As Brittney Miller grew up in Sanford, Florida, she watched as some of the natural spaces she loved were slowly devoured by encroaching development. As an environmental advocate raised by suburbia, Miller works to rectify this dynamic juxtaposition. She asks: How can I oppose the development of a community that fostered the person I am today? How can I cope with a greener past becoming nothing more than a distant memory?
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is The Marjorie’s contributor series featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state.
As a child in Sanford, Florida, I remember watching horses graze in the pasture down the street. I named my personal favorite, a tanned and toned beauty, after the hairstyle I often donned.
Now, townhomes cover what used to be “Ponytail’s Home.” The only green space left is the artificial retention pond that the complex encircles. When I drive in, I sometimes see a stray bird in the space that once belonged to those horses down the street — the same ground, but an entirely new and manufactured landscape.
And that’s not the only change. Big-horned cattle disappeared from the pasture near Dollar Tree where my mom used to take my sisters and me for “just one toy each.” That pasture is gone, too, mutating into yet another shopping complex. The pond I used to bike by is now completely filled in. The hiking trails my dad used to take us on are closed for construction, clearing the way for a new section of the interstate that will be a couple blocks from my house.
The town I grew up in had sunk its sprawling concrete roots into the rich soils of Central Florida. And this got me thinking: What else has been lost in this suburban sprawl?
Prior to the 1830s, Central Florida was Seminole territory. Settlers colonized the region throughout the 19th century, attracted to the beauty of the St. Johns River and the agricultural promises here. In 1877, the City of Sanford was officially incorporated.
The town’s growing population soon transformed this land into an agricultural epicenter. By 1924, more than 50,000 citrus trees graced Seminole County. After freezes stunted citrus production, many farmers turned to growing celery instead. Sanford’s residents dubbed their town the “Celery Capital of the World.”
Between 1920 and 1950, Sanford’s population had grown by 6,377 residents. That growth continued into the 21st century: Sanford has witnessed a more than 400% increase in residents over the past 70 years alone.
As acres of green spaces slowly transitioned to buildings and roads, natural inhabitants like animals and plants were pushed out of my hometown. And with them went my childhood memories of wild Sanford.
I can see remnants of Sanford’s rural lands, but only just. Powerlines stretch near the field I once playfully sloshed through during thick Florida downpours that left me coated with rain and stray grass. Animals wander through our neighborhood: a mama bear and her cubs, three deer with hooves that clatter against the sidewalk, a lone river otter searching for an aquatic habitat.
The more I think about this siege of suburbia, the more it seems like nature and its original occupants have been slowly displaced from my hometown as I’ve grown up.
Even as these environmental ties have been lost, suburbia has shaped me. The school where I spent nine years, the place my parents credit for “giving me a good head on my shoulders,” is nestled between an apartment complex and a bank two towns over. The soccer fields I played on for a decade were responsible for forging treasured friendships. And I played in the rain in the streets of my neighborhood just as often as I did in the fields nearby.
I have treasured memories of going to the movie theater. Learning to drive in an empty mall parking lot. Going on my first date at a nearby restaurant. Sprinting to my neighbor’s house after school to write songs. Not only did these events, small and large, make me who I am today, but they also occurred within a seven-mile radius of my home – because of suburbia.
And what scares me most is how I almost didn’t notice. It’s taken me years to realize that the few natural havens that punctuated my childhood are either persistently threatened by development or have already fallen victim to it.
As an environmental advocate raised by suburbia, this dynamic juxtaposition is difficult to rectify. How can I oppose the development of a community that fostered the person I am today? How can I cope with a greener past becoming nothing more than a distant memory?
I recognize that I don’t have these answers, but I do have the choice to acknowledge this complex relationship. This dual-identity has infused my career as a science communicator.
And while the rural spaces I used to cherish no longer exist, nature isn’t altogether absent from Sanford, Florida.
I’ve learned to look for glimpses of the natural world I love so much in the concrete shell of suburbia. I have seen that wild spirit in the waves of Lake Monroe, among the gators roaming St. Johns River, and in the native plants in my childhood home’s garden.
The green is not gone. I have chosen to advocate for a wiser future that can integrate the natural with the developed.
Brittney Miller is an undergraduate student at the University of Florida pursuing a dual-degree in biology and journalism. She has worked in both research labs and newsrooms throughout her collegiate journey – a background that has cultivated her rich passion for communicating science. With clips published in more than 65 publications across the country, she aspires to continue her path as a science writer and communicator after graduation.
Photo Credits: Brittney Miller