Jacksonville, Florida’s recently finalized climate resilience plan nods to its status as one of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas right up front.
“The city’s population has grown to over ten times what it was a century ago to nearly one million people today,” the plan says. “If trends continue, Jacksonville will grow to 1.6 million residents by 2070.”
That growth, which increases the city’s tax base and brings new industries, talent and cultures, is “a fundamentally good thing for cities,” Chief Resilience Officer Anne Coglianese explained. “But it also runs the risk of straining affordable housing resources, utility resources, roadway networks,” she said. “It’s something that we’re so aware we need to prepare for.”
Housing, in particular, “is the name of the game for resilience” in Jacksonville and will be “where we make the biggest strides in promoting resilience in our communities,” Coglianese said. As the largest city by land area in the continental U.S., and with only roughly 40% of land currently developed, finding space for new housing isn’t so much the issue, she said. The urgent challenge is making sure new development is built to withstand climate risks — namely, flooding — and don’t encroach on critical ecosystem services, Coglianese said.
“Every day [that] we are not on top of that, new subdivisions are coming online that could be encroaching on wetlands, in areas that are high risk, clear-cutting a lot of trees and causing our urban heat issues to be more pronounced,” Coglianese said.
This urgency to “stop the bleeding through death by a thousand cuts” and promote smart growth distinguishes Jacksonville from cities that have already reached their boundaries, she said. In those cities, “the conversation about resilience is really in the ‘retrofit and protect’ space, recognizing your population is where it is and there's very little you can do to change that,” Coglianese said.
Jacksonville will need a paradigm shift to avoid putting its growing population in harm’s way as climate change worsens in the coming decades, she said. “If we continue to build in the same low-density subdivision patterns that we have over the last 20 years, we're likely to see, in the next 50 years, three times as many people in our city living in areas of high risk to flooding, two and a half times as many assets vulnerable to flooding, and one and a half times as many residents vulnerable to extreme heat,” Coglianese said.
Big policy changes are on the table to prevent those predictions from becoming reality: The new climate resilience plan’s first recommended action is that Jacksonville update its land development regulations with a focus on accounting for future flood risk protections. That effort is already underway, Coglianese said.
The city will examine where housing can be added in the downtown core, but also in suburban areas with an abundance of underutilized space and in strip malls that are “not as vibrant as they used to be,” Coglianese said. “That's a space that could be redeveloped for housing, for mixed-use development, and could be a way to accommodate this larger population without having to go into our rural and our natural landscape as much.”
A primary challenge for developers looking to build quality affordable housing in Jacksonville is the cost of land, said Aundra Wallace, president of JAXUSA, the city’s regional economic development initiative. Options to address this include the public sector helping to “buy down the price of the land” or providing land for affordable housing developments, he said. Building vertically instead of out to avoid sprawling development also presents a cost challenge, according to Wallace. High rises are substantially more expensive to construct than buildings that are six stories or less, he said.
Climate-resilient growth, however, promises to help the region accomplish its economic development goals, one of which is to provide people with a high “quality of place,” Wallace said. “That growth that we are seeing, faster than the U.S., faster than the state of Florida, it all hinges upon people really enjoying the quality of life they get here in northeast Florida,” Wallace said. “That’s why [the climate resilience plan is] so important for Jacksonville.”
Climate-resilient communities are the types of places where people want to live, Coglianese agreed: “There’s, frankly, a lot of changes that are happening in market trends in cities across the country. We’re finding that people want to live in dense, walkable, vibrant spaces.” She added that Jacksonville even has the potential to become a regional “climate haven” within Florida, sheltered from some of the worst climate change impacts to batter the state.
“So much of the city is safe,” Coglianese said. “The city of Jacksonville really has to start valuing our high and dry areas in a different way than we have historically.”