Guest Series: Doug Skiles News4Jax

March 25, 2012

Last summer when I had just taken the role of San Marco Preservation Society president we were informed by certified letter from the Director of Public Works that the city would no longer be maintaining the Town Center landscaping. There were a few newspaper articles, several meetings and lots of emails.

The city claimed it was the intent for the neighborhood groups to maintain the medians and the neighborhood groups felt it was always going to be the responsibility of the city.  A little investigation determined that no formal agreement had ever been signed.  The threat was that if we didn’t take responsibility, the city would rip up the landscaping and put back grass.

As of this article, a temporary agreement had been reached in which the city will continue to maintain the Town Centers while looking for public private partnerships to eventually take the maintenance responsibility.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with our city's maintenance staff on another project in San Marco.  The St Johns Riverkeeper, SMPS and Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens teamed up to install a bioswale in the Lasalle Street right-of-way (adjacent to San Marco Library) to demonstrate how Low Impact Development (LID) techniques can be used to clean stormwater runoff.  The project was entirely privately funded through donations and pro bono work of professionals.

The ultimate challenge turned out to be one that I should have expected: deciding who will be responsible for the maintenance.  Our team was incensed that the city staff could potentially kill this beneficial project over something as basic as maintenance, particularly when everything was being provided to them at no cost.

Deciding it wasn't worth getting into a fight over, we agreed to maintain the system for one year.  If after that period we had not found a permanent solution for maintenance or the city had not agreed to maintain it, we would remove the plants at our expense.

(read more about the project at

I must admit the job of city maintenance is the most thankless I can imagine.  When their budget is cut by 10% nobody in the community cries foul.  They are expected to solve all problems, immediately and at no extra expense.  Political leaders get the glory for the new projects, and then turn it over to these guys for perpetual care.  I would be grumpy, too.

Part of our agreement with the bioswale was that we would keep a log of all maintenance activities.  So, we invited Terry Theriault, P.E., the Chief of Right of Way and Grounds Maintenance, to walk the project with us and talk about what they expected.

I had a dual purpose for the meeting.  Terry was one of the people I considered an obstacle during the approval process.  I wanted to get to know him and understand the challenges they face.  Because we hope to do more bioswale projects in Jacksonville, we understand that we must come to terms with the maintenance aspect.
Taking it further, I realized that we need to become advocates for maintenance in Jacksonville.  This last step is hard for me because I don’t get particularly excited about maintenance.  I love the ‘big-picture’ thinking and planning that goes along with improving our city.  Maintenance is just dull and boring.

I learned from Terry that they break it into two categories each with a separate contract.  One for areas that contain grass and trees (that can mostly be maintained with power equipment) and one for landscaped areas that require hand work (such as weeding and pruning).  The latter is significantly more expensive than the former.  So, with limited resources, the city maintenance staff is usually pushing for grass.

Edgewood Avenue: An example of grass landscaping.

But that mindset overlooks our quality of life.  It puts ‘low-cost’ above ‘beautiful’ and ‘healthy’.  It also ignores the larger cost associated with the intangible factors of living in a city that is polluted and dangerous.

Much of what we can do to improve the health of our city’s greatest natural resource, the St Johns River involves technologies that will require a little more maintenance.  The practice of directing rainwater that has been polluted by our dirty streets, directly into the river, out of sight and out of mind, is a significant detriment.  Using a more natural system of native plants not only cleans the river, it serves as a visual reminder to all who pass by that we live in a natural world, one that we should always be learning from.

Graphic by Content Design Group

Similarly, much of what we can do to make our neighborhoods safer involves bringing a little more nature into our busy world.  As I learned recently from a Next American City blog entry ( studies show that people drive slower beneath a tree canopy than beneath an open sky.  Drivers are also less prone to road rage when surrounded by trees.

Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona

Maintenance is a significant expense for our city and thus an easy target during budget cuts.  Often when we talk about what we can do to improve the city, the conversation centers on exciting new infrastructure or grand public facilities.  Perhaps we need to spend more of our energy doing the little things that make our city an enjoyable place to live.

I would rather have a thousand small interesting things along my journey than a handful of large isolated landmarks.  Just because these interesting things cost a little more to maintain shouldn’t put them at the bottom of the priority list.  When we look at the greater costs associated with pollution and public safety, it seems like a small price to pay.


San Marco by Design

The 14 Parks of San Marco

Sunflowers for Lead - How Plants Clean Toxic Sites

Editorial by Doug Skiles.  Doug lives in San Marco with his wife, three kids and dog.  He is partnered with his wife, Laura, in EnVision|Design + Engineering where they focus on redevelopment of urban property and community planning.  He is currently president of the San Marco Preservation Society.