Gainesville: the quintessential urbanizing college town

Home to the University of Florida, with an estimated 2016 population of 131,591, Gainesville is the largest city in North Central Florida and one rapidly redeveloping into a walkable community.

Named in honor of second Seminole War US Army commander, General Edmund P. Gaines, Gainesville was founded in 1854 to serve as the Alachua County Seat along David Yulee’s railroad line between Fernandina Beach and Cedar Key. In 1905, the passage of the Florida Legislature’s Buckman Act, consolidated existing publicly supported higher education institutions of the state, led to the city being selected as the location for the University of Florida (UF). This early 20th century decision transformed Gainesville from a rural community, 70 miles southwest of Jacksonville, into a quintessential college town.

By the 1960s Civil Rights era, Gainesville had become a liberal city in the heart of conservative North Central Florida, known by many as “The Berkeley of the South”. Now home to one of the nation’s largest universities, the city is making considerable progress with the revitalization of its urban core into a genuine walkable mixed-use community.

An early leader in implementing road diets, urban off-road shared use paths, and other complete streets strategies, current redevelopment is being driven by UF, mid-rise multi-family housing and the development of a 40-acre mixed-use project between UF and downtown called Innovation Square. Even national chains associated with suburban strip mall development, such as Publix Super Markets, Target and McDonald’s, have embraced the city’s push for pedestrian friendly site design with their most recent investments, creating a pedestrian scale scene that is typically associated with much larger cities.

However, the city’s economic renaissance could have an adverse impact on maintaining its sense of place and character, if not properly integrated into the surrounding historic context. In 2017, Gainesville found itself included on the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 to Save” list of the most threatened historic properties in the state. Designed to increase the public’s awareness of the urgent need to save historic resources, empower local preservationists and preservation groups in their efforts to preserve Florida’s rich history, the 11 to Save program identified a concern towards the future of historic neighborhoods and resources surrounding UF’s main campus:

“Like many college towns across the state, Gainesville, Florida is experiencing rapid growth and development as the University of Florida expands. The goal of increased density is threatening historical, architectural, and cultural resources in neighborhoods adjacent to the main campus. Zoning changes have resulted in the loss or planned demolition of numerous un-protected historic structures along major thoroughfares including Southwest 13th Street and West University Avenue.”

A recently released survey commissioned by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation suggests the same millennial generation the city wants to attract and retain, prefers to live, work and play in neighborhoods with historic buildings with 97% appreciating the value of historic preservation. According to Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “the revitalization of many urban communities is being driven in large part by the influx of young people seeking authentic experiences and places with character that are found in historic neighborhoods.”

Home to a major university with more than 52,000 students enrolled in 2016 and a rapidly expanding medical center in UF Health Shands, don’t expect the densification of Gainesville to abruptly stop any time soon. Regardless, like many urbanizing college communities, how successful the city ultimately becomes in the future may significantly rely on its ability to seamlessly integrate new development with the preservation of its historic character and unique sense of place.

UF Health’s proposed Heart & Vascular and Neuromedicine Hospitals (UF Health)

Even so, experiencing Gainesville’s rebirth in person is defintely worth serious consideration for any one interested in architecture, history, urban planning and stimulating economic opportunity in established neighborhoods.

Urban Gainesville Photo Tour

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro and — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at