How Greenways Create Healthy Communities
We recently came across an article by Randall Arendt discussing how greenway networks are the "useful bridge between 'new urbanism' and conservation design." His article talks about using greenways as the connector to parks, neighborhoods, schools and mixed-use centers, allowing for urban and rural ideas to merge and produce a superior hybrid community form. He argues that only when blending urban and rural designs can there be successful opportunities for improved public health and wellness.
Indeed, elements typical of rural environments can – and must – be part of any truly livable urban design, as Olmstead and Vaux's plan for Central Park in Manhattan demonstrates, and as further proven by the Olmstead firm's five-mile long "Emerald Necklace" around Boston, encompassing 1000 acres of parkland, connecting the Boston Common with the 527-acre Franklin Park.
We know that the better connected parks are, the more a park system can provide healthful recreation—and transportation, too. A recent publication from The Trust for Public Land shows how interconnected trails, greenways‚ and parks support bicycling, running, walking, skating, skiing‚ and even wheelchair travel—reaching all the way from home to work for some users. And several small parks can be connected to create a "large-park experience," with a tennis court in one park, a basketball court in another, a swimming pool in a third. Connections can be a system of sidewalks or bike lanes, complemented by outstanding signage and perhaps dressed up with a catchy name, such as the Wellness Walk or the Fitness Funway.
The easiest way to create interconnections that also extend a park system is in stream valley parks, particularly where a small stream flows into a larger river and both are flanked with trails. This kind of intersection, comparable to a highway interchange or a train junction, more than doubles the usefulness of a given route. An even more effective connection can be made by bridging a river with a pedestrian crossing, either a new bridge or a repurposed old one. Wherever this has been done—including in Austin, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Minneapolis, Nashville, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Tampa—the bridges have become instantly popular attractions.
Another great connector is a rail-trail, a park path constructed out of an abandoned train track. Most of the more than 15,000 miles of U.S. rail-trails are rural, but an increasing number are in cities, including Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; Portland, Oregon; Orlando; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.
Even without a stream or an abandoned railroad, it's sometimes possible to create a linear corridor. It happened in San Francisco after the public utilities commission decided to retire an underground water main through Visitacion Valley, a lower-income immigrant neighborhood. The corridor had been kept free of weighty construction over the pipe, resulting in a six-block swath of weedy lots through the heart of the community. When the commission tried to sell the land, neighbors objected and worked with The Trust for Public Land to turn it into a park and garden. Today the Visitacion Valley Greenway supports both physical exercise and improved nutrition—and introduces visitors to the exotic Asian medicinal plants growing there.
Another example of a successful city creating connectors is Denver. In 2009, the American Obesity Association rated Denver residents the least obese of big city Americans. The reason, in part, is their sporty lifestyle. Supporting that way of life is the Platte River Greenway.
It took 30 years to create the Greenway from a former industrial backwater. Today its 15 parks linked by 100 miles of trails attract hundreds of thousands of users. The middle 12 miles—which stretch on either end deep into the suburbs—are operated by the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation, with support from the private Greenway Foundation. Its centerpiece is 22-acre Commons Park, constructed as part of a new walkable neighborhood on a former railyard on the edge of downtown.
Not only does the Greenway lure a continual stream of cyclists, runners, and walkers, the South Platte River itself was reengineered with rocks, riffles, and inflatable dams so that it offers whitewater rapids for kayakers and rafters.
Public investment in the Greenway totaling about $70 million has fueled $2.5 billion in residential, commercial, retail, sports, and entertainment projects along the corridor. Denver, which for several decades was losing population, is now growing again—and recreational opportunities are one reason why.
Randall's article appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of Planning magazine, available here.