Greenways boast a list of advantages a, well, mile long, promoting health, providing transportation options, protecting the environment and encouraging community among them. With so many benefits, and so much community support for expanding the local greenway network, the main obstacles to building more greenways are financial and logistical. With average greenway construction costs in the Asheville area running $1.5 million to $2 million per mile, according to Asheville Greenway Committee member Rich Lee, the money involved is significant.
At a May 19 workshop, the greenway advocacy organization Friends of Connect Buncombe hosted a national expert, along with several local bright lights, to discuss strategies for supercharging greenway development.
Asheville-based environmental engineer David Tuch noted that our region is blessed with a number of long trails such as the Appalachian and Mountains-to-Sea trails. Now the challenge is developing a network of greenways to provide more accessible opportunities for walking and biking to reduce carbon emissions, he said. Jim Fox, director of UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, agreed that greenways can be an important means of transportation, thereby mitigating the impact of climate change. Fox also commented on the positive health effects associated with parks and trails, which he said include increased physical activity, reduced rates of obesity, lower blood pressure, less anxiety and depression, and reductions in arthritis pain and osteoporosis.
Speaking of funding commitments that have already been secured and construction that’s underway, Tuch noted, “There’s been a $24 million pot of money, a surge of money, to build 16 miles of greenway in the Buncombe County-Asheville area.”
According to Tuch and other speakers, Asheville has about 5 miles of completed greenways, while Black Mountain has about 4 miles.
Dick Hall of the North Carolina Arboretum Society commented that one of the Bent Creek attraction’s most popular features is its 10 miles of trails. The workshop was held at the arboretum.
Keynote speaker Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute stressed the importance of promoting greenways as a positive alternative to automobile transportation and indoor recreation. The goal, he said, should be to locate parks within walking distance of residential areas.
“We need to think about how to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” said McMahon.
In addition to promoting health and benefiting the environment, McMahon continued, walkability and bike-friendliness boost real estate values.
“In 2014, Americans bought more bikes (18.1 million) than cars and trucks (16.4 million),” he said.
McMahon highlighted Arkansas as a leader in building new greenways, with Bentonville now boasting 11 bike routes and over 40 miles of off-road trail constructed since 2006. Fayetteville, he said, built 127 miles of new sidewalk and 29 miles of paved bike trails between 2004 and 2014.
Portland, Ore., is another example of a community that has benefited from embracing bike-friendly policies and infrastructure, McMahon said. According to a BikePortland.org 2009 survey of recent transplants, 62 percent of new residents were drawn to the city at least partly by its biking opportunities.
Ann Babcock, a member of the Asheville Greenway Committee and a past president of Friends of Connect Buncombe, said Johnson City, Tenn., had done a great job cultivating support for greenways within the community.
“Everyone has heard about the Swamp Rabbit Trail in South Carolina and the Virginia Creeper in Abingdon, but probably not the recently completed, 10-mile Tweetsie Trail that runs between Johnson City and Elizabethton in Tennessee,” Babcock said.
“The public works director of Johnson City met a great deal of skepticism and opposition when he suggested that this old rail bed could be converted to a pedestrian/bicycle trail. Now that it is open and being used by many locals and visitors, he is a hero,” she said.
Friends of Connect Buncombe President Marcia Bromberg pointed out that Atlanta has made great strides in committing to greenway development. “They are totally committed to their greenway system and have just passed a huge bond issue to support it. I hope Buncombe County can follow their lead,” Bromberg said.
“I hope [the workshop] invigorates organizations and local government officials across Western North Carolina to take the necessary steps to make investments toward connecting and improving transportation toward healthy lifestyles through greenways,” commented Friends of Connect Buncombe volunteer Leanna Joyner.
“I think of greenways as being the gateway drug to trails,” added Bromberg. “So, if you get people on a greenway walking, enjoying the outdoors — especially children — it is one way to pull people out of their houses, out of their comfort zones, out into the outdoors from their homes, and eventually into the great outdoors.”