Walking in community

Walk any day along the Hominy Creek Greenway (not to be confused with Hominy Creek River Park) and you’ll pass scores of walkers, nature lovers, runners and families. To me, this represents quite an achievement. For years, West Asheville residents have walked and jogged the narrow path cleared by the Metropolitan Sewerage District between Sand Hill Road and Shelburne Road beside Hominy Creek, but the property only recently entered the public domain.

The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Doug “Brotherhug” Barlow, who led the effort to protect the space after moving here from Atlanta in 2006. “It’s a magical place,” he says. “The first time I saw the land, I immediately felt it needed to be public space.”

The price tag, however, was far too high. So Barlow set out to convince public officials of the value of the 12-acre wedge of land. His case for more green space is a familiar one: Urban parkland can improve ecological health, provide a place to play and gather, and help residents connect with nature, making the city more livable.

Thanks in large part to Barlow’s efforts (though he’s quick to credit all those who contributed labor and money), a coalition of public and private interests bought the land in February of 2011. The joint effort included the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, individuals and fundraising campaigns by the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club and RiverLink. The tract follows a portion of the route of the world’s first hydroelectric-powered trolley, created by lumber baron and developer Edwin Carrier in 1892.

From the get-go, Barlow envisioned a community park planned by the community. For him, spearheading neighborhood movements is nothing new: In the 1980s, Barlow helped transform two acres of derelict urban Atlanta into a beloved community park and land trust. This time, he helped launch the Friends of Hominy Creek Greenway, which is partnering with local government, RiverLink, Asheville GreenWorks, the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club and Asheville on Bikes to improve and manage the property. Last year, the group signed a stewardship agreement with the city to preserve the greenway’s wild nature and history while connecting West Asheville to the French Broad River, downtown and other areas. The first fruits will be on display Nov. 12 at RiverLink (see box).

It’s hardly the first time Buncombe County residents have teamed up to improve their community, notes Claudia Nix, co-owner of Liberty Bicycles. She and her husband, Mike, have been at it for decades. Back in 1974, they hosted a public meeting to discuss the need for more bike facilities, launching a long-term commitment to promoting green space and cycling culture.

The difference today, Claudia maintains, is that there are more people involved.

She recently served on the county’s Greenways and Trails Commission, which was disbanded after the Greenway Master Plan was approved last year. Nix and other former commission members subsequently founded the Friends of Connect Buncombe to help bring the plan to fruition and link existing pockets of nature throughout the county. “We’re not politicians," notes Nix. "We’re community people, and we really want to go out and do the work ourselves.”

Commissioner Holly Jones echoed that sentiment recently, saying residents are eager to get involved with future park projects. In fact, that’s an absolute necessity, and after observing the wrangling and politics surrounding appointments to the powerful new county Culture and Recreation Authority, I’m even more inspired to help expand the type of grass-roots, bottom-up approach that folks like Barlow and Nix, and groups like RiverLink, have passionately pursued for decades.

Still, it’s a hard truth that volunteer-driven projects can be plagued by lack of continuity in leadership, conflicting goals and, says Nix, the fact that we’re all fighting for the same limited pool of funds.

“One of our big challenges is painting a picture that shows the general public how all this ties together,” she notes. Nonetheless, Nix believes people are starting to experience the broader benefits a network of green space can provide.

The Hominy Creek Greenway is a good place to see that kind of community-based change firsthand, but a lot of hard work still lies ahead. Please join us.

— Jack Igelman is a trustee of the Friends of Hominy Creek Greenway Inc. For more information, visit fohcg.org


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