Beyond Greenways: The Next Step for City Trails and Walking Routes

Jim Schmid reviews Robert Searns' new book "Beyond Greenways: The Next Step for City Trails and Walking Routes"

by Jim Schmid

By Robert Searns; Illustrations by Bill Neumann
2023, Island Press
225 pages, $35.00
ISBN 9781642832631

The question “What’s Next” is at the heart of Robert Searns’ new book. Searns has spent the last five decades planning and developing linear paved hike/bike greenway paths and now wonders what more can be done to get more people outside. Today he envisions the next step to literally be a giant step for foot travel as he promotes “grand loops” and “town walks” to make our cities and countrysides more pedestrian accessible and more welcoming. Designing for these primarily walking routes will allow for more adaptability in location and construction.

Grand loop trails are longer-distance routes that encircle cities running along the edges where city meets countryside. In effect they are a closer-in alternative to backcountry routes. Town walks are 2- to 6-mile recreation and fitness loops built in neighborhoods, downtowns, or other urban and suburban places. These can be one of three categories: Destination walks that feature major urban attractions; Community walks readily accessible from neighborhoods and place of employment or school: and Doorstep walks which need urban walking infrastructure so each person finds their own way from their home.

Even though we have a rich legacy of parks, greenways, and urban trails Searns sees these as not enough. He envisions building on this legacy with a new “green infrastructure” of more places to walk. He sees this green infrastructure as dramatically improving the livability of our cities and the quality of our lives through improved walking infrastructure.

There are many examples throughout his book on existing and planned grand loops and city walks. I enjoyed reading about the 315-mile Maricopa Trail looping around the city of Phoenix, AZ. It was good to hear that R.J. Cardin who’s the Director of Maricopa Parks and Recreation Department spearheaded this effort. In 1990 R.J. and I applied for the same job at Arizona State Parks. He got the job and I ended up working for the US Forest Service in Tucson, AZ. I look forward to hiking on the Maricopa Trail the next time I visit Phoenix.

A century of expanding automobile infrastructure has left many people in urban environments with no choice but to drive. Many planners and advocates would like “urban greenways” overlaid on existing infrastructure including low-traffic roads, local streets, and sidewalks. With the focus on the many forms of walking these natural surface trails are much simpler and less costly to build.

Today there is lots of talk of needed infrastructure as a solution to getting folks outside. I think there has to also be a change in “culture” to go along with the new infrastructure. I’m in San Diego, CA visiting my mother. I grew up here and in the 1950s I walked to school when there were no sidewalks. Today I see long lines of cars in front of schools dropping kids off and picking them up. This is a community with lots of bike lanes and sidewalks. When I passed by a high school and a couple of elementary schools I saw empty bike racks while the high school parking lot was full of pickup trucks and SUVs. It got me thinking about what’s the difference between where I grew up here in San Diego, CA and Davis, CA. Both have infrastructure. San Diego has pockets of bike ped use while Davis has use citywide.

photo credit: Adobe Stock

In the 1920s there was a political campaign slogan that promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard.” Here we are today with a KFC or Chick-fil-A on most every corner and two or more cars in every driveway. While we are building trail infrastructure communities are building and building and building everything else. Searns book should be on every planner’s book shelf and referenced often.

While reading Searns’ book I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the 1990 report Trails For All Americans. The Report of the National Trails Agenda Project submitted by American Trails to the National Park Service. It’s the opening sentence that grabs you.

“What would it take for all Americans to be able to go out their front doors and within fifteen minutes be on trails that wind through their cities, towns or villages and bring them back without retracing steps?”

For thirty years we’ve all heard and lived by the “trails within fifteen minutes of every American” mantra. Searns ups the game with his vision of “one day, every doorstep is a trailhead.”

The rest of the Report’s first paragraph paints a beautiful word picture:

“Along the way they could pass shops and restaurants, get to work, school or a park, visit an historic site or the zoo, and experience the great outdoors without a car or bus. If they were to follow the right path, the trail could take them into the countryside or possibly link up with another trail that would lead them into the deepest wilderness or to the highest mountain or across the widest prairie. They could travel across America on trails that connect one community to another and stretch from coast to coast, and from border to border.”

If you don’t have a copy of this report download it now from the American Trails website and be sure to read it along with Searns’ new book.

Sir Isaac Newton in 1675 said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This book aims to build on the legacy of our trail and greenway “giants” who made possible parks, parkways, greenways, and urban trails by offering a consistent, practical guide to promoting the building of high-quality walking corridors and urban edge trails.

For many years I’ve enjoyed biking and walking on greenway paths and rail-trails especially those in the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame. These are out and back trips and there are times I’ve longed to loop back to the start. I had my chance to bike a loop this past April when I was on my way to the International Trails Summit (ITS) in Reno, NV. I stopped in Des Moines, IA to bike the Raccoon River Valley Trail’s 72-mile loop. The Trail was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021. Made for one fantastic day ride. If it was a linear rail-trail I would have had to bike 144 miles instead of 72.

While in Reno I drove over to Davis, CA a town I’ve heard about since the early 1970s when I lived in California. I never had the chance to visit back then. Over the years at every bike or trail conference Davis would be brought up as this wonderful bicycle and pedestrian friendly city. Now was my chance to check it out. When I got there I picked up a bike map and off I went. I biked around town to get a feel. And what a feel. I was in my first ever bicycle rush hour. At the stop lights I’d be in a crowd of fifty or more bicyclists headed to school or work. Then I biked the 12-mile Davis Loop that circles the town where I saw even more people out biking as well as walking. What was amazing was seeing all the bikes parked at schools and at the University just waiting to be ridden.

On my way home from the Summit I biked the Grand Canyon Greenway and the Razorback Greenway in Arkansas. I know they aren’t loops but Searns and Chuck Flink were involved in the planning and I love the work they do. What a great way to attend a trails summit—biking trails on the way to the Summit and biking more trails on the way back home.

Shortly after Sandra and I moved to Black Mountain, NC in 2014 we learned of The Swannanoa Valley Museum’s Rim Hiking Series which offers eleven hikes where each monthly hike covers a portion of the 31-mile ridgeline loop that encircles the town of Black Mountain. We signed up for the 2015 series and had a great time hiking while leaning about the area and meeting new friends.

 

In 2021 I had the chance to bike the 60-mile Huckelberry Loop in Tucson, AZ and the 25-mile Bayshore Trail in San Diego, CA. I can envision cities having paved inner loop trails along with grand loops on the out skirts with city walks connecting them.

I wanted to mention a few of these trails and loops that I’ve had the pleasure of riding or walking and look forward to many more adventures on grand loops and city walks.

Searn’s stresses that this is not a technical trail design manual. Rather, this is a guide to envisioning, laying out, and promoting these routes and, in so doing realizing the benefits they offer—to facilitate, encourage, and enable more close-in walking, hiking, running, and trekking.

At the end of the day, the goal is about offering readily accessible, high-quality trails and walking places to anyone who wants to enjoy them. I really enjoyed reading this book. Searn’s has a vision we can all get behind and one day we’ll be able to walk out our front door and head out walking on a trail. What a beautiful day that will be. I used to say “see you on the trail.” Today I’m going to start saying “see you on your doorstep.”

About the Author

During his career Jim Schmid served as South Carolina’s first State Trails Coordinator as well as working for the US Forest Service as a Trails Manager in AZ, ID, and FL and also had the pleasure of managing the Florida National Scenic Trail. Jim is a collector at heart. Check out his collection of trail quotes, terms, acronyms, sayings and more at jimstrailresources.wordpress.com. In addition to updating his website and writing book reviews for American Trails Jim enjoys traveling around the country riding rail-trails and mtn bike trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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