Guest Blogger: Tom Woiwode

Tom Woiwode has worked for decades to preserve natural spaces, create greenways and otherwise make a greener state, region and planet. He was the founding director of The Nature Conservancy of Michigan, and for 20 years, served as an officer of the international Nature Conservancy organization. In 2001, he developed the GreenWays Initiative for the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, serving as director of that initiative ever since.

Greenways: The Where and Why

When you think about "greenways", what comes to mind?  Trails through thick forest or over-verdant fields?  Or along a converted rail corridor?  Or crossing a dam with erector set-like protective supports?  

That last image probably isn't the first thing you think of.  Yet the dam crossing and the others mentioned above, and so much more, are part of a greenways network that has exploded since the first investments by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan's GreenWays Initiative 12 years ago.

The erector set is a system of supports built on top of the Argo Dam near downtown Ann Arbor that enables bikers and walkers to cross the Huron River comfortably and safely.  It's part of Washtenaw County's Border-to-Border, or Huron River Trail, a network of trails that follows the Huron River, extending from north of Dexter in the northwest corner of Washtenaw County to southeast of Ypsilanti on the eastern edge of the county.  

The Border-to-Border Trail is one of many trail networks being developed by local leadership, including the host counties and municipalities, that provide unique recreational experiences, connect people to the landscape, and connect communities to each other.  Twelve years ago, when the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan introduced the GreenWays Initiative to the region, there was a recognition that greenways and trails were beneficial to communities, but little had been done to realize their potential.  With the help of GreenWays Initiative investments, all seven of the counties in Southeast Michigan are now developing a system of greenways.

Some examples include:

 -- The Border-to-Border Trail, which traverses Washtenaw County, following the Huron River the length of the county

 -- In Livingston County, an extension of the Lakelands Trail, which follows an abandoned rail corridor through Hamburg Township

 -- A trail along the River Raisin in downtown Monroe, extending to Sterling State Park in Monroe County

 -- A network of trails in Oakland County, including the Clinton River Trail that follows the same abandoned rail corridor that supports the Lakelands Trail; the Paint Creek Trail, the "grand-daddy" of rail-trail conversions in the state, having been developed in the early '80s (prior to the GreenWays Initiative), and extending north from Rochester; and the Polly Ann Trail, which extends from west of Oxford north to Leonard and into Lapeer County

 -- The Macomb Orchard Trail in Macomb County, which is built on the same abandoned rail corridor as the Lakelands Trail and the Clinton River Trail; and an extension of the trail system that follows the Clinton River Trail east through Mt. Clemens

 -- The Wadhams-to-Avoca Trail in St. Clair County, which brings people into Port Huron from the northwest; and the Bridge-to-Bay Trail that follows the St. Clair River from Port Huron south to Algonac

 -- In Wayne County, the continuation of Washtenaw County's Border-to-Border Trail along the Huron River, south through Flat Rock to Lake Erie; a network of connecting trails that link the Downriver waterfront communities; the Rouge Gateway Greenway, an extension of the Hines Parkway bike paths, through Henry Ford Community College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn campuses and into downtown West Dearborn

 -- In Detroit, the Detroit RiverWalk, the Dequindre Cut, the Midtown Loop, the Conner Creek Greenway, the Southwest Detroit/Dearborn Greenway, and much more under discussion

Over the past 12 years, through more than 150 grants throughout the region, the Community Foundation's GreenWays Initiative has invested more than $20 million in greenways planning and construction, leveraging an additional $120 million in public support, and connecting one-third of the entire southeast Michigan region.  And that doesn't count the dollars spent by municipalities on greenways within their jurisdictions that did not need Community Foundation or state or federal assistance.

The reasons for such a significant investment are many and varied.  Viewed from a recreation perspective, greenways provide opportunities to get out and enjoy the landscape in ways that are not readily available.  As a transportation investment, greenways offer alternative forms of transportation, particularly for those who don't have a car or don't have access to public transportation.  Biking and walking are easy ways to take those 80 percent of household trips that are less than two miles.  With the introduction of 70 miles of bike lanes through 2012, and plans for an equal amount in 2013, Detroit will have the most bike lanes of any city in the state.  

Greenways benefit health as well, providing opportunities for exercise and engagement in healthy activities that might not be available without the creation of non-motorized corridors.

Other reasons why the Community Foundation made such investments include economic development. In studies around the country, greenways have been shown to provide an economic stimulus where they're introduced, and to improve values of nearby properties.  Studies in Indianapolis and Denver, as well as other communities, show that property values increase the closer the property is to a greenway.

Because of the nature of greenways, that being their linear design that links institutions and communities, greenways offer a unique bridge that brings together communities, neighborhoods and community assets.  That linear character provides the connective ribbon that ties communities together and enables them to work across jurisdictional lines on a shared project and shared interests.

And then there's the attitudinal component to greenways investment.  Study after study shows that, for the next generation of people, the young professionals who are moving into cities and assuming leadership roles in their neighborhoods and planning the future of our communities, the opportunity to walk or bike in and around their community is essential.  They are a recruiting tool in encouraging the best and the brightest to move to their communities; they stimulate the economy; they transform the landscape; and they transform the communities they serve.  Greenways have become a must-have for those communities looking to their future.  

It is for those reasons, complemented by the opportunity to leverage state and federal resources that had not been coming to southeast Michigan in any significant level, and the opportunity to knit together the entire region, that the Community Foundation embraced the idea of greenways as a community development and engagement tool and introduced the GreenWays Initiative.  

That's the why to greenways investment.  But if all you want to do is go for a walk, the above is just a sampler.  More than providing specific directions to places to walk or bike, it's an illustration of the regional nature of greenways development in southeast Michigan.  

Communities are coming together to develop shared pathways, and a connected network of greenways is taking shape.  The past decade has seen an extraordinary commitment to greenways, to non-motorized transportation, and to biking and walking from communities throughout the region.

So get outdoors.  Ride your bike.  Go for a walk.  Enjoy this developing network of connected corridors.  And ready yourself, because there's more to come.
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