Feature Article - September 2015
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Naturally Urban

Connecting City Dwellers to Nature Via Parks & Trails

By Emily Tipping

There's no shortage of evidence proving that time spent in the great outdoors can have a huge impact on health and wellness—both mental and emotional. But what if you're one of nearly 250 million U.S. citizens who live in urban areas? Where do you go to get your daily dose of beautiful views and interaction with the wild?

Many cities have begun to recognize the difference that access to natural areas—especially through trails and greenways that link up existing parks—can make to the quality of life of their citizens.

"Most urban park areas are struggling with preservation of land for future parks, so we don't inadvertently eliminate greenspace and negatively impact quality of life," said Tommy Lynch, director of the Nashville Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation.

Done right, trails and greenways interconnect with a system of parks and natural areas to develop blighted or overlooked areas, unite disparate parts of the communities they serve, educate citizens about natural and cultural resources, and deliver a message that people and place matter.

From Overlooked to Overlook

In Nashville, an ongoing redevelopment of the city's riverfront has been achieving these goals and more. Located along the Cumberland River near Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, a new 6.5-acre park has turned a former brownfield into a gem of a park that incorporates the natural beauty of the riverfront and ties into the city's greenway system.

Cumberland Park encompasses 900 feet of riverfront between the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, which provides an overlook of the downtown area and its surroundings, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge. It features a variety of nature-inspired play structures and water features, as well as an amphitheater and walking paths—all while incorporating sustainable features.

Chris Koster, special projects manager for Nashville's Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation, explained that the park is connected with the city's greenways, and that you could start at Cumberland Park and bike almost 20 miles.

But before it became the nature-inspired and environmentally innovative park that it is today, the site was a far cry from providing a beautiful respite for the citizens of Nashville. "Originally, half of it was an asphalt parking lot and the other half was abandoned right-of-way for the bridge on the other side, and the whole thing was a brownfield site," Koster explained.

"Riverfront planning started in 2006, and we hired a consulting firm and began a planning process on a larger riverfront revitalization master plan," he added. This process involved dozens of meetings with stakeholders, resulting in a 20-year plan that aims to provide active and passive recreation along the Cumberland.

The project got extra emphasis in 2010, Lynch said, when Nashville saw major flooding. "The quality of Nashvillians came out," he said. "More people were volunteering to help and clean up than there ever was in terms of looting and violence."

The redevelopment of the riverfront has enabled the city to unite disparate elements—not only the west and east banks of the river, but also citizens of widely varying socioeconomic backgrounds and life experiences. Before this project, Lynch said, "… there was no real celebration of being a river city. Now we've connected the greenways across the pedestrian bridge, and we're getting people into the water and down to the shore. It's been a place that in the past, Nashvillians and people visiting almost avoided. There were no accommodations—no recreational aspect to it. …Now the recreational and green aspects of the areas on both sides of the river are being celebrated and utilized."

The park's design also has incorporated a number of environmentally friendly features. The park makes use of geothermal energy, energy-efficient lighting, water reuse for irrigation and more, all while boosting biodiversity. The project used native grasses and trees that are drought-tolerant, Koster said, as well as using local products within the site itself, such as 200 tons of native Tennessee Crab Orchard sandstone.

"Previously through the parking lots around the stadium, all of the oil and polluted water was running off into the Cumberland," Koster said. "With the park we've created a series of underground drains that capture the water runoff from the two bridges and parking, and that is filtered through the park via a separator that it runs through. Water is held in a 100,000-gallon cistern, and we're using that for park irrigation. So we're cleaning the water on the sites around us, and right now we're recycling about a million gallons of water for use on the site."

Koster further pointed out that though many may not be aware of the importance of this aspect of the project, the Cumberland is, in fact, the source of most of Nashville's drinking water. Interpretive signs along the riverfront explain many of these environmental features of the park, helping to educate the public about this vital natural resource.

"It set a precedent for these types of recreation projects along the river," Koster said. "One goal was to have a high-quality design with a low impact because everything is right there adjacent to the river. Using these sustainable features and being environmentally sensitive on this site is important."

Koster added that as various pieces fall into place and funding is made available, the project has been gaining support. "It's become a situation where people aren't taking issue with the funding," he said. "They're not asking why we should fund this; they're asking how quickly we can get it done."

A new phase of the riverfront redevelopment is currently under construction and will allow people to get even closer to the river, including access for kayaks and canoes.

Cumberland Park's only problem so far, Koster said, is that it's getting loved to death. While project planners were initially concerned about developing a park on that side of the river because it might not be well attended, the success of the park—which sees between 200,000 and 250,000 unique visitors a year—speaks for itself.

"There's a lot packed into a really small area," Koster said. "It's getting a little overrun, but the beauty of that is that it's touching all socioeconomic backgrounds. It's really set the precedent down there, and we're pleased because it added to that momentum publicly where we want to continue this."