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."

Houston's Bayou Transformation

Houston is a city that grew up along a network of bayous, but many of its citizens are unaware as they cross the bridges that carry them over this crucial natural resource. Now, a public-private partnership between the city's parks department and various other groups, including the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, has undertaken an ambitious initiative to link many of the city's major parks and existing greenways via a project called Bayou Greenways 2020.

"In Houston, we're not known for natural resources," said Catherine Butsch, communications manager for the Houston Parks Board, but we do have the bayous. For a long time they've been overlooked. What Bayou Greenways 2020 is looking to do is transform those bayous and help us appreciate them as the natural resource they are."

By the time the project is complete, more than half of Houstonians will have a safe bayou trail within 1.5 miles of their home or work. A part of the larger, overarching Bayou Greenways initiative, Bayou Greenways 2020 will link existing stretches of linear parks, trails and larger traditional parks with new greenways, ultimately creating a continuous system within the city limits of 150 miles of parks and trails along the bayous.

"The project will bring parks to neighborhoods in Houston that don't have great access to parks now," Butsch explained. "Right now there are about 70 miles of shared-use hike and bike trail that preexisted the project, so we're filling in the gaps so there will be continuous links of trails and greenways within the city limits."

These trails will not only provide an outlet for Houstonians looking to get in a good walk or bike ride, they'll also provide natural views of fish, waterfowl and other birds and animals—all in the heart of the city.

The entire project comes at a cost of $220 million, Butsch said, and is being funded both publicly and privately. "We're a nonprofit working with the city of Houston Parks and Recreation and the Harris County Flood Control District," she explained. While $100 million for the project was made available via a city bond passed in 2012, the Houston Parks Board aims to raise the additional funds, and so far has raised more than $90 million, she added.

"We've only been executing the project for a few years," Butsch said. "Planning and permitting takes quite a while. So we've gotten to open a few here and there, but we have a lot to go. The neighborhoods that have seen us open so far, though, are very excited about it."

Springfield Invited Kids & Families to the Trail

Encouraging kids and their families to get out into parks and onto trails to experience all of the benefits of nature and the great outdoors was one of the goals planners were aiming for when they created the South Creek Linear Park Trail in Springfield, Mo.

"The goal of the project was to experiment with the features that might offer unique and interesting elements to the trails that could encourage more trail visits and trail usage by youth," said Terry Whaley, executive director of Ozark Greenways, a nonprofit group of private citizens in greater Springfield working to develop a greenway trail network. "The thinking being that if we could make the trail interesting to youth, their parents would accompany them for trail visits, thus encouraging trail activity and family-based activity on the trails."

A partnership sprang up between the Springfield-Greene County Park Board and Ozark Greenways, who worked with the Pathways for Play program developed by the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, NC State University, in partnership with a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that advances play through research, education and partnerships. The group set their sights on developing a "playful path"—a path that would incorporate a variety of play events designed to fit into the natural surroundings and engage children in nature-based play.

Initial steps, according to Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for the play company, involved evaluating where to put the playful path. "The site containing the South Creek Linear Park Trail was finally selected as it met all six of the test areas, and was close to the Springfield Greene County Botanical Center," Spencer said. "The pathways crossed the park property, so pathway infrastructure that was easy to navigate was already in place."

"The play pieces were placed along a short section of one of our most visited greenways and a section of trail that passed through a well-used and visited park," Whaley added. "This site was chosen to best fit into supervision, maintenance and security of the structures within current park operations. Location and placement of structures must be seriously considered so as not to interfere with normal trail usage or add to user conflicts."

Pockets of play were added along the trail, themed to match their surroundings. "A butterfly pocket features a custom sculpture that highlights the metamorphosis of the Monarch butterfly," Spencer said. "The pocket also adjoins butterfly gardens and the butterfly house, offering a wonderful connection to families. A sign near the sculpture shares details of the butterfly's metamorphosis. …Other play pockets highlight mushrooms, trees, leaves and pond life, each offering signage to promote learning."

"The structures have added an element of interest to the trail and are not only great for engaging exercise activity from youth but are, to some extent, an aesthetic element to the trail," Whaley said. "While not considered 'art,' they do have a sculptural impact in some locations."

One important thing to remember when you're planning this type of pathway, Whaley added, is placement of the play sculptures. "Whether it's a tree or toadstools kids like to climb on, how do you take that manufactured element and set it into nature so it looks like it's not just plopped in there," he said. "That's something you need to take time to consider. Don't take a pine tree and put it out in the middle of a prairie. Make sure it fits with the surrounding area."

"Though many trails exist in cities and suburbs, it appears that only a minority of children and families use them," Spencer said. "Go to an urban path, and it's common to see runners, walkers, cyclists, couples, dog walkers—but families are generally underrepresented. In cities where playful pathway projects have been added, we've seen increases in family usage, health promotion, environmental literacy, and a growing community social capital."

Get the Message Across

Speaking of environmental literacy, education is almost always part of the mission of these large, well-integrated projects. If you want the overlooked natural, cultural and historical resources of your city to become more obvious, you have to tell your story. Many trails and parks incorporate interpretive signage to accomplish this mission.

For example, in Nashville's Cumberland Park, interpretive signage informs the public not only about the water-saving features of the site, but its cultural history as well.

"Part of our goal is to tell the story about the river and how it is a resource," Koster said. "It's not always apparent, but we want to explain why it's important, including some of its history, and also why it's important to keep the river clean. At one point, we were under an EPA injunction and it took a lot of years and funding to clean the river up in that area. This is the perfect opportunity to tell that story."

In addition to signage, the park itself provides an opportunity for people to interact with water. "We've got the spraypark elements and … there are rows of pavers with foggers built into the ground. And, of course, you're able to walk out over the water," Koster said. "Part of that was telling the story and having people interacting with the water and telling the story of the river."

Houston's Bayou Greenways also are incorporating signage, both for wayfinding as well as for education. "We are working with a company called Interpretive Insights, and they write interpretive signage," Butsch said. "They study the natural resources around the bayou, plants and wildlife and natural settings, and they'll write interpretive signage panels to put throughout the system. That will also include some of the cultural history because we exist the way we do because the city was built on these waterways, and some do have historical significance."

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