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Jacksonville is a city full of surprisingly beautiful scenery.

From the banks of the St. Johns River, to the shores of the Beaches, to Memorial Park and beyond, there are so many breathtaking displays of nature all around us. They’re so abundant that it becomes easy to take them for granted.

Preserving the natural beauty of our city is extremely important – both for retaining its scenic value, and for ensuring the long-term survival of the city.

Unfortunately, Jax has a bit of a spotty record on environmental issues.

PREVIOUS STRUGGLES

For many years, instead of the smell of coffee from the Maxwell House building, the most common scent in the city’s urban core was the putrid odor of chemicals from nearby factories and multiple paper mills.

Pollution was simply a fact of life in the city, as residents got used to the thickness and smell of the air.

In the late ‘80s, then-Mayor Tommy Hazouri made environmental policies one of his primary focuses, and convinced the city council to dramatically increase the fines levied out for violating environmental regulations. Gradually, the smell started to go away, and the air started getting cleaner.

    By that point, though, a lot of the damage had already been done.

    After beginning to monitor for air toxins in 1997, a 2000 study by the city’s Environmental Quality Division indicated the presence of fifteen “hazardous air pollutants”. 85% of the samples collected in 2000 contained benzene. Benzene is a main component of gasoline – it’s what you smell when you pull into a gas station. It’s also a carcinogen associated with the development of several different types of cancer.

    There was an equally high concentration of Freon, a refrigerant that has now been widely banned because of the damage it causes to the ozone layer.

    The study suggested that the biggest causes of air pollution in Jacksonville were on-road emissions from motor vehicles, non-road emissions from sources like the Port of Jacksonville, surface coating operations, and commercial solvent use.

    Pollution from motor vehicles is contributed to by the city’s poor walkability scores. It routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous cities for pedestrians.

    It doesn’t help that the city spreads out so far, making some destinations impractical to reach on foot or bike.

    The air wasn’t the only thing being polluted. Littering was – and continues to be – an issue along the sides of major roadways. Anti-littering campaigns led by the city were only slightly effective at curbing the problem.

    PROGRESS BEING MADE

    In recent years, though, the city has followed the national – and global – trend of increased environmental consciousness. New programs, both governmental and non-governmental, have emerged to work on cutting back the total amount of dangerous emissions.

    The city has worked to cut down on motor vehicle emissions by encouraging pedestrian travel and the use of electric vehicles. Electric car charging stations, installed by JEA, are now available in as many as 25 different parking lots throughout the city.

    In addition, JTA’s oft-maligned Skyway will soon get a major revamp, adding several new routes and driverless, battery-powered cars. It should make public transit a much more tempting option for those who live near the new routes.

    The Buckman Wastewater Treatment Plant, the city’s biggest waste treatment plant and once a major source of air pollution, won an EPA Clean Water Act recognition award in 2003 for its dramatic reduction of emissions.

    The work that’s been done has definitely been helping. We’ve gone from an “F” grade for number of days of high ozone levels in 2009, to a “C” in 2017, as graded by the American Lung Association. Likewise, our grade for number of days with heavy particle pollution has gone up from an “F” to a “B”.

    Most importantly, there are projects emerging around the city that promote green living, environmental consciousness, and sustainability.

    Several popular, fast-growing farmers’ markets have emerged, with recurring events like Riverside Arts Market allowing for local farmers and vendors to reach a wider audience than ever before. Biking has grown in popularity, particularly in relatively bike-friendly neighborhoods such as Riverside, San Marco, and Springfield. New construction projects in the urban core have prioritized walkability and access to transit.

    A proposed San Marco community, tentatively titled “The District”, would be a mini-community built around healthy, “green” living. There’s no word yet on when the project will begin construction.

    Meanwhile, the littering problem has been taken on by several small groups that organize clean-ups around the city.

    PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

    Progress has been made, but there’s still more to be done.

    While our ALA grade for high ozone levels may be improved, it still only recently reached a passing grade. This is the result of the slow climb to undo decades of pollution.

    And while there are several amazing groups of hard-working citizens who engage in clean-ups around the city, trash still lines the sidewalks of many major streets.

    Jax still isn’t a pedestrian-friendly city. This means that the overwhelming majority of residents are going to drive to their destination rather than walking or biking.

    The city needs strong leadership on environmental issues moving forward. The progress that has been made in cutting back on dangerous emissions must continue, and new developments must be considered in the context of environmental impact.

    Additionally, changes must be made to make the city more walkable and safer for pedestrians. This is already beginning to happen, with pending pedestrian upgrades to Baymeadows Rd. and San Jose Blvd. and a pedestrian bridge being added to the Fuller Warren Bridge. These changes must continue to be made, and they must expand into the neighborhoods in which the majority of pedestrian accidents have occurred.

    In the meantime, there’s plenty that the average citizen can do to help the city go green:

    1. WALK OR BIKE WHEN YOU CAN

    The best way to cut back on vehicle emissions is to use your vehicle less often. If you’re going somewhere relatively close, try walking or biking instead of driving. Not only will you be helping the environment, you’ll also cut down on how much you spend on gas.

    2. PARTICIPATE IN CLEAN-UPS

    Tired of seeing trash along our beautiful roadways? Join one of the city’s clean-up groups. A simple Google search for Jacksonville clean-up crews will reveal several different opportunities, and these groups are always looking for new, hard-working volunteers to contribute to their mission of keeping Jax clean and trash-free.

    3. STAY INFORMED

    Keep track of which local leaders take environmental issues seriously, and which ones don’t. Then, when elections come around, use your voting power to deliver a powerful message that only leaders who will prioritize the preservation of our city will be welcomed into office. Pay less attention to “Republicans vs. Democrats”, and focus in on what will help our city vs. what will put it in danger in the future.

    4. SPREAD THE WORD!

    Not everyone thinks about the environment particularly often, but that doesn’t always mean they don’t care. Be the squeaky wheel in your friend group, informing them of how they can help and (politely!) correcting bad habits. It’s very possible that they didn’t even know they could be doing things differently! You may get called a tree hugger, but let’s be real, who cares? There’s nothing wrong with loving nature!


    Check out this article’s spread in The Coastal’s Summer 2017 issue – coming June 21!

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    The Coastal
    The Coastal is Jacksonville's newest magazine, founded in 2015 to provide news, reviews, and things to do for young people on the First Coast.