-in-time quality caught his attention. While he noticed lots of problems, from blight and poverty to a lack of bike facilities, the relatively human-scale design of DeFuniak made it easy for him to reach out to the people in charge and try to get involved in improving his new home.
“The thing was, now we were living within, like, a mile of city hall,” says Gentile, who talks fast, his ideas tumbling out in rapid succession. “I think that’s what it was. After the subdivision where we were before, I was fed up with taking a car everywhere, so I just started riding my bike around the city. And I’d known about city planning, so I went into city hall and said, ‘Hey, can I see the city planner who works here?’”
That would be Loretta Laird, who in addition to being DeFuniak’s planner is also the city clerk, and handles code enforcement as well. She says that when Gentile showed up at her office a few months ago, he wanted to talk—and talk—about all the improvements he thinks should be happening in DeFuniak. There are a lot of them, and Gentile is at times as impatient as anyone else his age. He is frustrated, for instance, that one new sidewalk that’s been approved won’t be installed until 2019—eight years after the city began the process to get it.
Laird says she’s explained to Gentile that the timeline is so long because of the complicated planning and approval process, and because the city has to have funds in hand before work begins. That money hasn’t been allocated yet. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” she says. Gentile doesn’t always want to hear that, though. “He gets a little rambunctious sometimes,” she adds, with a sigh. “It’s just funny to me that he’s got all this energy. I say, 'Dylan, give me a minute to breathe here, son.'"
After meeting with Laird several times, Gentile decided that he would start getting more involved with local civic projects. Before long, he was not only spending time at the planner’s office, but also hanging around afterward for city council meetings. It was at one of those meetings that he gave the walkability presentation that so impressed councilmember Carpenter.
Another person in attendance at that meeting was DeFuniak resident Shayne Betts, a community organizer who works to connect the area’s different nonprofits and advocacy groups and increase their effectiveness. “When I encountered Dylan, it was so encouraging, “ says Betts. “I have seen very few young men with his passion and interest. And he puts it into action. He inspires me to keep doing what I do.”
Gentile says his Bike Walk DeFuniak group will be tackling a variety of improvements going forward, including shade trees and wayfinding signage, possibly using tools like the ones offered by Walk [Your City]. He has also continued to make presentations, not just to the city council but also to state senator Don Gaetz, who was visiting DeFuniak to meet with constituents at the county courthouse.
“I gave him a speech about smart-growth policies in the state of Florida,” Gentile says. “I think we kind of need them, because basically everywhere except downtown Miami that’s been developed in the last 70 years in Florida is just subdivisions and highways and theme parks. I was trying to recommend to him that there are smarter ways to develop, and that the way we’re developing now in the state of Florida will actually have more of a financial consequence in the future, than the short-term growth we’re having now. And that with sea-level rise that we need to plan ahead for these things. And that subdivisions with cheaply built plaster houses aren’t going to withstand the hundred-year storm.”
What was Gaetz’s reaction? “Well, he sent me a thank you letter, and he said I was very smart,” says Gentile. “I got a standing ovation. I think that I gave him some new ideas, but I don’t know if he’s going to apply them.”
While he knows that he can’t change everything all at once, Gentile believes that he is already making a difference in his small corner of the world. “I think a significant number of people who weren’t paying attention to these things before are now,” he says.
Councilmember Carpenter agrees. “He’s got folks talking,” says Carpenter. “It’s not a new message, but it’s coming from a new place. It’s inspiring to see young people engaging with their government this way.”