You are breezing along on a tree-lined trail; the wind is at your back, the smell of Jasmine in the air; it feels as though you have been on a downhill run forever. You round a curve and there it is–the end of the trail. While the downtown restaurants and shops are only a few blocks away, the trail just ran out of real estate. The very place that would benefit the most from trail traffic is one of the most difficult places to connect with a trail.
Unless a city has an abandoned rail line or river corridor through the middle of town, a trail to the square requires repurposing public rights-of-way and piecing together underutilized parking lots and alleyways or converting “grayways” to greenways.
The most common approach to bringing bicycles into the urban core is reclaiming portions of underutilized streets and creating bike lanes or cycle tracks. When combined with sidewalks, many city planners and design consultants feel as though they have satisfied the goal of linking the end of the tree-lined trail from the “burbs” into the heart of the city. But, there is a better way.
Since most small and midsized cities struggle to maintain a vibrant city center, there are often scores of underused or abandoned alleys, seldom used parking lots and undeveloped tracts that can be assembled as a corridor and transformed into a continuous trail with green edges. For short distances, the trail may consume the entire width of the corridor available. In other places there may be room for side parks with landscaping and trail amenities. Removing concrete and asphalt and replacing it with grass, flowers and trees is an inexpensive way to create an incredible amenity.
Not only does the conversion of parking lots and alleys into a place for pedestrians and cyclists create a connection through urban development, it frequently serves as a catalyst for revitalization of the adjacent properties. Before my organization, PATH Foundation, built the Eastside Atlanta BeltLine Trail, stores along Kanuga Street and Ponce de Leon Place faced away from the once active rail line that is now home to the trail. Within a year of the trail opening, all of the businesses have created front doors through the backs of their buildings onto the trail. The Swamp Rabbit Trail in downtown Greenville, SC generates millions of dollars in business for restaurants and shops adjacent to the trail. Many pre-existing and new businesses are now oriented toward the trail and the people who use it.
Georgia cities spend millions of dollars each year installing brick banded sidewalks, ornate streetlights and hanging baskets trying to make their city more appealing than the town next door. Cities must update and in some cases reinvent themselves to woo new employers, retain the younger generation and keep their city relevant. Making the connection between neighborhoods and the eateries, shops and lodging in the heart of the city is one of the smartest improvements a city can make to establish a competitive edge.
Maybe tomorrow you will be breezing along on the tree-lined trail, round the curve and see something different ahead. You ease up to the pushbutton that stops traffic, cross the street onto an old alleyway lined with planters while murals on old buildings beckon you to follow the path around the corner where trailside diners spill out of the backs of buildings where loading docks once stood. As you round another corner the smell of Jasmine fills the air from a trellis beside a sidewalk café and there you find The Downtown Square!