Florida parks have found a new appreciation during the pandemic
The pandemic has created a new appreciation for Florida’s green space.
Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, Christopher Counts, a landscape designer, went for an evening walk with his wife around their Coral Gables neighborhood. The city had just gone on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the couple was anxious to get out of the house. They walked toward a public golf course — temporarily closed to golfing due to the pandemic — and were surprised by what they saw: Blankets spread out on the fairways; children playing in the sand traps.
“There were people out there with blankets having dinner and wine. They basically turned the sand traps into big sandboxes,” says Counts, a principal at architecture firm Perkins + Will in Miami. “It was a really magical moment.”
If there are any bright spots from the pandemic, he says, it might be that people now have a new appreciation for the outdoors as a source of safe, socially distanced recreation.
Julia Gill Woodward, CEO of the Florida State Parks Foundation, a Tallahassee-based non-profit that raises money and advocates for state parks, says public demand for parks in Florida has increased in recent months, though evidence is anecdotal rather than empirical. Visitation data for 2020 can’t be compared to prior figures, she says, because of state-mandated park closures and reduced capacity requirements last spring and summer.
“I think COVID created an opportunity for folks to say, ‘Hey, let me look up what outdoor recreational activities are around me,’ ” she says. “They realized, ‘wow, I have a state park five miles from me. I should go check it out.’ ”
In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis requested $32 million from the Legislature for state park improvements and resource management in the coming year, which would be more or less in line with annual funding allotments since 2018.
Meanwhile, a number of cities and counties — seemingly undeterred by the pandemic — are pursuing their own parks and trails projects in Florida.
“I think COVID has really transformed the average person’s awareness of how important these spaces are, not only to your physical health, but also to your mental health,” Counts says.
The New ‘It’ Amenity
With more people looking for ways to spend time outdoors, parks might now be the new trendy amenity in commercial real estate.
Water Street Tampa, a joint venture between Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, is a 56- acre mixed-use development with apartments, condos, offices and hotels on Tampa’s waterfront. The project, also home to the University of South Florida’s medical school, will have 13 acres of parks and other public outdoor spaces when it’s completed in 2027.
Additionally, Canopy Club in Miami Beach includes a public park.
“While we have great weather, it’s not always easy to access,” says Nitin Motwani, managing principal of Miami Worldcenter Associates, the master developer of Miami Worldcenter, a 10-block mixed-use development in downtown Miami.
He notes that in addition to creating 200,000 square feet of public outdoor space, Miami Worldcenter is close to two municipal parks — Bayfront Park and Museum Park — as well as the Underdeck, a planned, 33-acre park underneath a redesigned I-395 downtown.
“We’re surrounded by open space, which I think will be more relevant in people’s lives,” Motwani says.
Meg Daly recently got a call from an old friend congratulating her for her success. Daly heads a non-profit that raises money for the Underline, a forthcoming 10-mile linear park below Miami-Dade County’s elevated Metrorail tracks.
Five years earlier, she had taken the friend on a bike tour of the project through Miami, Coral Gables and South Miami, and he’d been skeptical that a park of its size and cost could ever get done.
“He loved the project; he just didn’t think people would stick with it and make it happen,” she says. “I love that we’re proving him wrong.”
Daly, a Miami native whose late father, Parker Thomson, was an attorney wellknown in local charitable and civic circles, came up with the idea for the Underline after breaking both of her arms in a bike accident at Matheson Hammock Park in 2012. “It wasn’t like I was hit by a car. It was, as you say in the computer world, user error,” she laughs
At the time, she was chief marketing officer for ContractRoom, a software startup. With her arms broken, she couldn’t drive and decided to take the Metrorail to a physical therapy appointment in Coconut Grove. While walking to and from the Metrorail, she was struck by the poor condition of the county-owned land “I was like, ‘There’s so much land here, and why aren’t we doing something with it?’ ” she says. She figured out whom in county government to talk to about “a crazy idea” she had to revitalize the area.
“Everyone just smiled and said, ‘That’s a great idea. You go do that,’” she recalls. “Since I wasn’t being told not to do it, I just sort of went and did it.”
Daly, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Friends of the Underline, got help from the University of Miami School of Architecture, which put students to work on creating the project’s first drawings. She then raised enough money to put out a bid for a master plan, ultimately choosing the same firm that designed New York’s elevated High Line linear park.
The plan was ambitious — and expensive — with an estimated construction cost of $120 million. A breakthrough came when the city of Miami agreed to contribute $50 million in park impact fees assessed on future buildings within 500 feet of the corridor. Additionally, Daly secured state and federal grants, public funds collected through the county’s road impact fees and donations from the likes of the Knight Foundation and developer Swire Properties.
In 2018 — six years after her bike accident — construction began on the first phase of the project, a half-mile stretch from the Brickell Metrorail Station to Coral Way. The segment, which she describes as 98% done, includes an outdoor plaza for concerts, fitness equipment, chess and dominoes tables, butterfly gardens and spaces for meditation and yoga.
The second phase, a 2.25-mile-long stretch that goes to Coconut Grove, is to open in 2023. The third and final phase, to open in 2025, will run seven miles to Dadeland.
Daly says she’s now focused on raising money for an endowment to pay for the Underline’s estimated $5 million in annual operations and maintenance costs. She notes that the park will have new lights and crosswalks, separate paths for bikes and pedestrians and benches configured to prevent homeless residents from sleeping on them.
“We’ll have security 24 hours a day,” she says, adding that the park has partnered with the Homeless Trust of Miami- Dade County to refer homeless people to local services. “The more active a place is, the less likely it is to have a homeless problem. As long as you’re following the rules, you’ll be welcome here,” she says.
Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive
About 25 miles northwest of Orlando’s International Drive lies Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, an 11-mile unpaved, one-way path that offers motoring visitors an up-close view of more than 360 different bird species, alligators, bears, bobcats, otters and other animals.
The drive winds along Lake Apopka’s north shore — a testament to the state’s yearslong, multimillion-dollar effort to bring the damaged ecosystem back to health.
In 1941, the state built a levee along the north shore to drain 20,000 acres of shallow marshes for farming. Before then, the lake had been known for its trophy-sized bass, with fish camps lining the shoreline. Over time, phosphorous runoff from the farms polluted the lake, spawning large algae blooms that made it unusable for fishing or just about anything else.
In 1996, the Legislature passed the Lake Apopka Restoration Act, which allowed the St. Johns River Water Management District to set limits on phosphorous discharges and funded the public purchase of northern shore farmland. Eventually, the land was decontaminated and reflooded, allowing wetlands to take root and thrive.
Established in 2015, Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive now attracts hundreds of visitors every weekend. (The drive is open to the public Fridays through Sundays and on federal holidays; access is free.) It has its own Facebook group with more than 7,000 members from around the world. There also are trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding.
“In the past year, we’ve averaged 455 cars a day,” says Erich Marzolf, director of the district’s water and land resources division. He says the drive has grown more popular during the pandemic. “With COVID, people were homeschooling, and this was something they could safely do with their kids,” he says.
Last November, state and local officials gathered in Pasco County to mark the completion of the final gap in a 100-mile bike path stretching from St. Petersburg to SR 50 just west of Brooksville in Hernando County.
As they cut the ceremonial ribbon, a group of cyclists approached from the south and kept going — breaking in the newest segment of the Coast-to-Coast Connector, a yearslong effort to link the state’s east and west coasts via a series of bike trails weaving in and out of nine counties through the middle of Florida.
In Volusia County, a four-mile section is slated to open by 2023, creating an uninterrupted, 130-mile path from Titusville to Clermont in Lake County. When that’s done, the cross-Florida connector’s only major remaining gap will be in Lake and Sumter counties, where about 30 miles of trail are in the early planning stages.
Dale Allen, a board member for the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation, a Tallahassee-based group advocating for the trail’s construction, says it’s good for a variety of reasons: Not only does it provide a safe way for people to get outdoors and exercise, but it also stimulates local economies by boosting property values and attracting more cycling visitors.
“You’ve heard of slow food; well, this is slow tourism. And it really benefits communities because people don’t just blast through in automobiles,” he says.
In 2015, Florida lawmakers passed legislation establishing the SUN (shareduse non-motorized) Trails Program, which receives state funding to finance regional trail projects statewide. The Coast-to-Coast Connector, overseen by state transportation officials in partnership with metropolitan planning organizations, is just one piece of the program. After the cross-Florida connector, the state’s second priority project is the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, a planned bike trail linking St. Augustine and Palatka to Titusville and Daytona.
Allen says that while the program is likely to take “budget hits just like anyone else” amid COVID-19, he’s not too worried about it. “The program has legs under it. It’s wildly popular, and there’s almost no opposition to it,” he says. “When it’s all done and everything is connected, you’ll be able to get on your bike in Pensacola and ride all the way to Key West.”
CEO, Groundwork Jacksonville
As CEO of Groundwork Jacksonville, Ehas leads the city’s non-profit partner in helping to make the 30-mile Emerald Trail a reality. The project includes pedestrian and bike paths, linear parks and restored creeks surrounding Jacksonville’s urban core. Construction of the first segment — a 1.3-mile stretch linking the LaVilla neighborhood to the Brooklyn neighborhood and the Rail Yard District — is scheduled to begin this spring. Ultimately, the trail will connect 14 neighborhoods, downtown and the St. Johns River.
- Groundwork’s role: “We lead on design, and the city helps fund that. Our first campaign was to raise money for the design of the first trail segment. Our goal was $1 million, and we met that. Our goal now is to raise all our share of the design cost over the next three years. We think it’s going to cost about $600,000 a mile to design. If we can get it all designed sooner rather than later, instead of one year at a time, then I think we’ll have a really attractive package to go after a federal grant to help with construction.”
- Design priorities: “It has to be both functional and beautiful. It needs to be safe, and it needs to be shaded because it’s hot here. We want it to be low maintenance. We’re planting almost exclusively native plants, so that helps with providing food for wildlife.”
- Equitable access: “A lot of the neighborhoods that the trail will go through are historic African- American neighborhoods. To me, this is an equity project. There are 30 miles of trails where people can get around without a car, and it’s bringing the ability to exercise right to them.”
- Gentrification: “In the North Riverside neighborhood, we’re working with residents to create an equitable development plan. In that neighborhood, over 60% of the single-family homes are rental properties. That’s how you get displaced. We’re concerned about it because that’s the opposite of our mission. Groundwork’s mission is that the folks who’ve lived in these neighborhoods get to stay and prosper and not get kicked out. Part of the plan has to look at how we acquire vacant and abandoned land and some rental property to keep housing affordable.”
To the Dogs ...
A surge in pet ownership in recent years has fueled demand for dog parks, the fastest-growing segment of city parks in the U.S. In 2009, the country’s 100 largest cities had a total of 466 dog parks (fenced-in public spaces where dogs are allowed off leash). Today, that number is 841, according to the San Francisco-based non-profit Trust for Public Land. On a per-capita basis, Tampa ranks sixth nationwide, with 3.9 dog parks for every 100,000 residents. St. Petersburg, the only other Florida city in the top 20, has 2.3 dog parks per 100,000 residents.
‘Everybody Loves Them’
Shortly after being elected mayor of St. Petersburg in 2001, Rick Baker had the city’s first dog park built. Surprised by the event’s large turnout, Baker ordered the city to keep building dog parks, seeing them as a popular yet inexpensive way to improve quality of life and attract businesses. By the end of his tenure in 2010, the city had opened five more dog parks.
“I thought, ‘Ok, they’re cheap. Everybody loves them, and I want to get elected. I’m going to build dog parks,’ ” he recalled during a 2011 book tour for The Seamless City, an autobiographical look at his two terms as mayor.
Baker now works for commercial real estate developer DevMar, which has several projects underway in Central and Southwest Florida — including a planned apartment complex with its own dog park in Plant City. He also is a downtown revitalization consultant for a large commercial landowner in Winter Haven, where he has advocated for a planned downtown dog park.
“If you go to a dog park and walk up to people and ask, ‘Which is your dog,’ you immediately have a new group of friends,” Baker says. “They’re great socializers for the city, and they’re good for crime prevention because they get people out and about. They’re just good in a million different ways.”
Florida’s State Parks
In 2019, Florida’s state parks had about 29 million visitors — more than the Magic Kingdom’s 21 million annual visitors.
In the late 1920s, residents in Highlands County grew concerned that a scenic stretch of trees near Sebring would be sold and turned to farmland. They tried to get the federal government to designate it a national park, but officials deemed it too small for national park status.
Local conservationists then raised enough money to buy the property and set it aside for preservation. Meanwhile, workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the programs created during the Great Depression by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, laid out trails for public recreation.
When the Florida Park Service was created in 1935, Highlands Hammock became the state’s first official park. In the same year, several other sites, including Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach and Gold Head Branch in Clay County, received state park status.
Today, the Florida Park Service manages 175 parks, trails and historic sites spanning nearly 800,000 acres and 100 miles of beaches. Some highlights of the state parks system:
The 77,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park — Florida’s biggest state park — stretches about 20 miles at the edge of the Everglades, from Alligator Alley to the Tamiami Trail. A number of endangered and threatened species, including the Florida panther and black bear, make the preserve their home.
Gilchrist Blue Springs, the newest addition to Florida’s state parks system, lies along the Santa Fe River in Gilchrist County. The state acquired the 407-acre property from the family of longtime owner Ruth Kirby for $5.25 million in 2017. Kirby, who died in 1989, turned the property into a local recreation spot after receiving it as a gift from her former boss and companion, Ed C. Wright. The park now bears her name: Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park.
In 1995, Kirby’s family also sold Troy Spring along the Suwannee River in Lafayette County to the state for use as a public park. A sunken ship from the Civil War rests on the bottom of the 70-foot-deep spring.
Honeymoon Island State Park, arguably Florida’s most popular state park, attracts more than a million visitors a year. Located in Pinellas County, the 385-acre park has four miles of beaches and a three-mile wooded trail. There’s also a ferry that travels across St. Joseph Sound to another state park, Caladesi Island.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the country’s first underwater park, was established in 1963 off of Key Largo. Named after a former Miami Herald editor who pushed for marine life conservation, the 25-mile-long park is home to more than 260 species of tropical fish and about 80 species of coral. A submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ — a replica of the Italian original Christ of the Abyss — attracts thousands of divers every year.
With nine miles of beaches and dunes, St. George Island State Park in Northwest Florida is the longest beachfront state park.
A Show of Support
The endangered longleaf pine supports more than 30 rare species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises and indigo snakes. A year ago, the Florida State Parks Foundation launched a fundraising campaign to plant more than 25,000 longleaf pine seedlings in Florida’s state parks by Earth Day 2021. The effort went better than expected. With a $50,000 matching grant from Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, the Tallahassee-based foundation has raised enough money to plant more than 90,000 longleaf pine seedlings.
Florida’s National Parks
- The National Park Service oversees 11 national parks in Florida.
- At 729,000 acres, Big Cypress National Preserve in Southwest Florida is about the size of Rhode Island. It helps preserve the Everglades and marine ecosystems on the southwest coast.
- Covering 270 square miles southeast of Miami, Biscayne National Park is home to part of the Florida Reef, the only barrier coral reef in the U.S. and the third-largest barrier coral reef in the world.
- Located on a barrier island between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville, Canaveral National Seashore has nearly 25 miles of beaches and dunes — the longest stretch of undeveloped seashore in Florida.
- Built by the Spanish out of coquina bricks in 1672, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine is the oldest masonry fort in the U.S. DeSoto National Memorial in Bradenton is where 16th-century Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto is thought to have landed after sailing from Cuba.
- Dry Tortugas National Park, a seven-key archipelago about 70 miles west of Key West, includes Fort Jefferson, an unfinished, 19th-century brick fortress popular with tourists.
- Everglades National Park is the third-largest national park in the contiguous U.S., with 1.5 million acres. The park’s wildlife includes a number of rare and endangered species, including the American crocodile and manatee.
- Fort Caroline National Memorial marks the site near where French colonists settled in 1564 along the banks of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville.
- Originally used as a lookout post for Spanish settlers in St. Augustine, Fort Matanzas National Monument preserves a watchtower and about 300 acres of coastal environment.
- Gulf Islands National Seashore is composed of a string of barrier islands stretching from the Florida Panhandle to Mississippi.
- Comprising six sites in the Jacksonville area, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve traces 6,000 years of human history.
National Forests in Florida
- The USDA Forest Service manages three national forests and a scenic trail system in Florida.
- Established in 1908, Ocala National Forest is the state’s oldest national forest. A fourth of the world’s scrub jay population lives among its 386,996 acres.
- Osceola National Forest, established in 1931, encompasses 236,775 acres of forested woodlands and swamps.
- At 573,521 acres, Apalachicola National Forest, established in 1936, is Florida’s largest national forest. It’s considered the best place in the U.S. to spot a red-cockaded woodpecker.
- The Florida National Scenic Trail — one of 11 designated national scenic trails in the U.S. — encompasses about 1,500 miles of marked pathways that meander through parks and wildlife areas around the state.
District Ranger Apalachicola National Forest, Crawfordville
Roseman, a California native, became a forest ranger because, “I like hiking and mountain biking, and I wanted to get paid to go and be in those elements,” he says. He has a bachelor’s degree in ecology and management from the University of Idaho and previously was a deputy ranger at Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah. He moved to Florida a year ago to manage the Apalachicola National Forest.
“I manage approximately 600,000 acres in four counties: Liberty, Leon, Wakulla and Franklin. We have hiking trails, some smaller waterways for people to go swimming and paddling and boat ramps to get on the Ochlockonee or Apalachicola rivers. Along with the state, we provide an opportunity for hunters to come camp in the forest. That’s the recreation component, and then we have a forestry component with two facets: One is to harvest timber to support the economy, and the other is to grow and restore healthy forests, which is the No. 1 priority of the agency right now. We also have one of the largest prescribed fire programs in the U.S.
“My favorite spot is the Munson Hills Trail system, where the Tallahassee urban area and the national forest meet. For Florida, it has a little bit of topography. It goes through beautiful long-leaf pine stands with really nice wiregrass understory. It’s highly used, but it’s spread out and big enough so that you don’t feel like you’re encumbered with a bunch of other people. I probably go there twice a month with my family for walking or biking.
“We strive to find a balance between recreation, timber, prescribed fire and wildlife opportunities. Someone wants to put in a new road or power line, or we have to burn something, and that burning is taking place on someone’s favorite trail. It’s an incredible dance of taking in all the scientific data, public opinion and public policy and then figuring out what works best out on the landscape. We get it right, I think, more often than not.”
Read more in Florida Trend's March issue.
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