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Challenging Cities for Parks: Jacksonville

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

The Riverwalk in downtown Jacksonville

I recently visited Northern Florida to attend my niece's wedding in St. Augustine. While our home in the Boston area saw its first measurable snow, we enjoyed temperatures in the 60s. To make the wedding weekend a bit of vacation, we extended our trip with a few days at Jacksonville Beach. It was really nice to be able to walk along the beach, seeing dogs on their morning walks and some intrepid surfers in both St. Augustine and Jacksonville taking advantage of the unusually heavy surf. We did wade up to our knees, but it was a bit chilly to fully submerse ourselves.

Riverside Park, Jacksonville

Jacksonville has long been on my list to explore a bit more, as its the largest city in the continental U.S. in terms of acreage and also has one of the higher percentages of parkland, thanks to both state and national parks nestled among its city park system. Like Miami-Dade County, Jacksonville is actually a city-county form of government, but has several smaller cities (like Jacksonville Beach) that have separate city governments, yet can vote for the Jacksonville Mayor, since that position is the leader of the city-county government. Ah, democracy, it creates some interesting circumstances, but it's still better than any other form of government, to misquote Winston Churchill.

Refurbished residential building across from Memorial Park, Jacksonville

A car is essential to explore the area; it was 18 miles from our hotel in Jacksonville Beach to downtown Jacksonville, and public transit is limited. The city's population is just over 950,000 making it the 12th largest in the U.S. and the largest in the South outside of Texas in terms of population. But the land area Jacksonville occupies is incredible—747 square miles, which is bigger (in acreage) than Houston, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Nashville. We checked out downtown and close-by neighborhoods, as well as portions of the Riverwalk, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, and of state parks, all located within the city/county limits.

Memorial Park, Jacksonville

Given that Jacksonville is only 12 feet above sea level, we also saw the challenges that severe storms can bring. Hurricanes Matthew and Irma both caused widespread damage. Damage from prior storms and flooding is evident along portions of the Riverwalk in downtown Jacksonville.

Kingsley Plantation, Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve

Managing a far-flung park system is a challenge on the best of days. Jacksonville spends around $63 million on parks annually, roughly one-third on O&M, one-third on capital and acquisition, and the final third on programming (classes, leagues, recreation center and pool/beach staffing, etc.) In contrast, Austin, Texas, has about the same number of residents, but occupies 271 square miles, or one-third of the size of Jacksonville, while spending more than twice what Jacksonville does on parks. Further, about 15% of funding in Austin comes from a group of park nonprofits helping program, operate, and improve Austin's parks, which makes a huge difference.

Like most U.S. park systems, Jacksonville uses a roving O&M strategy—staff in vehicles cover a number of parks on a given workday, picking up trash, cleaning restrooms, checking irrigation, and addressing any other issues (dumping, excessive trash, damage, etc.). The staffing shortages that all organizations have been facing is a significant problem right now, as well as the price of gasoline and other supplies. To put it simply, the job gets bigger with fewer staff. In such times, the ability of parks departments to perform daily service in all parks can be a tremendous challenge.

Outdoor gym along the Riverwalk, Jacksonville

Historic home in the Riverside neighborhood, Jacksonville

Jacksonville is helped by having a robust volunteer program and assistance from a number of Friends of Parks groups (like the Memorial Park Association). In addition, the nonprofit Timucuan Parks Foundation works with the city, Florida State Parks, and the National Park Service to fundraise and provide volunteer support for the park system. (Thanks to the Foundation, working with the city, the state and federal government, thousands of acres were acquired in the 1990s and early 2000s.) When looking at the total annual contributions to the Jacksonville Park System, 79% is city funding, 1% is funding from the Timucuan Parks Foundation, and a whopping 20% is volunteer hours (monetized according to calculations provided by Independent Sector).

Damage from prior hurricanes, storm surge and flooding along the Riverwalk

Jacksonville is a good example of the challenges that large, relatively low-density cities face in operating and maintaining an urban park system. The city benefits from government partnerships, nonprofit support, and incredible volunteerism as well as an abundance of protected parks and open space, all of which make a huge difference.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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