Catching Up with Chuck Flink

A discussion on greenways and trails with landscape architect Chuck Flink, author of The Greenway Imperative and the original chair of American Trails

by Cathy Corlett

On a sunny fall morning I sat down for a Zoom-chat with Chuck Flink. Chuck is the original chair of American Trails, a landscape architect, and a professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. We talked about the landscape architecture profession, the state of the trails world, and what he has been up to since the March 2020 release of his book The Greenway Imperative.

How long have you been in North Carolina? What was your early career like?

I've been here since 1979. I got my degree in landscape architecture in 1982, and when I graduated, the work of landscape architects was focused in the land development business. I wasn't keen on it, but a couple years later I found my stride in designing greenways. Greenways are so important as something people can agree on, a way to save land and keep it accessible for everyone. Instead of using the planet like a piggy bank, we can put our energy into conservation and stewardship.

How do you feel about being a landscape architect?

It's funny how this profession is persistently misunderstood. When I am sitting next to someone on a plane and they ask me what I do, I say I am a problem solver. That gets the conversation going in the right direction, because otherwise people hear the word "landscape" and they stop listening and they want me to diagnose the dying shrub in their backyard.

Chuck Flink

Chuck Flink

Can you elaborate on that?

Anyone who has a landscape architecture license is familiar with this phenomenon. Landscape architects have not captured the public imagination in the same way architects have. When you look at a building, you can obviously see it as an object, a thing that is designed and built. But when it comes to greenways, open space, parks, public landscape spaces, people don't think about the fact that someone designed them. The landscape is the context of buildings, and can make a big difference in the way a place feels and works. A well-designed landscape can create a comfortable microclimate, and connect people to the history and the ecology of a place. So it is very important, but it often does not register as having been designed. We often don't think of ourselves as being a part, being a participant in an ecological system. People often feel separate from it.

What do you think would help people appreciate landscape architecture?

I think starting earlier would help. Kids can learn in school or with their family that the trail they are on, or the park, or other public outdoor space is something people design and that is a career. That there are careers that can meaningfully connect ecosystems and humanity. I also think we as a profession can do a better job of outreaching and recruiting more diversity.

Interestingly, in China they appreciate landscape architecture, as many of the teaching professionals there were trained in the United States, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, so they take that understanding of the profession with them. Otherwise, it can be a sort of underappreciated profession. But becoming a STEM profession has made a difference in landscape architecture being appreciated here in the United States. It is really as much an art as a science, in reality, but we get taken more seriously with the STEM label.

Back to greenways, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to creating more of them?

The biggest hurdle that I have seen is a lack of commitment. It seems like it would be money, but it is lack of commitment, a lack of vision. When we built the 36-mile Razorback greenway in Arkansas, the Walton Family Foundation could have paid for it outright, but they knew there needed to be community buy-in, people needed to be excited about it and to want it. And Northwest Arkansas was able to get millions in federal funding (TIGER Grant), and today it is a very popular trail system.

Do you think Covid has permanently changed the way people use and feel about trails?

My sense is that the use is higher, it is a bit more elevated now and probably will stay that way. Because we have also had technological change in the past few years. More people are using apps to find trails and using apps to track their daily steps and their health in general. The key to more trail use is easy access. People can't use trails unless they can get to them.

If you could add one more chapter to your book, what would it be?

I would write about DEI. I think greenways like the Wolf River Greenway in Memphis can be part of healing the historic racial divide prevalent across this nation. Being intentional with our actions and investing in communities that have been disenfranchised and forgotten needs to be a priority. This is a modern aspect of the Greenway movement. A number of cities are embracing policies to make these needed changes. The St. Louis region is doing a great job of healing these historic wounds.

What are you currently doing that our readers might not have heard about? A few years ago, I helped start a group of professionals called the Collaboration of Regional Trail Initiatives, or CRTI. This grew out of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council inviting me to open my Rolodex and find other people who are experts in regional greenway networks. We brought together about 50 people in 2018 in Philadelphia, the next year we met in Bentonville Arkansas, and last year we were in Pittsburgh. This group fulfills the intent of the National Trails Act by recognizing the importance of regional and urban trails as elements of our National Trails System.

Thank you for your time! I am looking forward to the upcoming webinar where you will go into more depth with the CRTI.

About the Author

Cathy's holds an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University and a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from the University of Oregon. She grew up skiing in the Colorado Rockies and spends her spare time creating art, gardening, hiking, skiing and botanizing.

Contact: [email protected]

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