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Supplement Feature - April 2014

Get Connected

Create Greenway Trails to Get Your Community On the Move

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Perhaps your community isn't nestled in the mountains, or even the foothills, so a trail system has not been at the forefront of your mind. But even flatlands have greenway trail potential. Long and linear, greenways are grassy or vegetated areas that can be created and cultivated or reclaimed and improved for public recreational use.

The term greenway is actually tossed around quite a lot and can refer to everything from an area preserved as a wildlife habitat to the mowed area that follows power lines as they stitch their way across the landscape. For this story, think of greenways as nature-filled areas that include a trail (could be simple, could be fancier) intended for a variety of human users—most likely along with an assortment of animals.

Unlike a typical park, greenway trails are designed to get people somewhere, so they may connect parks, link communities or even create a regional or statewide network for non-motorized transportation. They may follow the path of a waterway (stream or river) or be developed along unused railway corridors or utility easements, noted landscape architect Andy Howard, a senior associate with Hitchcock Design in Naperville, Ill.

"Well-designed trails make use of the natural features in landscapes, while providing safe access, physical exercise and exposure to nature," added Matt Woodson, president and owner of Okanogan Trail Construction, Inc., (OTC) based in Cave Creek, Ariz. "Trails often utilize vacant land that might otherwise be misused or degraded by unauthorized use."

In other words, adding a greenway trail to your community (or using one to connect your community to others) can enhance the environment, the atmosphere of your surroundings, and the health of your constituents. And it may do this on land that's not being used for much of anything at the moment. Read on to learn more about how greenway trails can boost your community and increase usage of the parks and recreation opportunities you already have by helping people get to them in a whole new way.

What Greenway Trails Can Do

Greenway trails can have an assortment of positive impacts and benefits to communities in which they're found. As already noted, "trails are more successful in areas where there are destinations or stopping points along the way to give the community a reason to go somewhere," Howard explained.

These can be recreational or functional reasons. Connecting downtown areas or assorted parks via greenway trails provides a pleasant alternative to driving and will encourage visitors to walk or bike instead, improving both their health and the environment. Runners and cyclists will appreciate the new opportunity to "go many miles and never see the same things," rather than circling the same one- or two-mile loop at a park, said landscape architect Scott Crawford, a senior partner with RDG Planning & Design, based in Iowa. And a trail also increases safety for cyclists and pedestrians. RDG has done several city-, county-, or state-wide trail-planning projects to connect trails in various areas all together. With the master plan in place, "you can bike 30 miles on a trail to the next community without crossing a road, and then go on to the next one," he said.

Practically speaking, trails may provide easier access to schools and grocery stores without a car, Howard reported. "Trails offer a safer and more scenic route than sidewalks that are generally placed close to streets," added Woodson. A pathway lined in grass and vegetation may be particularly welcome in communities that have "limited public natural spaces," he said.

Other trail users are likely to be the four-legged variety, as wildlife appreciate the opportunity to "get somewhere" in a safe, familiar environment as well. "You'll see a broader diversity of wildlife than you would in a single park, which can be isolated," Crawford explained. "Greenways are great for wildlife enthusiasts."

Greenway trails may also go a long way toward improving the health of waterways and natural areas in the community. When a trail follows the path of a stream, its presence prevents development from coming too close. Or, the decision to create a greenway may reclaim previously developed land and return it to a more natural state—over time allowing native plants and wildlife to return, improving drainage in the area and decreasing pollution, Crawford said.

Looking from another angle, a number of studies indicate that greenways and trails increase property values and economic prosperity. The National Association of Homebuilders consistently ranks them as an important amenity, according to Brittain Storck, ASLA, PLA, a senior landscape architect with Alta Planning + Design's Durham, N.C., office. And they can be a tourist draw as well, she noted. "Trails stimulate the local economy by drawing visitors, who spend money while they're in town, which then spurs job growth—at the local, state and regional level, depending on the size of the trail." And even locals may do more shopping at area businesses if they're suddenly accessible via a shaded pathway, not just a trip through traffic-snarled streets.

Further enhancement to the community may come through social and educational opportunities greenway trails present, reported Stan Cowan, a senior principal at MESA, a Dallas-based landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm. Use greenways to create self-guided tours of the historical or cultural offerings in your area. Add historical markers and information about the sites and species highlighted along these pathways through your area. Greenways and the parks or other sites they connect can be opportunities for public festivals, races or other events. These sorts of greenway trails are "seen more as linear parks," Storck said. "Communities buy in to the idea of a greenway as a network in the community, linking local businesses, parks and restaurants. Along the trail you can program outdoor classrooms, interpretive areas and community gardens."