Jacksonville’s flooding is a result of a century of attempts to tame and channel the St. Johns River and its tributaries, such as McCoys Creek and Hogans Creek. Some of these interventions have tried to channel water in certain directions, while others have tried to constrain its flow for the sake of efficient shipping and expanded development. With its waterways constricted, and its lowlands filled in, by the 1950s, industry set up shop on the city’s higher ground. Draper’s Egg & Poultry Company built a chicken processing plant and The E.O. Fertilizer Company set up a factory near where McCoys Creek meets the St. Johns River, releasing chemicals and further destroying native ecosystems. In addition to this industrial pollution, which disproportionately impacted residents living nearby, today, these blacktopped areas can no longer absorb storm waters.

After decades of mismanaging flood risks, residents and local grassroots organizations are now working with city officials to finally take a markedly different approach. Gloria McNair, the manager of community engagement and equity for Groundwork Jacksonville, is leading an effort to rehabilitate McCoys and Hogans creeks. She hopes to develop a remediated green space that connects city neighborhoods through what’s known as the Emerald Trail: 30 walkable miles that will encircle the urban core.

For many living in Jacksonville, the plan, which began in 2014 with a feasibility study, was seen as a long-needed shift from a water management model focused on building more barriers to one that embraces the natural power of waterways and their surrounding ecosystems. But some residents feared the improvements would have unintended consequences. “‘Do you think once there’s this beautiful trail right here outside my home, that they’re going to allow me to stay here?” McNair recalls one resident of North Riverside, a Black neighborhood near McCoys Creek, asking her.

Over the past five years, the same residents who were once skeptical about the project have become the Emerald Trail’s greatest advocates. At a recent event called Creek Fest, many offered feedback on proposed designs of the Emerald Trail system. Six local residents have served as technicians to perform water monitoring on McCoys creek, and a team of three residents serve on the McCoys creek task force, which meets with city officials and architects to ensure that residents’ desires for amenities and how they’d like to interact with the creek are included as plans evolve. The effort is a prime example of the kind of approach that could be significantly amplified by funding from the Biden administration’s Justice40 commitment, which mandates that residents living in “disadvantaged communities” receive the benefits of at least 40 percent of federal investment in clean energy and climate resiliency projects.

Directly and meaningfully involving residents has also improved the city’s overall safety. When providing feedback on designs, residents pointed out that while permanently closing some streets by creating cul de sacs to let the creek expand would be beneficial, closing off certain overpasses could trap residents in the event of a flood — a block-specific dynamic that planners were not attuned to. “When we talk about public private partnerships, that [should] include residents, the stakeholders of the community,” McNair said. “You need to have their input, their feedback and their support when you’re moving forward, especially in a project that’s going to affect them so directly.”

Read the full article about community-centered climate action at Grist.