Metropolitan Park System

The San Juan Avenue bridge over the Cedar River in Lake Shore. This section of Jacksonville’s Westside was proposed to become a part of a massive urban green belt and park system circling the city’s urban core during the Great Depression.

Jacksonville’s Metropolitan Park System is a story of an opportunity that failed to materialize locally. The Great Depression hit Jacksonville and Florida hard. New construction had virtually stopped and officials warned that 24,000 Jaxsons faced starvation. Shortly after being elected, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1933. The WPA was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. It also operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects during the Great Depression.

It fed children and redistributed food, clothing, and housing. Almost every community in the United States had a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency between 1935 and 1943. In 1934, to put Jacksonville citizens back to work, the WPA offered to develop a 14-mile, 3,500-acre metropolitan park system for the City. The urban green space would have connected the mouth of the Ribault River, moving west until reaching Cedar Creek. From that point, the park would have followed Cedar Creek and the Ortega River, ending where the Ortega meets the St. Johns, forming a greenbelt around urban Jacksonville. A major part of this plan would have been to connect the Ribault and Ortega Rivers at their headwaters, thus virtually converting urban Jacksonville into an island with miles of driveways, walks, bike paths and picnic shelters.

The WPA saw this urban park system as something that would stimulate economic development throughout Jacksonville. It was its belief that the newly created waterway would drain vast areas of the westside while also stimulating development along the park borders, which would repay the park’s capital cost investment. This line of thinking was supported by Jacksonville financier Ed Ball, who claimed it would generate $30 million to the city annually in economic impact. Ninah Holden Cummer promoted the development of this space as well, telling the city council that a city without a vision would perish. To entice the city to move forward with the park plan, the WPA offered to purchase the necessary needed to construct the urban greenbelt.

However, what could have been Jacksonville’s version of San Diego’s Balboa Park or New York’s Central Park would not happen. Jacksonville’s elected leaders at the time did not see the value of spending money on fourteen miles of parkland when residents could already visit the woods any time on their own.

S-Line Urban Greenway

Linking the neighborhoods of New Town and Durkeeville with Springfield and Brentwood near Gateway Town Center, the 4.8-mile S-Line Urban Greenway was completed in 2008. However, Jacksonville’s first dedicated urban bike trail is constructed on a corridor that was originally known as the Jacksonville Belt Railroad.

To bring several early railroads into a common terminal, the Jacksonville Belt Railroad was constructed in 1886 around the north side of Jacksonville to connect the Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad with the Florida Railway and Navigation Company depot at the foot of Hogan Street in downtown. By 1900, the railroad was owned and operated by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad (SAL). In 1967, the SAL merged with its longtime river, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL), to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. Former SAL routes became known as the S-Line, while former ACL routes became recognized as the A-Line. With a network of duplicate routes through Jacksonville’s urban core, the S-Line was abandoned during the 1980s between Norwood and the former Jacksonville Terminal in LaVilla.

During the early 2000s, the opportunity to create this multi use trail through the Rails-to-trails Conservancy’s Urban Pathways Initiative came as a result of the City of Jacksonville gaining possession of the abandoned railroad right-of-way. The Urban Pathways Initiative links community-based advocates and professionals across the nation working to encourage physical activity, active transportation and recreation options in neighborhoods surrounding urban pathways. Partners of the project included the City of Jacksonville Parks and Recreation Department, the Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida and the Durkeeville Historical Society. Funding was provided by the Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida and the Kresge Foundation.

Emmett Reed Park during the 1970s. The railroad is now the S-Line Urban Greenway trail. Courtesy of the City of Jacksonville.

Editorial by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at