By Jimmy Orth
Residents of Jacksonville have often used the word potential when describing our city’s downtown. Most would agree that such potential clearly remains unfulfilled after over 30 years of ambitious development proposals and flashy architectural renderings that have failed to materialize. A piecemeal approach to development projects and a lack of meaningful public involvement have also contributed to the blank canvas of undeveloped public lands that currently exists along our riverfront.
Currently, 90 percent of the properties adjacent to the St. Johns River in Duval County are privately owned. However, over 50 percent of the riverfront in downtown Jacksonville belongs to the citizens, including the 23-acre Metropolitan Park and the vacant 30-acre Shipyards property.
Our city’s experience with Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrate the importance of protecting our downtown from flooding and sea level rise and the need for outdoor public spaces that allow residents to recreate and gather in a safe and healthy way.
As a result, we have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform these publicly owned properties into an iconic riverfront for all. No other city in the United States shares this enviable position, and no other city has a river quite like the St. Johns flowing through the heart of its downtown. Now is the time to finally capitalize on our greatest natural asset and reestablish downtown as the heartbeat of Jacksonville.
Historically, private development interests have played an outsize role in determining the future of downtown, without significant input from the public or a holistic vision and master plan to ensure a well-planned and well-designed riverfront. In addition, millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies and incentives have been doled out over the years with anticipated returns on investment that have not always come to fruition. When taking a bird’s eye view of today’s downtown riverfront, it becomes obvious that a new approach is needed.
What if, instead, we prioritized our riverfront lands for the public and engaged in a community-driven visioning process that would guide future development and create a waterfront for all?
We need only to look to other cities that have utilized their riverfronts to revitalize their downtowns to help answer this question. Earlier this year, Riverfront Parks Now, a coalition of local nonprofits, did just that by conducting a deep dive into successful parks and downtown waterfronts throughout the country.
The group comprised of Scenic Jacksonville, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Late Bloomers Garden Club, Garden Club of Jacksonville, Greenscape, Sierra Club, Memorial Park Association, and Jacksonville Urban League quickly discovered how many communities are utilizing this “parks as essential infrastructure” approach to urban revitalization. Cities like St. Petersburg, Tampa, Chattanooga, Detroit, Louisville, and Nashville have successfully reinvigorated their downtowns and waterfronts by investing in significant destination parks and green space.
Not only do great cities have great parks, but great parks provide numerous benefits that can address a variety of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing our communities.
Recreation and civic engagement have traditionally been the primary reasons for establishing parks and public spaces. We all need communal outdoor places in which to recreate and exercise, enjoy and experience public art and our majestic St. Johns, and gather as a community. Having access to parks and nature has proven to improve health and wellness and quality of life. According to the American Public Health Association, “Access to nature has been related to lower levels of mortality and illness, higher levels of outdoor physical activity, restoration from stress, a greater sense of well-being, and greater social capital.” The current pandemic has only magnified the importance of having high-quality public spaces for all citizens to enjoy, where we can social distance and experience the benefits of the outdoors.