Nonfiction in response to Sustainable Cities and Communities
Bithlo, Florida: “The Outcast of Orange County”
By Georgia Bernbaum
With growing urbanization, city boundaries expand, blurring municipal lines across a larger region. Ultimately, some regions grow so large that they become megacities with populations exceeding 10 million. No matter how large the cities become, regardless of where they are located in the world, they originated as distinct, smaller communities before they grew so large that they merged. Central Florida is divided into two metropolitan statistical areas for counting the population in the U.S. Census, Orlando—Kissimmee-Sanford and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater. The Orlando area’s 2017 population was 2,717,764; the Tampa area’s population was 3,091,399. As the two regions expand over the next decades, they are expected to merge and will easily exceed 10 million residents.
The eleventh goal of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to make megacities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. This includes improving housing, transportation and urban planning. But, to prevent the deterioration of megacities, society needs to focus on the smaller communities that will comprise the emerging megacities.
Tim McKinney is the CEO of United Global Outreach (UGO), a nonprofit organization aimed at improving communities in need. In 2013, he began a four-year-long effort to transform the town of Bithlo. Bithlo is part of the Orlando – Kissimmee-Sanford area and is often referred to as the “outcast of Orange County." Many residents of Bithlo live in run-down trailers infested with mold and termite with unsanitary water and lack access to healthcare. With most of these residents dropping out of school before the tenth grade and a lack of public transportation, there also is staggeringly high unemployment. Many politicians have long ignored the problems in Bithlo because of its lack of wealth and small voting base. United Global Outreach is addressing these problems and, in turn, improving the lives of Bithlo residents.
New housing is coming to Bithlo. They are small houses, similar to the size of trailers, but with concrete foundations. In addition, UGO has partnered with Florida Hospital in an effort to improve the healthcare. Before, Bithlo did not even have a permanent doctor’s office, and now, there is a clinic in the center of town which is accessible to everyone. According to McKinney, Florida Hospital has been a huge help, not only in improving the health of the citizens, but also in rallying support for this cause. UGO opened a private school called Orange County Academy and has helped elevate the existing schools to ensure the children have the tools they need to succeed. UGO has worked with Lynx to provide public transportation for Bithlo residents. In addition, a program titled “Hire Local Bithlo” was started to combat the problem of unemployment by training residents for jobs in high-demand fields like construction.
The biggest improvement, however, is Bithlo’s mini-downtown, which is called Transformation Village. It includes a coffee shop, library, hair and nail salon, laundromat, playgrounds and basketball courts. Although Transformation Village provides a downtown environment and necessary stores, according to McKinney, the biggest impact is that “it provides a place for people to come together, spend time, build relationships, and forget for a minute the issues they are facing in the real world.”
United Global Outreach, through private and public partnerships, successfully transformed the “Outcast of Orange County” into a vibrant and economically viable town. To promote sustainable urban development in large cities, we need to resolve inequities at the micro-level. Every sub-community within a larger metropolitan area has unique development needs connected to their geography and demography. In order to fulfill the eleventh United Nations’ goal for sustainable development, these needs must be identified and resolved on a case-by-case basis because there is no one-size-fits-all answer to equitable development.