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Those Long, Skinny, Green Parks 

by Noel Grove, Land and People, Fall 1994  
Reprinted with permission from the Trust for Public Land (TPL). To obtain a sample copy of Land and People magazine, please call (415) 495-4014 or to view previous issues visit TPL's Web site at

The idea is so American one wonders why greenways didn't evolve along with rodeos, powwows, and national parks.We're a nation of trails, of movement, exploration, and pioneering. We memorialize the routes to our westward expansion—the Cumberland Gap, the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Our romantic lore includes Hiawatha padding along well-beaten forest paths. But the current explosion of greenways as linear escape routes for urbanites is barely a decade old. 

Greenway. The term sounds so simple that it often invites misinterpretation. Is it a vegetable garden? A golf course? The builders of a well-tended Virginia toll road into downtown Washington are calling it a greenway. Is it? 

"Greenways are many things to many people," says Chris Brown, Deputy Chief of the National Park Service's Recreation Resources Assistance Division. "And that's one of their virtues. On a single project, neighbors, walkers, recreational hikers, transportation planners, and wildlife lovers can come together to make it all happen. But ultimately, a greenway does have some definition. It connects community resources, it's linear, and it's vegetated. Think of greenways as those long, skinny, green parks." 

As thousands of rail corridors, canals, and other transportation routes are abandoned, converting them to multi-use trails has become the full-time job of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a leader in adding total miles to the nation's growing greenway system." I've seen nothing but more projects almost everywhere," said Conservancy director David Burwell. Last summer, the Washington, D.C.-based organization opened its 600th rail-turned-trail, bringing the total length of Conservancy-influenced greenways to 7,000 miles, up from just over a thousand miles nine years ago. 

Groups like the Rails to Trails Conservancy, along with the Trust for Public Land, are bringing their planning, organizing, and technical skills to help states take stock of their greenway opportunities. In Florida, Governor Lawton Chiles last year established the Florida Greenways Commission, charged with coming up with a plan to develop a statewide network of greenways. One thread of the growing greenway network is along some sixty miles of abandoned rail lines in central Florida. TPL has already helped assemble a 17-mile segment of the West Orange Greenway for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. A goal is to extend the greenway along the entire sixty miles and into popular outlying recreation areas, the Wekiva River State Preserve to the northeast and the Withlacoochee State Forest to the west. 

Greenways are not meant to stand by themselves, but to link a number of outdoor opportunities in a continuous corridor, a traversible string of green pearls. A greenway might be a path surrounded by just enough natural vegetation to mask the sights and sounds of modern mechanization and construction, bringing brief respite to city people. Or it might connect them with a larger experience such as a spacious city park, then lead to a state arboretum, run on to a wildlife refuge, and wind through bucolic farmland until it reaches a historic grain mill or battlefield. 

Greenways aim to bring the outdoors to you, instead of the reverse. Without one nearby, you might drive miles to reach a public park or a popular, well-used trail. The dream is to spiderweb this entire nation with so many green threads, principally along streams and ridges, that every citizen would he only minutes away from one. The spiderweb is still pretty ragged, but the greenway spinners have been busy. TPL has been one of the major weavers, aiding purchases of corridors around the country to pull people out of their cars and houses and into natural surroundings. 

"With our expertise in land acquisition, we're often the catalyst that takes a local vision and makes it happen," says Rand Wentworth, director of TPL's Atlanta Field Office. 

His own vision of the good life and that of other outdoor lovers comes together on one project, the efforts to create a greenway along Atlanta's clear and cold Chattahoochee River. "I can put my kayak on top of the car and be in the Chattahoochee within ten minutes," says Wentworth. The river is the most significant natural feature in this city of 2.6 million, and its main source of drinking water. "It's for that quality of life that new businesses are moving here," says Wentworth, "and we want to keep it that way." 

TPL's role is to help acquire properties along the river before they get developed. "We envision a corridor along the Chattahoochee a thousand feet wide, bringing nature and recreation within easy reach of the city." That would fulfill the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, who proposed bringing wilderness into the city more than a century ago. His plan for connecting college grounds at Berkeley, California, with Oakland in 1865 may have been the first greenway. Lured back East, Olmsted expanded on linear parkway themes with many more projects, including his favorite creation, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, a long stretch of countryside transported downtown. Others picked up on the linear scheme, but it took massive residential development and the invasion of the automobile to create the physical and psychological need for green corridors. Now the 
benefits seem obvious. 

Scalping our hillsides removes the sponge of vegetation that once rationed out precious fresh water slowly. Turning steep slopes into greenways can both save the watershed and provide recreation. 

Development along streams adds to siltation and restricts enjoyment of those lush zones to only a few. Preserving a strip of green can save the stream and open its use to the general population. 

Everywhere, chopping up the landscape into little islands of habitat traps wildlife that once moved freely and kept bloodlines rich and varied. Greenways leave corridors for them to move around and mate with nonrelatives. 

Critters and watersheds aside, people need greenways for our own mental health. When the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors (PCAO) held public hearings around the nation in the mid-1980s, it found the biggest demand was for inexpensive recreation close to home. "We can tie this country together with threads of green that everywhere grant us access to the natural world," the PCAO concluded in its report. 

The word was out and greenways, already in their infancy, began burgeoning across the country. Like the march on the Bastille, citizens invaded city halls, demanding that local governments protect corridors of open space. In Orange, South Carolina, 600 greenway supporters walked along a stream slated for development, carrying signs that read, "Save Santiago Creek." Later they broke out in cheers when the council rejected the development plan, 4-0. In Austin, Texas, hundreds of citizens filled the city 
council chambers to argue for growth management along Barton Creek, where urbanization is threatening water quality and wildlife. 

I had lived in Cleveland for a year in the 1960s and, frankly, I had not been impressed. The Cuyahoga River, you remember, is the one that caught fire. The air pollution soured my small-town lungs. Imagine my surprise nearly twenty years later to find greenway activity within a spinning lure's cast of the Cuyahoga. 

"Grassroots to grasstops" is how activist Tim Donovan describes the broad support his organization, Ohio Canal Corridor, has rallied for an 87-mile greenway between Cleveland and Zoar, south of Akron. So far, twenty! miles of the route along the Ohio & Erie Canal's Towpath Trail have been refurbished as part of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. A million visitors a year hike and bike the path where the mules once towed barges along the canal. A recreational scenic railroad parallels the Towpath Trail, and will soon be extended to carry passengers from downtown Cleveland through the 35,000-acre National Recreation Area to downtown Akron. Supporters hope that pending congressional legislation will designate the entire system a National Heritage Corridor. 

The work doesn't end there. TPL is now working to create feeder trails from Cleveland neighborhoods to connect with the main canal trail. And the very active Cleveland Metro Parks System is trying to add parcels of unused and still-natural industrial properties to the park system and tie them to the corridor as well. 

Economic downturns are a two-edged sword where greenways are concerned. In bad times, tax foreclosures can cause some properties to revert to city governments, opening the way to possible greenway use. But if times are tough, the city may not have the money to make them usable. A Bronx River Greenway in New York, for example, has found no funding for trails and other public facilities. 

In New Jersey, an ambitious plan for a Hudson River Walkway, part of new waterfront development, would offer pedestrians wide-angle views across the river to the towers of the Big Apple. But this greenway, too, has stalled for lack of funds. 

With money a problem, the release of federal highway funds through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), passed by Congress in 1991, has been as refreshing to greenway builders as a glass of its sound-alike, "ice tea." So far, nearly nine hundred projects have been authorized for some $200 million in ISTEA funding. 

Portland, Maine, claims the first use of ISTEA funds to acquire land for its Portland Trails program. Fittingly, the acquisitions add to a citywide trail system designed by Olmsted in the past century. "It's a once-in-a-century opportunity," says Portland City manager Robert Ganley. 

With ISTEA funds and a three-year grant awarded by the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, a local group, Portland Trails, is moving to create a linear park that would link one of Portland's most heavily used recreation trails, the Back Cove, to downtown. The Trust for Public Land helped the city and the Maine Department of Transportation acquire a 30-acre rail line along the scenic shores of Casco Bay. The greenway links parks and historic areas along the waterfront and provides a transportation path for bicyclists and pedestrians to commute from surrounding neighborhoods and towns. 

Public cooperation, not federal funds, resulted in a greenway connecting urban and rural worlds in Connecticut. Residential development had nearly enveloped the agricultural community of Cheshire, but for one ridge line known as Prospect Hill, which had been used for generations as a de facto park. In tough economic times, residents passed a $2 million open space bond to protect the ridge and preserve the community's agricultural roots. TPL assembled land along the ridge to complete a 26-mile trail from Cheshire to downtown New Haven. "We had a lot of community support," explained Peter Forbes, who manages TPL's New England Regional Office. "Preserving some of that natural heritage was important to people here." 

But not to people everywhere. Efforts to protect a 22-mile greenway corridor along the San Joaquin River at the north side of Fresno, California, met with opposition from developers and ranchers who fear an invasion of hikers littering the land, or cattle escaping through left-open gates, bringing urban problems into the countryside. 

Statistics don't bear out such fears. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources once compared attitudes of landowners along two proposed greenways with those surveyed along two completed ones. Along the proposed routes, seventy-five percent believed a trail would bring crime and vandalism. On the well-used ones, voices of experience almost unanimously said there was no problem. 

Studies show property values are actually enhanced along greenways. Realtors verified that property near Seattle's Burke-Gilman trail is easier to market and sells for an average of six percent more than properties located elsewhere. According to the 1994 Commonwealth Fund/Harris Poll, fifty-seven percent of property owners living within two blocks of a city park in New York say that being near the park enhances the value of their property. In Salem, Oregon, urban land next to a greenbelt is worth $1,200 more per acre than land 1,000 feet away. Recent surveys of values of properties bordering greenways and open space in San Diego, California, and Boulder, Colorado, bear this out. 

Enthusiasm has been so high for a greenway along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that most funds for land acquisition have come from private donations. A network; of greenways that would trace four creek corridors and connect with the Tennessee River Park is a key component of Chattanooga Revision 2000, a community-forged set of goals for revitalizing the city. "The greenways have created both community pride and national interest beyond all expectations," says Chattanooga City Council member David Crockett. 

The proposed greenway network extends from Chattanooga's wealthiest to its most distressed neighborhoods. "TPL is helping to get easements for access on properties that would allow feeder trails from Chattanooga neighborhoods onto the main spine of parks, and hopes ultimately to link the Tennessee River Park to the Civil War battlefield on South Chickamauga Creek," says TPL project manager Will Abberger. 

Similarly, a coalition of nonprofit and community-based organizations has launched Baltimore Walks, reviving a vision first proposed by the Olmsted Brothers in 1904 to use the city's stream corridors as connectors between existing parks and historic, cultural, neighborhood, and downtown destinations. The first to be developed is the 14-mile Gwynns Falls Trail, which will allow people to walk or bike all the way from Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park to the Inner Harbor and Camden Yards sports complex without crossing a street. When complete, the trail network will connect Baltimore residents to almost five thousand acres of public land along existing and planned trails in the surrounding metropolitan area. 

Diana Balmori is a landscape architect who together with an environmental sculptor, an urban historian, and a social ecologist recently won a competition to design a master plan for the Gwynns Falls Trail. She sees linear parks as "the most dramatic development" in American park design today. "I see it as the modest beginning of a different society in which people can move on foot and have the experience of being out in nature and free of the automobile. In many ways it will be a social experiment." The design team's plan calls for inviting community access points and friendly public gathering places along the trail including coffee shops, ice cream-stands, and toolsheds for community gardeners. 

TPL is working to acquire properties to provide continuous public access along the streambed, as well as to promote the community management that is key to the success of the trail project. In the past year, volunteers removed over 100 tons of trash from the Gwynns Falls stream valley, an effort that has drawn philanthropic and political support for Baltimore's renewed civic pride. 

The excitement of creating greenways must often be a sustained emotion, stretching over years, maybe even decades. Such a project is the Mountains to Sound Greenway in Washington State, a plan for a 120-mile network of trails. It began when a group of hikers made a three-day walk in 1990 across the Cascades to Puget Sound, and decided the experience should be shared with future generations. Now TPL and others are at work acquiring open space for multiple-use trails that would roughly parallel Interstate 90 east of Seattle to Cle Elum. 

Nancy Keith heads the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. "The greenway isn't just one trail but a lot of different trails all tying into a main corridor. But we realized early on that the greenway was about more than trails. It's about historic and cultural preservation of rural communities, it's about keeping towns from sprawling together, it's about healthy working forests, and environmental education." 

TPL's Donna McBain has been in on planning from day one. "We've talked about it so much that we get calls from people who think the greenway is already complete," says McBain. "It isn't, yet, but we like people and governments thinking about it as a long-term project." Like building an endless spiderweb. 

Noel Grove was the environmental specialist at the National Geographic for twenty years. The author of several books, he is now a freelance writer and lecturer on environmental issues based in Middleburg, Virginia.  


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