Once known as paths through the woods, greenways are gaining popularity as hot spots for tourists and a form of travel for commuters eager to ditch their gas-guzzling cars.
It’s happening across the globe in Egypt, where a 4,000-mile greenway proposed along the Nile River is envisioned as an international eco-tourism hub.
And it’s happening (on a smaller scale) in Raleigh, home to a 68-mile trail network that connects parks, schools, hospitals and shopping centers.
The city will mark a milestone next year with the opening of the 28-mile Lower Neuse Greenway Trail, a $30 million project connecting Raleigh with Wake Forest, Knightdale and Clayton.
“Greenways can be transformative if we expand our notion of what they can be, and what they can do for us,” Chuck Flink told a packed lunchtime audience at the Raleigh Urban Design Center.
Before Flink rose to national prominence as founder of Greenways Inc., a company that has worked in 200 communities and 35 states, he worked as a young staffer in the city of Raleigh’s planning office.
Today, Flink travels the world preaching the benefits of greenways. Other communities are finding success, he told the gathering of 50 to 60 people.
Greenville, S.C., tore down a highway bridge and installed an urban greenway that became the centerpiece of a downtown renaissance. Restaurants, shops and new residential units totaled $200 million in private investment.
Greensboro used abandoned railroad lines to create a 4-mile biking and walking trail that loops around its downtown.
Flink paid homage to Bill Flournoy, the father of the North Carolina greenway movement. Flournoy devised Raleigh’s first greenway plan as a graduate student at N.C. State University in the 1970s.
Today, the goal is not just to add more miles of greenways, but to make sure they connect with sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrian bridges to create an “ultimate grid," said Sig Hutchinson, a Raleigh greenway advocate who shared the stage with Flink.
Raleigh has sought ways to connect downtown with greenways in outlying parts of the city.
On Wednesday, Hutchinson unveiled what he called his previously “double-secret” vision to begin the effort. His proposal, relying partly on existing sidewalks and paths, would link downtown to the N.C. Museum of Art on a route that runs from the convention center past Central Prison, Pullen Park and Meredith College before crossing the Beltline.
Often, greenways are plagued by narrow sidewalks and poorly marked entrances, Hutchinson said: “These are things that just need a little bit of paint, a little bit of signage, a little bit of branding.”
Greenways generate their share of complaints. Problems generally center on "user conflicts," i.e. cyclists crashing into walkers on narrow stretches.
The field is changing, Flink said. Instead of 8-feet-wide trails, the new standard is 12-feet to allow more room for high-speed lanes that let cyclists safely pass.
As gas prices hover near $4 a gallon, more people will choose to walk or bike - making street safety even more important, Mayor Charles Meeker and other advocates have said.
A 2009 community survey found that 2.5 percent of Raleigh commuters (about 10,000 people) walk to work - a 25 percent increase from 2000 figures.
Raleigh is devising its first-ever pedestrian plan - a blueprint for improving sidewalks, crosswalks, crossing signals and trails. This fall marks the first time that money for sidewalks, bike lanes and greenways have been included in a city transportation bond referendum. The proposed $37 million bond is bound for the Oct. 11 ballot.