The revolutionary idea behind America’s urban trails

Pioneered more than a century ago by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, greenways are nature-filled city hikes that point to the future.

As a result of record visitation in recent years, America’s wide-open spaces are feeling mighty cramped. To manage their teeming crowds, some of the most popular national parks have instituted advance reservation requirements, with some packed state parks looking to do the same.

But what if going for an epic hike or bike ride didn’t involve driving hundreds of miles to the mountains? What if you could amble through a maze of flora and fauna right in the heart of a city, savor the aroma of white violets, refuel with local gelato, and ride public transportation back home?

Urban greenways could be the answer. Fueled by climate change concerns, car-free corridors dotted with woodlands, parks, and local sights are taking shape in cities including St. Louis and Detroit.

But greenways aren’t a new concept. Their roots go back to a time when American life was structurally segregated. In the first half of the 20th century—and beyond—these oases offered more than recreation in the heart of a bustling city. They were a vision for connection and a more egalitarian version of life in the United States.

The power of public open spaces

Urban greenways were the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, the legendary landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park in 1858. A decade later, Olmsted designed the nation’s first greenway in Buffalo, New York, known today as the Buffalo Olmsted Parks system.

(These are some of America’s most beautiful urban parks.)

Soon after came the Emerald Necklace in Boston, Massachusetts; it was a bigger, more ambitious greenway project integrating 16 neighborhoods and seven miles of parks. The completed project takes people past the reedy marshes near Fenway Park, through the nation’s oldest victory gardens, and across classical revival stone bridges to Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, where more than 2,000 tree species reside.

In the Emerald Necklace, Olmsted saw more than a refuge from daily life. “Olmsted often spoke about the power of public open space to bring people of all walks of life together, and how they could be seen coming together,” says Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. “On top of being this landscape architect, Olmsted had been a journalist—he founded The Nation with abolitionists after the Civil War. He was an expert on the scourge of Southern slavery. He believed that through public parks, like the Emerald Necklace, the American people could become better participants in the republic.”

Greenways were a radical idea in the wake of the Civil War and stood apart from a parks boom across the U.S. Pioneered in Boston and Buffalo, Olmsted’s greenway concept seemed primed to flourish in more cities. This idea partially manifested in some of his lesser-known projects, including in Atlanta’s Druid Hills suburb, where his Olmsted Linear Park still links people to the city’s urban core.

But during the 20th century, Olmsted’s vision collided with two antagonistic forces: the rapid rise of the automobile and the persistence of structural racism.

Cars vs. community

The curvature of these nascent greenways, and some of the parks within them, made them ideal for road and highway development. Beginning in the 1920s, roads sliced through greenways to the detriment of pedestrians.

“The automobile played a huge role in changing parks,” says Alan Banks, a landscape historian who served as a park ranger at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site for 30 years. “In Boston, there’s this very busy road called the Jamaicaway that runs along part of the Emerald Necklace, and at a public meeting about road work, someone got up and said, ‘Olmsted designed all these beautiful parks with views. What if we removed some trees so that drivers could see Jamaica Pond from the road?’ To which someone else replied, ‘You want to give people traveling 60 miles per hour a nice pond view to look at?’”

The trees by Jamaica Pond were not cut down. But in Boston’s lower-income multiracial neighborhoods, shade trees had become scarcer in the wake of the city’s urban renewal surge in the 1950s and 1960s. Bustling boulevards cleaved predominately Black communities such as Dorchester and Roxbury, while predominately white neighborhoods such as Brookline gained a disproportionately hefty share of the city’s greenery.

This trend wasn’t limited to Boston. Across the U.S., urban development in the mid-20th century separated people of color from green spaces. Rising rent and real estate prices, active roads, and insufficient pedestrian infrastructure created barriers between underserved citizens and parks. A 2019 University of British Columbia study found that affluent white neighborhoods still enjoy easier access to parks and green spaces in U.S. cities.

(Low-income neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to rising heat.)

One of Boston’s busiest multilane roads—Columbia Road, in Dorchester—had almost become the concluding link of the Emerald Necklace. Olmsted had desired to build pathways connecting Franklin Park to the beaches at Dorchester Bay. But dense architecture and the trolley system that once ran along the road made the “missing link” of the Necklace untenable.

Ironically, finishing the Necklace and seeding more green space in Dorchester ran the risk of causing adverse effects for residents: namely, building modifications or demolitions, and displacement. This would have echoed a dark chapter of Olmsted’s earlier career, when the city of New York used eminent domain in the mid-19th century to remove the residents of Seneca Village, a community of free Black Americans and other blue-collar peoples. He then helped the city transform the emptied land into Central Park.

His thoughts on the destruction of Seneca Village are a mystery, and thereby, a contradiction. For all of his idealism and innovations, Olmsted was still working within a system that routinely harmed marginalized communities in the name of civic development. “As much as many people admire [Olmsted’s parks,] it was still top-down planning,” says Mauney-Brodek. “These projects—even the most ambitious ones—require community engagement and real consensus building.”

In 1969, local activists in Boston showed how underserved communities could change consensus and take ownership of Olmsted’s vision of connective green spaces. They stopped a highway project that would have cut through multiracial communities in South Boston, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain. In its place, they persuaded the state to build a winding greenway of bike and pedestrian paths. It was dubbed the Southwest Corridor, and today it links more Boston neighborhoods to southernmost gems of the Emerald Necklace.

A green revival

These days, American cities are rediscovering Olmsted’s greenway vision. The trend is partly due to widening recognition of how urban planning has devastated communities of color, depriving them of green space and transit options. The other factor behind this “greenway stimulus” is worsening climate change and an emerging consensus that Americans must move away from cars as the default mode of transit.

(Here’s how parks help cities adapt to climate change.)

National and local sustainability plans like the Green New Deal are reimagining car-congested cities as places where people can thrive without cars. This means not only extending public transportation throughout cities, but also constructing more greenways to connect urban and suburban communities.

In St. Louis, Missouri, city agency Great Rivers Greenway is building the Brickline Greenway, a network of urban trails that could be nearly 20 miles long when it’s completed in seven to 10 years; three segments are set to open by 2025.

“Before COVID, our city parks saw about two million users a year, but last year alone, we went to three million,” says Susan Trautman, CEO of Great Rivers Greenway. The finished Brickline paths will accommodate the surging interest in greenways and increase access equity to green spaces, which Trautman adds is the project’s backbone. ”Our goal is to blur the spaces between neighbors,” she says.

In Atlanta, Georgia, planners are building on former railway corridors for the BeltLine, wooded walking and biking paths that encircle the city, with tributaries to historic neighborhoods and parks. The project will stretch 22 miles once it’s completed in 2022.

Then there’s San Francisco’s Crosstown Trail, a sun-splashed 16.5-mile hike that cuts diagonally through the city, from the beaches of Candlestick Point to the Lands End cliffs at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, with stops at coffee shops and viewpoints along the way.

(You can walk across San Francisco in a day. Here’s how.)

New greenways alone will not guarantee equity of access to green spaces. Affordable rent-stabilized housing is an elemental missing piece in cities like San Francisco and Boston, where income inequality and housing shortages continue to cause displacement. But this tension further demonstrates the lasting relevance of Olmsted’s greenway vision.

The idea of urban green spaces as a source for connection and the health of society was a progressive one when Olmsted ran with it in the 1860s, and it remains provocative today. But you don’t have to imagine what his dream would look like. In many cities, you can walk it.

Miles Howard covers outdoor and urban recreation for National Geographic, The Boston Globe, VICE, NBC News, and Southwest: The Magazine. He is the author of Moon New England Hiking. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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