The Right Kind of Connections

By Phil Hayward | Posted on August 3, 2011

Katy Trail PhotoWhenever you can connect communities and neighborhoods you get stronger, healthier, and more fun places to live and work. Across the country, we're seeing more and more greenways coming online that bear this out. Here in Northern Virginia, just a short distance from NRPA's headquarters in Ashburn, the Washington & Old Dominion Trail connects from trails along the Potomac River at Reagan National Airport to villages at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains 45 miles away.

Along the way, the W&OD links numerous villages, towns, developments, and even a small city. Growing up in the far western part of the region, I can remember when trains ran along this route and then the many years of stagnation as municipalities tried valiantly to acquire the land from its new owner, Virginia Power. I guess power companies run a close second to railroads when trying to work out such arrangements. It would take from 1974 with the first stretch of trail in Falls Church to 1988 when the entire W&OD was completed under the auspices of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. If there was ever any doubt about whether people would use the trail, just check out any portion of it on any weekend. Today the Park Authority is initiating work to make it a commuter trail—no small undertaking, considering such details as making it safe during the dark winter months. When completed, the additional purpose will be yet one more benefit that trails and greenways provide their communities.

In a short and sweet column in the July issue of PARKS & RECREATION, NRPA Senior Program Evaluator Melanie Chansky discusses the benefits of bicycling. She also provides best practices and valuable web resources links. I also suggest checking out Great Rivers Greenway, a St. Louis-based public organization devoted solely to developing an interconnected system of trails and greenways.

I recently had the pleasure (and physical challenge) of trying out some of the GRG's 19 greenways. GRG Executive Director Susan Trautman invited NRPA CEO Barbara Tulipane and me for a two-day tour of her greenway system. And what an education in greenway development we got. For starters, we learned that GRG prefers the term greenway to trails because of its all-encompassing nature. Trails, for all their worth, often have specific uses—say, hiking or mountain biking. Greenways tend to offer a much wider range of uses—walking, running, biking, and certainly the preservation of natural spaces. In St. Louis we rode on some clearly urban trails that ran through residential neighborhoods and parks broken occasionally by busy streets and roads. And we also rode on some trails so natural that you'd never know you were in a major metropolitan area. Each greenway had its own history and story; yet they all share common traits: the foresight, patience, resourcefulness, and political savvy to accomplish difficult deals. At an average cost of $450,000 per mile to acquire and develop a greenway, it could be no other way.

One example stood out. GRG had the foresight to lay the groundwork to acquire a 12-acre parcel of forlorn land along the Mississippi riverfront in north St. Louis. The parcel, which will link with the North Riverfront Trail, was originally destined as far back as 2002 as the site of the last casino to be developed in Missouri. When the state's gaming commission instead chose another site, GRG was able to follow through last December with the pre-negotiated purchase of $1.5 million. It doesn't look like much now, but it will be one more link in the interconnected trail system of the St. Louis area. Foresight, patience, resourcefulness, and political savvy—indeed.

Another GRG linkage also occurred recently when it connected with the granddaddy of rails-to-trails projects, the 235-mile Katy Trail spanning the width of the state. We biked a magnificent 40-mile portion along the Missouri River leading into Jefferson City (this was the physical challenge of our visit). With us were leaders from the state park system, the state parks and recreation association, Kansas City parks and recreation (another area blossoming with linked greenways). If I needed one more bit of proof of the benefits of bicycling on interconnected trails, the Katy Trail provided that in awesome quantity. Not only do state residents enjoy it, but cyclists from around the country flock to the Katy Trail in all seasons.

Phil Hayward is the Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.