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Unplugged and reconnecting: working toward a new mentality for trails

We need to work toward a new mentality for trails and greenways and this is how we can do it.
0pol;/.,From the Spring 2003 Trail Tracks, the national publication of American Trails. 98754210 /987635241

By Robert Searns

I had my first Krispy Kreme doughnut this morning. My neighbor, God love him, got up at 4:30 a.m. to avoid the 2-hour wait at the drive up window to bring back a box. I wondered as I bit into this sugar coated, deep fried confection, was it really worth it or is Krispy Kreme just the latest form of bovine escape. I went to see for myself. Sure enough, there was a line of cars five miles long at the drive up window waiting to receive this new sacred offering.

"We are on the verge of being overwhelmed by a constant flow, becoming a torrent of information, a constant need to process and make decisions."

Thirty years ago in Future Shock, Alvin Toffler described what he called the "Third Wave" of radical change in human history: the "knowledge age" driven by information technology. This era is markedly different from previous ages of agricultural settlement and industrialization. This epoch has arrived with many benefits, plentiful food (including Krispy Kremes), shelter, clothing, cures for diseases and other forms of material abundance. But it has also brought with it a certain void created in part by information and sensory overload. We are on the verge of being overwhelmed by a constant flow, becoming a torrent of information, a constant need to process and make decisions.

Television, radio, email, voice mail, cell phones, telemarketer calls, personal digital devices and other electronic gadgetry increasingly demand a response. Indeed there is a new kind of assembly line that comes right into our homes where the pace is set by others with no relief when the factory whistle blows. Columnist Thomas L. Friedman described this phenomenon quite well with the term "device creep." In a recent article, he suggested that by 2005 we will see a convergence of wireless technology, fiber optics, software, and other communications products that may change the Internet to the "Evernet." This new Web will be so all-encompassing that "your refrigerator will be ordering your milk to your cell phone reporting your heart rate to your doctor."

He suggests that a natural human response to this seems to be a world of increasing partial attention— talking on your cell phone while watching your kids play soccer— and a world of asynchronous communication where people don't actually talk with each other, rather they exchange messages by email and voice mail. In the process we may be losing the skill of complete and sustained attention— unless focused on a getting a Krispy Kreme, of course, in a world where we are continuously "scanning the world for opportunities in fear of missing something better." The sense of being-in-the-moment seems may indeed be on the verge of extinction.

Increasingly we are becoming a spectator species. We are offered passive gratification— fed the end result— the view of the Grand Canyon from the tour bus window, the sighting of some formerly wild animal from a seat in a motorized tram at a wildlife theme park, or a simulated volcano on the Vegas strip. We experience by surrogate, mourning the death of a princess we didn't really know, the marital or drug problems of celebrities, or peeking into the exploits of a simulated "eco-challenge" by contestants on Survivor or Temptation Island.

For some of us, something about this is not quite right. Something is missing. Something precious is being lost. Though nature and natural spaces are increasingly threatened, there is something more at stake. It's a primal sense of being connected to the "real" versus being wired to the "virtual," a sense of spontaneity versus the planned and contrived.

In the face of this change we need to find ways to reconnect to the inner self and to the outer world. We need alternative places to find respite from the over-stimulation, and " junk-food experiences."

We need places of true physical and spiritual renewal. This is not a new concept. It goes all the way back to the 4th Commandment: honor the Sabbath. The idea, I think, was, and still is, that we need places to stop and clear the static to find the inner voice. To be in the moment and find that respite we need activities, places, and time to re-unite the mind, body and spirit— and isn't that what trails are all about?

As trails enthusiast Phillip Ferranti put it, being on a trail is "the perfect setting for leaving the paradigm of life situation behind for just long enough to begin to feel and see what really concerns us." Trails, open spaces and greenways are, indeed, vital infrastructure because they provide this perfect setting. They need also to be a part of our daily lives. Yes, we need wilderness paths, and trails in our national parks and forests, but do we still have places in our neighborhoods where we can get away for a trail experience. Do we, or our kids for that matter, even have the time to take this respite?

We need access to these places. Access to these spaces should be a right. Yet there are those who see only the commodity value of public lands, and spaces and the commodity value of recreation. Indeed we have made great strides but we are not there yet. Many elected officials in both the state houses and Congress still see trails and greenways as trivial, wasteful, and intrusive. This amazes me even after countless studies that show them not only to be an economic benefit, but a huge economic benefit not only promoting better health, tourism and economic but also a multi-billion recreational equipment industry. This is true at all levels even in your backyard, a recent study by a homebuilders' organization of over 800 developers nationwide showed that amenities like trails and greenways outsold even tennis and golf facilities in their popularity.

We need to work toward a new mentality and this is how we can do it:

We need a trail at everyone's doorstep.

If people are going to use trails then they need attractive, safe, accessible, convenient to use, paths and walkways in their neighborhoods. Whether it's a tree-lined sidewalk in Manhattan or an open space network in suburban Denver, trails need to be a part of everyone's daily lives. No one should be more than a 5-minute walk from a trail.

We need an inspiring National System of Trails and Greenways.

Imagine every major national park offering a network of walkways and bikepaths as an alternative to the drive-up, "point and shoot moment." Grand Canyon National Park is now building such a pioneer system, the Grand Canyon Greenway. Hopefully, this project will succeed and other national and state parks will follow suit. Imagine a Katy Trail in every state ultimately interconnected into a nationwide system of multi-use pathways.

We need trail projects that reconnect the communities.

Trail and greenway projects offer excellent opportunities to engage volunteers, teach young people new skills and build self-esteem and pride. We need youth and volunteer training programs at both the local and national level that promote lifetime participation in trail, greenway and land conservation projects.

We need trails that heal the landscape.

Building a trail should be an environmentally healing process. We always need to think about how the trail can inspire the stewardship of the lands around it, while being sure that we preserve and heal the corridor that hosts the trail. In other words, it should be more than a trail, it should be a greenway.

Finally, we need to build trails that speak to the heart and soul.

A trail is not a route from here to there. It is a place to reconnect. In building trails, we need to think about the trail experience. What does the trail look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like, taste, and sound like? Does the experience challenge the mind? Challenge the body? Does it touch a chord that resonates the soul? A good trail will do that!

In a world of constant change and flux where being in the moment seems increasingly harder to attain, there is also something about the notion of traveling along a pathway-- under our own power-- that reconnects us, and indeed binds together all humanity as author Paul Gruchow put it, "those of 10,000 years past and those 10,000 years hence."

Robert M. Searns, the founding owner of Urban Edges, Inc., a planning and development firm based in Denver, Colorado, was recognized recently for his work with the the Grand Canyon Greenway project team. Bob is also a board member of American Trails and a frequent contributor to Trail Tracks.

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