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How Raleigh’s greenway trails went from nuisance to amenity

The section of the Walnut Creek Greenway Trail leading up to Lake Johnson is crowded in the early evening. Runners and bikers work up a sweat avoiding couples and families out for a leisurely stroll.

Once, not everyone was excited about Raleigh’s greenways. Many homeowners and developers feared that greenways would bring crime into their neighborhood. But citywide surveying from 2014 shows that Raleigh residents prioritize greenways over other kinds of park facilities.

Iona Thomas has worked on greenways for years, currently in public sector projects at McAdams, a Durham-based civil engineering firm. Thomas said that anyone who is familiar with Raleigh is excited to hear about her work on greenways, but it wasn’t always like that.

Thomas told me about one town home development that tried to keep their residents safe from greenways. The developers erected large walls around the community for their residents’ privacy. But a few residents tried the half-finished trail behind their complex, and they loved it.

One of the residents decided to kick a panel out of the privacy wall for better access. Instead of repairing the fence, the complex’s owners decided to build a gate. Today, the greenways are listed as one of the property’s amenities.

Raleigh now has more than 100 miles of paved greenway trails, with plans to invest in more, and developers are eager to keep their properties connected to the trails. “Greenways are the new golf courses for developers,” Thomas said.

Brian Purdy, principal land planner for McAdams, explained that developers are actively looking to create trails and green space on their developments because “greenways are even more attractive than parks on surveys.”

When the first proposal for the greenways was introduced in the ‘70s, the trails were mainly seen as a way to protect Raleigh’s stream corridors. Recreation and transportation were happy side effects.

T.J. McCourt, of Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, says that he’s seen big changes in the way people view greenways. “Basically, we’ve seen two big shifts in public perception of the greenways,” McCourt said.

The first change is that the public rates their health and wellness as a higher priority, which has made them a marketed amenity.

The second change is one of practicality. McCourt says that there is increasing demand for the greenway system to function as a comprehensive transportation network. “As Raleigh grows, people are looking for more active transportation, an alternative to cars,” McCourt said.

He said that the city used to acquire land for greenways as they went and think of them as individual, linear parks. But now his team is working more closely with transportation planners and the development community to connect different pieces of the greenways and develop a comprehensive system.

“More and more we’re realizing that the future of the greenway system needs to function as a transportation system as well,” McCourt said.

Challenges lie between the greenway system Raleigh has and the greenway system we want. One challenge is moving greenways into established neighborhoods, many of which were built decades before the greenway project began in the 1970s.

Another is meeting the needs of all the different users of the trails. Many of the existing trails are 10 feet wide, but accommodating bikers and pedestrians might mean laying wider trails in the future. And incorporating downtown Raleigh, which is on top of a hill, will present unique design challenges.

And then there’s the sheer cost of expansion. The foundation of the existing system was laid in the ‘70s, but construction accelerated during the Great Recession, when land was cheap, contractors were hungry for work and material costs were low.

Thomas said they built 34 miles of trail in about three years; Raleigh’s budget for 2019 only estimates three miles of construction. The city and developers will confront steeper construction costs as well as more challenging terrain.

Raleigh has invested heavily in greenways (nearly $2.2 million is set aside for fiscal year 2019, up from $1.8 million in 2016) because that investment pays off.

“There are very few other places in the public realm,” Thomas said, “where you can spend a dollar and affect everything from transportation, to environmental quality, equity, education, ability to attract businesses, tourism and property values.”

Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.