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Students evaluate public beach accessibility and quality

May 15, 2019 | Hannah Gainer |

K. Yoland, Private Beach, Carrabelle, Florida, 2019

Dr. Jocelyn Evans, professor of political science and Honors Core 2 professor, has been working for several years on evaluating the quality of public spaces. The Honors Core 2 class theme for the 2019 spring semester was community. The course focused on the concept of community through several lenses, one of which was territoriality.

Evans has drawn from the work of  Dr. Vikas Mehta, professor of Urbanism, for her investigations around community. Mehta developed a composite score for evaluating the quality of public parks, the Public Space Index (PSI). He designed the PSI to measure the inclusiveness of public space by rating how accessible the space is to varying individuals and groups and how well their various activities and behaviors are supported or not. According to SEGD, Mehta’s work focuses on the role of design and planning in creating a more responsive, equitable, stimulating and supportive environment. He works on various dimensions of urbanity through the exploration of place as a social and ecological setting and as a sensorial art.

Recently, territorial disputes have become more common with competing claims of ownership over beachfront access. Landowners have claimed to hold exclusive rights to beach access on their property. Other residents have claimed public ownership of the beach as a natural resource. This debate has raised questions concerning the geographic boundaries of beaches and where exactly public access begins.

In “Evaluating Public Space,” Mehta states that public space refers to the access and use of the space rather than its ownership. Hence, privately owned spaces that are accessible to the public qualify as public space and those publicly owned spaces that are not accessible to the public do not. Public space will connote not only the spaces between buildings but also the objects and artifacts therein, and the building edges that help define the physical boundaries of the spaces.

On March 23, 2018 the CS/HB 631: Possession of Real Property bill was approved by the Governor of Florida. In essence, the bill sought to prohibit a governmental entity from enacting a common law or ordinance overriding the use of privately-owned dry sand areas of beachfront property.

However, customary use does allow a local government to adopt an ordinance that allows public access to the private dry sand area of beachfront property. This may occur where the use has been ancient, reasonable, without interruption and free from dispute.

The Honors Core 2 class project took a firsthand observation of a sample of Gulf Coast beaches in Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa Counties. Evans modified the Mehta index to develop a scoring system for public beach access. Students’ work built upon the undergraduate research conducted by previous cohorts of the freshman class of honors students.

Evans and her students worked with GIS students and Dr. Derek Morgan, UWF assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Together, they worked to assess the quality of public beaches, with hopes of making the data publicly accessible as a resource for decision making.

Of Morgan, Evans said, “We've been working together for several years, and he has always wanted to modify the PSI and evaluate the beach. He also really enjoys using participant GIS as a methodology -- it's basically asking human subjects in an environment to look at a map of the environment and indicate their feelings about specific aspects of the space.”

Students used paper sketch maps to capture perceptions of spatial access and noted features on shaping space utilization.

The students also worked with artist K. Yoland. Yoland’s work addresses the problematic aspects of citizenship, through photography, video, performance and sound. With Yoland, students investigated the public beach access conversation through the use of art.  

After seeing installations of Yoland’s work and learning more about Yoland, Evans felt that Yoland could help the students "see" the environment more closely, more deeply, more critically and more philosophically.

Honors Core 2 students featured both aspects of their work during UWF’s 2019 Student Scholar Symposium and Faculty Research Showcase.

The honors class split into three groups, each group being assigned different aspects of research for this project. Here’s what students said about their experiences.

The first group focused on the legal geography and cultural influences of beaches.

“For our portion to this project, we focused on legal geography and its connection to PSI and Sketch Mapping. My specific part was researching how legal geographers and us as students were similar and the process that we went through, the subjective lines that go into sketch mapping, as well as legal geographers and the laws that they make,” said Jessica Butler, honors student.  

“We focused on the cultural influences of the PSI of the beaches. It was a predominantly white area and it was hard to bring in cultural differences, we were trying to figure out how we could fix that. We conducted sketch mapping and received different opinions and observations,” said Brittany Duffy, honors student.

The second group focused on using sketch mapping to evaluate public beaches in Florida.

“My group’s poster is specifically on sketch mapping which is a Geographic Information Systems (GIS), it’s a computer software. Our project involved us going to local beaches and determining how people were using territoriality. Our project in particular used sketch mapping, which allowed for us to geographically see where these encroachments on territoriality were happening. So, it essentially allowed us to look at a map and see that these specific areas were inaccessible for these reasons,” said Elizabeth Barrett, honors student.

The third group focused on the illusion versus reality of beach accessibility.

“Our portion of the project is about beach accessibility and the topic of privatization of beaches in Florida. We went to a couple different beaches around the area of Pensacola and surveyed it along the scale developed by Dr. Vikas Mehta and examined different aspects of the beach, such as, safety, inclusiveness and used that for the overall topic of how accessible is the beach. We went to some public and private beaches, so we could see the difference in the divide between the two. We developed a few different charts and analyzed it based off a scale. We concluded based on the results from the different beaches that should beaches really be privatized and if the ones that are public, should they be more accessible or are they good the way they are. We wanted to take a different look at these beaches and get a better understanding of what is going on, on Florida beaches,” said Lucas Kimmel, honors student.