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What are Greenways and Why are they Important?

By
Laura Smith, AIA, LEED BD+C, WELL AP

If cities were to grow organically around access to nature and to each other, would we, our communities, and our cities, then thrive?

Urban Living

Today, there are 4.2 billion people living in or near cities. By 2050, this number is expected to grow to 6.3 billion, which will account for 68% of the world’s population. While this may seem threatening to our intrinsic human need to be connected with nature, living in an urban area can be one of the most life-affirming shifts we can make for ourselves and for the planet. Living amongst each other allows us to pool our resources through shared infrastructure, commodities, and services while leaving the space around us untouched for vegetation and wildlife to thrive. In fact, one could pose that urban dwelling is our natural habitat as social creatures and that the city itself is our eco-system to nurture and cultivate. Implementing new and innovative ways to co-exist with and integrate nature into our daily lives is one of the most exciting opportunities designers have in the 21st century.

Arterial Cities

One of the most significant shifts that we can make toward a vibrant, healthy urban ecology lies in the structural organization of our cities. In the image on the left, the bright yellow lines represent streetlights seen from space, illustrating the road-centric urban structure that makes up our cities. While our roadway systems dependably deliver goods and services, they also deliver air, noise, and light pollution as well as approximately 54 hours per person, per year lost sitting in traffic.

The image to the right, while similar in composition, shows the system of veins in a leaf transporting photosynthesized water and sugars to the rest of the plant. Living organisms, including our own, grow organically around the arteries and veins that transport resources to and from the world around them. The health of these networks is a fundamental determinate of the health of an organism, ecosystem, or city. If our networks are polluted and congested, the city-organism will mirror that condition with toxicity and decay.

If cities were to grow organically around access to nature and to each other, would we, our communities, and our cities, then thrive? Could a network of green “arteries” deliver robust opportunities for health, connection, and the generation of oxygen? What if our cities were organized around natural features like water, or parks, or access to food, and access to nature, in the way historical cultures grew from nature’s fabric, instead of against it?

Greenways

Cities around the world, including Salt Lake City, are making bold interventions that do just that. They are replacing roadways and abandoned railroads with trails. They are restoring natural corridors like streams and forests. They are creating greenways that naturally replace roadway systems with healthy corridors that connect us to nature and to each other. Greenways redefine the structural focus of our cities and create vibrant urban eco-systems where people want to live, work, and play.

Often called a linear park, a greenway is a long linear system of public open space, established along either a natural corridor, such as a river, stream valley, or ridgeline, or overland along a railroad converted to recreational use as a scenic route. Greenways are usually planned for environmental protection, and they often provide opportunities for recreation and active transportation.

A greenway can be an open-space connector that links parks, natural preserves, cultural features, or historic sites with each other. They can provide access to destination points, outdoor experiences, and space for recreation. They are often paved, multi-use pathways that are low stress, and a safe place for walking, jogging, cycling, strolling, and wheelchair use. Greenways are beneficial to our economic health, physical and social wellness, culture, environment, and quality of life.

What greenways do:
  • Create recreation opportunities for people of all ages and lifestyles
  • Increase tourism and property values
  • Encourage physical fitness and healthy lifestyles
  • Promote natural beauty and environmental diversity
  • Increase connectivity and transportation options
  • Improve access to recreation for health
  • Encourage economic support of local businesses
  • Attract business, residents, and revitalize urban areas

Greenways We Love

Sugarhouse S-Line Greenway:

The enhancement of the Sugarhouse S-Line corridor was developed on a bedrock of local support, and in turn, it brings that support back to the community. This continuous linear public park is a multi-use trail for the S-Line streetcar, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike, anchored with plazas at each street intersection which promote a variety of uses and activities. The S-Line is an artery coursing through neighborhoods, businesses, and industries that carries the vibrancy of the city into the community and also brings the strength of community back into the city. The S-Line greenway offers a multi-faceted picture of sustainability and growth for the community. Environmentally, it reduces vehicular travel and aids in storm-water retention. Economically, it creates new jobs and carries new buyers to existing businesses. Socially, it creates an inviting public space for community gardens, food vendors, and activities.

Folsom Corridor:

The CRSA team, along with BIO-WEST, Avenue Consultants, and the Seven Canyons Trust have been retained by the Redevelopment Agency of SLC to prepare the design for daylighting of City Creek in a portion of the Folsom Corridor. The daylighting will re-introduce flowing water at grade between I-15 and 1000 West. Complimenting the recently installed trail, City Creek, along with other greenway enhancements such as native plantings, small plaza spaces, and public amenities will create a new experience for the neighborhood.

Formerly a railroad corridor, the Folsom Corridor, when completed, will transform from an industrial use to a public linear park. The new daylighted creek greenway will provide active transportation and recreation options that will foster healthy lifestyles. This new greenway will make the area a more walkable neighborhood, which will minimize the need to use a car and make the choice to forego driving appealing, which can reduce greenhouse gases emissions.

Green Urbanism

21st century designers have the unique opportunity to launch an urban transformation from a post-industrial, commodity-driven ecosystem into healthy, regenerative, life-affirming urban-ecologies that promote sustainable living and connectivity. Through thoughtful design and special attention to green corridors and public spaces, we can reappropriate the spatial attention we give to roadways and reorganize our cities around valuable open green spaces that connect us with nature and to each other. By continuing to introduce new greenways and green infrastructure to our communities, we can future-proof our transportation networks and increase their capacity to sustain. We, as a society, have the collective ingenuity to create healthy cities where humans thrive and eco-systems flourish, allowing nature to reclaim and restore and earth around us.