The city of Jacksonville sprung up from the marshland, farmland, and river ways of Northern Florida, after numerous cultural insertions and wars stretching back centuries. Still a major port today, Jacksonville established itself as an integral Southern trade hub in the mid-19th century, as the population settled along the St. Johns River. It was here where business took place, Jacksonville neighborhoods were established, and the population grew.

In 1840, the population of Jacksonville was around 350 residents – nearly 2,500 times smaller than it is today. With barely 2,000 residents by the end of the civil war, Jacksonville’s population increased to 17,000 by the late 1880s due to the economic benefits of serving as a Reconstruction era port and Gilded Age winter resort community. This expansion was culminated in 1887 with the annexation of neighboring suburbs such as LaVilla, East Jacksonville and Fairfield, which are all now recognized as a part of the city’s historic urban core.

Jacksonville following the Great Fire of 1901.

After being destroyed by the third largest urban fire in US history in 1901, Jacksonville’s population jumped 103% by the 1910 census as a result of a reconstruction boom that transformed the city into Florida’s major railroad and maritime gateway. By 1950, Jacksonville had grown to become a compact 30.2 square mile city with a population density of 6,772 residents per square mile. Much of the city’s early 20th century pedestrian scale growth pattern was a result of a 60 mile network of streetcar lines operated by the Jacksonville Traction Company and its predecessors between 1879 and 1936.

An aerial of a pre-World War II walkable Jacksonville.

It was during the years following the end of World War II when Jacksonville (along with nearly every major city across the country) saw the most dramatic shift in its metropolitan population. In 1950, two-thirds of Duval County’s population resided within the 30.2 square mile city limits of Jacksonville. During the decade that would follow, Jacksonville’s population declined by 3,245 while Duval County’s increased by 151,382. This abrupt and historical change in the region’s land development pattern was largely fueled by the construction of the Jacksonville expressway system and racially motivated public policies leading to the mid-20th century phenomenon referred to as “white flight”. This era marked the true beginning of Jacksonville’s autocentric sprawl growth pattern largely still in place today.

A redline map identifying most of the original city of Jacksonville as “hazardous” and “definitely declining”.

Jacksonville Decennial Population 1900-2016 [U.S. Bureau of the Census]

2016 880,619 2010 821,784 2000 735,503 1990 635,230 1980 540,920 1970 528,865 1960 201,030 1950 204,275 1940 173,065 1930 129,549 1920 91,558 1910 57,699 1900 28,429

Duval County Decennial Population 1900-2016 [U.S. Bureau of the Census]

2016 926,255 2010 864,263 2000 778,879 1990 672,971 1980 571,003 1970 528,865 1960 455,411 1950 304,029 1940 210,143 1930 155,503 1920 113,540 1910 75,163 1900 39,733

The city’s outward expansion was highlighted during the economic boom after the second World War, when the city broke ground on great municipal and civic projects intended to retrofit and reshape its blighted industrial waterfront.

As suburban development began to pick up steam within the region, the city’s fortunes were also negatively impacted by Desegregation, a decline in passenger rail travel and the containerization of maritime shipping. Desegregation led to “black flight” which resulted in the closing of Brewster Hospital and the economic destruction of African-American business districts across the city. The decline in passenger rail travel led to the eventual 1974 closure of the largest railroad station south of Washington, D.C., the Jacksonville Terminal. Railyards and port activity that were originally the economic lifeblood of downtown, relocated to areas outside of the city’s core, taking thousands of jobs and support industries and businesses with them. In addition, decades old manufacturers like the Gibbs Corporation and Kerr McGee Chemical Company ceased operations laying off thousands. The ultimate result was residents moving out of the city, taking their economic support with them, and the city subsequently suffering from it.

The Jacksonville Brewing Company was once of several major long time manufacturers to cease operation between 1950 and 1970.

The 1960’s also hosted considerable cohesion in North Florida, as Jacksonville merged with Duval County in 1968. This “consolidation” led to Jacksonville becoming a 747 square mile city with 528,865 residents by the 1970 census, resulting in a 163.1% healthy growth rate over the previous decade.

Examining U.S. census information tells a tale of a city and county on polar opposite ends of the “growth spectrum”. A city is healthy if it is growing. It is in decay if growth rates are in decline. Duval County’s growth during the 1950s was a very healthy 49.8%, according to the 1960 census. Adversely, Jacksonville’s growth rate during the 1960’s was -1.6%. Let’s look at a 30 year stretch of population growth for Jacksonville and Duval County:

JACKSONVILLE growth rate

1950 18% 1960 -1.60% 1970 163.10%

DUVAL growth rate

1950 44.70% 1960 49.80% 1970 16.10%

To launch from a declination in citywide population, to a beaming 163% growth rate within a decade is a considerable achievement. While the impressive numbers hid what was taking place within the pre-consolidated city urban core, they also showcased the county’s strengthening development pattern based around the accommodation of the automobile.

Now long demolished, Jax Center was one of the first autocentric shopping centers to open in Jacksonville. Jax Center was located along North Main Street in the neighborhood of Panama Park. Panama Park was a late 19th century railroad suburb later engulfed by mid-20th century sprawl.

Through the 1970s, growth pushed south and east prompting major commercial projects like the establishment of Arlington’s Regency Square Mall and Clay County’s Orange Park Mall. The sprawl eventually reached the shoreline too. For example, once a small early 20th century resort community miles from the city, during the 1970s, Jacksonville Beach’s population increased 21%, which is a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since.

As Jacksonville’s population has incrementally increased since the turn of the 21th century, development pressure has spread into neighboring counties. Today, Clay County residents suffer with the longest average commute times in the state and neighboring St. Johns County ranks as one of the top counties in the country for highest percentage of growth. National trends and local construction and development projects suggest that downtown Jacksonville is finally in the midst of a resurgence as well.

For Jacksonville to survive economically long term, solutions will have to be found to reinvent struggling inner city neighborhoods like Sugar Hill.

However, Jacksonville’s real battle to alter the sprawling growth pattern that has already spilled over into neighboring counties isn’t downtown. It’s in the walkable inner city neighborhoods that millennials and hipsters avoid and aging inner ring suburbia that fueled autocentric sprawl five decades ago. Is the city ready for the fight that will involve redeveloping brownfield sites in poverty stricken districts, retrofitting out-of-date suburbia and finding new uses for increasingly vacant strip malls and big box retail outparcels? Only time will tell.

About the author: Evan Halloran is a Copywriter for RedZone Realty Group and a longtime resident of North Florida.


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Original article copy edited by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at