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Greenways Link Frazzled Urban Dwellers With Close-to-Home Nature

August 20, 1991

BOSTON (AP) _ Carl ″The Bugman″ Demrow squatted in the dirt, wrapped his hands around the underside of a rectangular stone slab and urged his two young assistants to do the same.

″This is the way to lift without hurting your back,″ Demrow said as the threesome raised the slab and heaved it on top of another.

Demrow, nicknamed by the teens because he isn’t afraid of creepy crawlers, has brought together a group of special education students to rebuild the stone steps, remove brush and debris and make the trails more inviting to joggers, bicyclists, bird watchers and nature lovers.

This unlikely team is reviving the Emerald Necklace, a chain of parks that circle Boston. This is one of the nation’s oldest greenways, strips of protected land that are the focus of similar rehab efforts around the country.

″It’s important to provide recreational opportunities and open space closer to home,″ said Demrow, trails assistant for the Appalachian Mountain Club. ″It’s great to go to the White Mountains (in New Hampshire), but if you need time to get out after a long day of work and have some quiet time in the woods, there needs to be that sort of space available for people to do that.″

Unlike traditional square parks, greenways are long, thin pieces of open space linking urban and suburban areas. Aside from the obvious environmental advantages, activists say greenways offer economic benefits, alleviate transportation demands and soothe the nerves of overworked city dwellers.

In December 1986 a presidential commission on Americans outdoors recommended creating a network of greenways that would tie together various trails, bike paths, abandoned rail lines and other land corridors. The group also urged the federal government to invest $1 billion a year in a land trust fund.

″The commission had a major influence. It was a very effective and influential report,″ said Steve Blackmer, director of conservation programs at the Appalachian Mountain Club. ″It’s too bad they didn’t follow up on it.″

In fact, the only notable follow-up by the government was a second report about 18 months later that suggested individual states and communities buy land and create greenways themselves.

Some communities are responding on their own, many with the help of environmental groups and interested citizens.

New York is developing the Hudson River Greenway, a 160-mile stretch of land from Albany to downtown New York City. Washington state’s Yakima Greenway, paid for with private donations, runs 10 miles through the city connecting several parks, fishing piers and bike paths.

And San Francisco has embarked on an ambitious 400-mile network that will link two existing trails with footpaths over marshes, paved bicycle trails and stream walkways. The cost of the Bay Regional Greenway - estimated at $22 million to $33 million - will be paid for with recreation budgets, city bonds, federal highway grants and donations.

In the Midwest, in particular, many greenways are developed on abandoned rail beds.

Nationwide, there are about 400 ongoing efforts to convert the abandoned lines into corridors of greenery, said Mark Kotzer, a spokesman for the Washington-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which boasts 50,000 members.

In the heydey of rail travel, Americans rode along 300,000 miles of track. Today, the track has dwindled to less than 140,000 miles, Kotzer said.

″To just let those corridors fall apart or be bulldozed over would be a real tragedy,″ he said. ″It’s like Humpty Dumpty, once a corridor is broken up you can’t put it back together again.″

The longest greenway, located in Missouri, is 200 miles of bike paths, cross-country ski trails and wildlife habitats, Kotzer said. As the Katy Trail winds from urban areas to more rural locations, its users change from roller bladers to bird watchers, from babies in strollers to hikers with backpacks.

If marketed properly, a greenway can stimulate tourism, Kotzer said, noting that Wisconsin has turned a 32-mile corridor into a popular vacation area.

And converting a rail bed to protected open space does not rule out returning the land to a rail company some day.

Activists say there is some concern the recession will make it more difficult for local governments to spend money on greenways. But because the projects can be done piecemeal and with the help of private donations and volunteers, they are optimistic about the future, said the AMC’s Blackmer.

And like the special needs students in Boston who say they prefer working in their own neighborhood where friends and relatives reap the benefits of their work, organizers say the most successful greenway projects are done by community members - not big government.

Chuck Flink, president of Greenways Inc., opened his consulting business a few years ago because he was swamped with inquiries from other cities when he served as greenway planner for Raleigh, N.C.

″Our favorite thing to say is ’What recession?‴ said Flink, who describes greenways as the next ″motherhood, apple pie, all-American idea.″

Environmentalists dream of a nationwide network of trails - a concept few average folks can envision, Flink said. ″But the idea of walking out your door, through a park, to a store is a concept very popular in American society today.″

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