January 25, 2022
In The Public Interest
photo of riverfront park area
St. Johns River north bank

Riverfront Parks Now: Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

Riverfront Parks Now calls for Jacksonville to develop iconic riverfront park.

A collaboration of nonprofits is advocating for a downtown riverfront park to rival those of other river cities, something it asserts is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”  Calling themselves Riverfront Parks Now, partners from Scenic Jacksonville, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Greenscape, Late Bloomers Garden Club, and the Garden Club of Jacksonville have organized to create an iconic riverfront park that ensures public access and ownership:(https://www.scenicjax.org/riverfront-parks-now-is-a-once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity/)

Understanding who we are as a city, what makes us truly special and how that can be reflected in a park or in our downtown hasn’t always been an easy conversation. Without being a big city, Jacksonville is still a big place with lots of ideas, perspectives and aspirations all competing for attention. 

Riverfront Parks Now adds an important perspective, one that honors the public and the majestic St. Johns. It encompasses our toughest challenges including flooding and a need to create a sense of belonging.

Five principles guide the advocacy group:

1. create an inviting and inclusive waterfront for all;

2. involve the public in creating the shared vision;

3. integrate resiliency and sustainable design;

4. use riverfront public spaces as a catalyst for economic development; and 

5. ensure a commitment to ongoing improvements and maintenance.

Scenic Jacksonville’s Nancy Powell speaks about public parks

We spoke this week to Nancy Powell, Scenic Jacksonville’s executive director, about the Riverfront Parks Now vision. Based on the collaboration’s extensive research, Powell is able to speak easily about established riverfront parks – think of Grant Park in Chicago – and park spaces being developed now along the rivers of cities as disparate as Louisville, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Memphis, Tampa and others.

a riverpark in Chicago
Chicago’s Grant Park creates front lawn
photo of riverfront park
Louisville Waterfront Park attracts 2.2 million visitors

(see images from multiple cities: http://www.riverfrontparksnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Riverfront-Parks-Now-Presentation-July-2020.pdf)

RAW: Where did the idea come from?

Powell: We have all this land along the riverfront, and we thought, rather than take a piecemeal approach to developing parks and public access points to the river, we have an opportunity. And that is, shouldn’t we have a unified view, a design of how these vacant public properties can connect together? And we said, Let’s think about this. So we started looking at what other cities have done.

By looking at all these other places, what I found most inspiring was that they were all so different, so creative. What I learned is that we can really do something that is unique to us. We don’t have to take a park model or idea from someplace else. We can build our own.

RAW: How do you bring the public together to create a shared vision for an iconic, downtown, riverfront park?

Powell: What other cities have done is they have engaged a world-class architectural landscape planning firm. There are only about four or five of them that have completed multiple projects on this scale, so these are the ones with credibility and expertise. Obviously there is a process for discovering and hiring the firm. Once that’s done, they help the city with the public input process: what the city wants, what the public wants. That is a part of the process. 

RAW: In addition to its partner organizations, Riverfront Parks Now is also in touch with the Museum of Science & History which is working to transform its campus on the Southbank of the river. Powell also lauds the leadership of Groundwork Jax for “setting a standard which is to say they are doing it first-class.” Powell also sees the synergies put forward by these complementary projects as making Riverfront Parks Now a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking.

Powell: What we have learned from Hurricane Irma is that downtown is vulnerable. (to remind our readers see this video)

so we have an opportunity to protect our downtown through a land buffer which doubles as a park with multiple benefits.

It [an iconic riverfront park] creates an amenity for people to want to come to. We all want people to come downtown, we want young people and families to come to Jacksonville. This becomes an economic driver for other revitalization. And

The land is available today. If it were to become private, it would be almost impossible to recapture. A lot of cities have had to identify and purchase land for their riverfront parks, and that is an expense that, right now, we do not have.

Powell adds:

Waterfront parks have a unique connection to the river as well as to other parts of the city. They create interactivity among the public spaces we have, and they will bring people downtown. We are talking about being creative: the creative use of activating civic space that is unique to Jacksonville and something we can all be really proud of. That is remarkable.

A Time for Reflection

The down time created by the Covid-19 pandemic has had an interesting effect on creatives and visionaries, civic leaders and nonprofits, planners and funders. It is as if this unusual time has created a new opportunity to look at our downtown, how it is used, what it could be.

In addition to this current advocacy effort for an iconic downtown river park, we reported recently on Groundwork Jacksonville’s unveiling of the Emerald Trail master plan.  (https://jaxlookout.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=4810&action=editGroundwork). Groundwork expects to complete the first mile of its 30+ mile urban trail by end of 2021.  The Riverfront Parks Now proposal to connect vacant public spaces along the St. Johns north bank into a large, contiguous public park space nicely complements the Emerald Trail. 

Written by
Robert Arleigh White

Robert Arleigh White has many years of experience managing nonprofit arts organizations in North Florida where he has also been active in promoting a host of arts related initiatives. In recognition of over 20 years of successful legislative and community advocacy, the City of Jacksonville proclaimed August 12 as “Robert Arleigh White Day,” and Jacksonville’s City Council similarly authorized a resolution in his honor. Previously, Mr. White served as the executive and artistic director for Theatre Jacksonville where he led the organization from near fiscal insolvency to become one of the State of Florida’s most successful artistic venues. While there, he also was directly responsible for the artistic direction of fifty plays and worked to produce dozens more. Currently, Bob is the principal for Robert Arleigh White + Associates where he consults with nonprofits on development, infrastructure and organizational storytelling.

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  • This is a wonderful vision based on solid research and the recognition of what other cities have down to create attractive green spaces. I hope a grand river front park will become a reality.

  • Building a RiverFront Park in Jacksonville is a brilliant and long overdue idea. As we continue to see strong economic growth in Jacksonville we can hold on to our small town roots and blossom into the Big Bold City that we are. Growing up in Chicago gives me real insight into how fantastic it is to have a beautiful downtown park to be proud of. Jacksonville deserves a riverfront park to treasure for decades to come.

  • This looks like a very good idea, especially if we can combine it with downtown housing and other venues. It will attract the younger generation.

  • […] The first vision understands the Park in the context of how it was originally imagined and developed: to be a resource for recreation and public access to the River that would exist in perpetuity. This is not a stagnant vision. As Tolbert makes clear in Jake!, Godbold and his assembled team understood the need for a fluid and integrative park experience that could accommodate the unavoidable shifting interests of people, and the anticipated – and realized – growth of Jacksonville as an urban place where people would want to live, work and play.  Currently, a collaboration of civic minded nonprofits, RiverfrontParksNow, is advancing the idea to keep Metro Park as a public park and expand the public’s access to the St. Johns along its Northbank. (see Jaxlookout Riverfront Parks Now: Once in a Lifetime Opportunity). […]

Written by Robert Arleigh White

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