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Chapter Four: Greenways and a Return to Landscape Ideology

If Charlotte is to achieve open space throughout the entire city, greenways are the way it will be done. These linear parks pose an entirely new way to provide the city with green space in the 21st century. For the first time ever, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department will be acquiring bulk acres within the city limits for the simple purposes of preservation and passive recreation. The purposes behind greenways are not that simple. Ironically, though greenway has been a buzzword in the county and consolidated system for over twenty-five years, actual built greenways still only account for less than 500 acres of parkland in the city. The greenway program within Charlotte-Mecklenburg is largely still on paper. However, the philosophy behind greenways is rich and developed. Unlike many of the green alternatives discussed by Charlotteans in the last fifty years, this one, a system touted as the "Green Necklace" may very well come to be embraced by the city and its people. This chapter provides background on the concept of the greenway and discusses its advent to the Charlotte landscape in the years 1980 to 1990.

As a planning concept, the greenway has taken longer to develop than any other in Charlotte. In 1974, the county took the first step in studying the feasibility of such a system of parks. The first master plan was adopted in the city and county in 1980.1 Though a fine document, this plan, which was the graduate thesis of a University North Carolina at Charlotte student, was not updated or revised until 1999. The 1999 Mecklenburg County Greenway Master Plan is the most thorough and farsighted report on green space ever assembled by the city or county. This system of trails, creeks, and streams, once complete, will wind through the metropolitan area connecting existing parks, schools, and commercial areas and allowing the city and its inhabitants some breathing room.

Greenways strike a chord in park planning resonant with the ideals that Olmsted laid out over a century ago. A greenway is a linear park with a compound function: space that not only provides human access and recreation but also protects and enhances remaining natural and cultural resources.2 Today's park gurus use more functional language than Olmsted wrote but their creations, greenways, still provide people with a simple, necessary refuge within the urban fabric. Greenways do not just promise open space for the sake of the city but are themselves a response to the overwhelming development in American cities that has crowded out the possibility for not only the large urban pleasure grounds of Olmsted and Vaux, but the sandlots of Joseph Lee. Built within floodplains along creeks and streams, or through once-vacated industrial waterfronts, or upon abandoned railroads, a greenway promises a true urban park, one that molds landscape with cityscape.

In the greater scope of parks in America, greenways probably fit into the newest era of park planning, that known as the Open Space Era.3 The Open Space Era and the Open Space Movement began in the early 1960s when it was becoming clear to urban policymakers across America that the old parks were failing. The traditional neighborhood parks and playgrounds of the American City were becoming increasingly run-down and less visited. They appeared unsafe or as havens of delinquents. Truthfully, the failure of the old parks was indicative of the larger failure of the city. The American City, particularly the inner city, by the mid-60s was losing out to white flight and appeared unsafe or prone to riot and crime.4 While the traditional park and recreational centers may not have been part of the problem at the time, they certainly were not part of the solution. Simply put, parks, like the city, were not engaging. Relying on a philosophy that had not changed since the Depression, park and playgrounds were a cookie-cutter enterprise for public officials. At best, cities satisfied the demands of citizens by appropriating money towards the same multipurpose playfields, multipurpose courts, and wooden park benches they had been designing for decades. As people kept moving out of the city and into subdivisions with garages and yards, these tired forms of green space fell from grace.

The Open Space Movement sought park spaces that would take advantage of what land was still available within the city and make creative use of it. Park historian Galen Cranz describes the characteristics of an open space park in three phases. First, they exhibited a new permissiveness in the range of activities possible. These were open spaces that in their design not simply suggested tennis, basketball, or hop-scotch but a medley of pastimes, games, and exercise such as jogging, jump-rope, tai-chi, chess, picnicking, water-splashing, strolling, or reading. They were planned with the idea in mind that anything goes in such a space. Secondly, an open space park was often a completely unaltered space within the urban fabric. Spaces such as alleyways, vacant lots, old parking lots, and the rooftops of buildings were put to use. In this way the park became less difficult to plan for because it used the space that was already there and often times no good for any other purpose. The final characteristic indicative of this new park was fluidity. This type of space was supposed to mesh with the urban environment such that "park flowed into city and city into park." Such a park seems not to provide an antidote to the city environment and infrastructure as Olmsted may have envisioned, but rather embraces the city. The open space movement sought to combine the city and park in a display of composite art.5

The results of such a new movement were new types of parks like the "pocket park," and "adventure playland." A pocket park is to be found in the nooks and crannies of urban America that often seem to have no other use than for dumpsters, trash, soot, or illegally parked cars. But with intelligent planning and some creative landscape architecture these eyesores can be converted into green space. The pocket park, when it appeared in American urban landscapes, challenged the traditional views of both the inner city and urban park. Not all such parks even reside within the realm of traditional green space. They may have brick, asphalt or cobblestone surface, with fountains, benches or sculpture, and only a few trees or potted plants. They do typically contain some greenery and nevertheless provide that break, that vibrant oasis within the cityscape, common to all green space. Pocket parks have been slapped down on streets and sidewalks, slipped into alleys, and sandwiched beneath the undersides of bridges and freeways. The adventure playland, designed specifically to stimulate the minds and hearts of children, is similarly flexible. And not only have these playgrounds been fit into most any place, they utilize unorthodox play equipment which adds a second element of pragmatism. The original idea in Europe was that children would build their own play equipment from bricks, lumber, rope, and even nails. In America, this has translated to immobile railroad ties, jungle gyms, or prefab concrete sculptures.6

The greenway concept appears to borrow several ideals from this Open Space Movement. The 1980 greenway master plan for Mecklenburg County lists one primary objective for a new greenways system as "open space preservation" and in their layout greenways do take advantage of difficult floodplain land. The new greenways were to be a flexible means by which the County could preserve whatever unclaimed or undisturbed land remained in the urban region. Flexibility was also inherent in the uses prescribed for the greenways. Another objective sought to provide both active and passive recreation to local citizens. Thus, this new park system did follow the open space movement in terms of some of its land use objectives.

It is also quite possible that the concept behind greenways has its origin in time much earlier than the open space movement. Frederick Law Olmsted coined the term parkway as far back as 1865 to mean a linear park.7 Conservationists in the early years of this century proposed trails to help protect regions of natural beauty. A trail seemed at the time a proper way to bring humans into contact with nature while also preserving animal habitats and woodlands. The John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California carries the legacy of that famed conservationist and is an example of a greenway based on ridgelines and valleys. In 1921, Benton McKaye completed perhaps America's most famous greenway, the Appalachian Trail that runs the length of that mountain system from Maine to Georgia. A closer look at the ideology behind modern greenways, in fact, suggests that the environmental impacts carry more weight than the impacts of efficient land-use planning.

Whatever the exact origins of modern greenways, the precedent for their development in North Carolina was set first in Raleigh in 1971. The Capital City Greenway project was the first of its kind in the state and influenced the organization of later greenway programs throughout North Carolina, including that in Mecklenburg County. Discussion of greenways began in the 1969 Raleigh Parks and Recreation master plan that recommended a system of "green fingers" that would curb unchecked real estate and road development and provide flood control on the tributaries of the Neuse River. Then in 1971, William Flournoy, a graduate student at North Carolina State University's School of Design, produced the document Capital City Greenway. This 100-page report detailed the benefits of such a system, recommended specific open spaces, outlined means of land acquisition, and was the first proactive step taken to create a greenway system in the capital city. The entire study was conducted on one $1500 grant awarded to Flournoy the previous year by an annual city program that funded student recreation-related projects at NCSU. In 1973, the Raleigh City Council took the next step by appointing an 18-member greenway advisory commission that would cultivate interest and activism towards greenways within the public. The commission held dozens of public meetings at the neighborhood level so as to educate the townspeople. The commission's dedication to pursuing Raleigh's politically powerful neighborhoods and several destructive floods resulted in the passing of a bond issue to fund the New Capital City Greenway. Construction began in 1975 and by 1990 the greenway stretched 27 miles along floodplain corridors throughout the city.8

The process by which Charlotte came to develop its greenway system was much less direct and consequently the legacy left behind much less impressive than its Raleigh counterpart. The failures of early greenway discussion in the 1970s are clearly due to the lack of leadership and a well-stated philosophy. Greenways were mentioned in Charlotte actually before Raleigh in the 1966 recreation master plan completed for the city by the Charles M. Graves Organization. The master plan cited the benefits of greenways as being providers of active and passive recreation, spaces that preserve the integrity of urban residential areas, and "logical natural elements useful in creating a sense of physical form and order within a city."9 These were clear and strong recommendations but they provided little direction for the city or county to fulfill them.

In 1974, the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission appointed a 13-member committee to study the feasibility of a greenway system. The county park and recreation commission was only two years old but already taking a more active role than its city counterpart in acquiring land for the purposes of open space preservation. The appointed committee worked to design a system that would both establish linkages among the existing parks and follow the projected population growth within the county. The result of this venture was a report designating 20 potential creeks as sites for a greenway network.10 Yet here again, the report detailed no effective methods for acquisition of the necessary land, forever the missing link in the evolution of public green space.

In 1975, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission even hopped onto the greenway bandwagon by listing possible benefits to a proposed system. The Planning Commission also focused on park linkages, and beautification of urban growth centers. They too, however, failed to give the bandwagon any sort of push and greenways remained stalled in the city and county.

Push finally came to shove in 1978. In November of that year, the county passed a park bonds package that amounted to $19.7 million over the next seven years. Beginning in 1980, the larger objective of greenway acquisition was to receive $4 million of this bond. In addition, $750,000 was then to be provided for subsequent greenway development. In February 1980, the county appointed the Greenway Site Selection Committee to study feasibility of development and to determine the optimum use of the $4 million. Their product was the 1980 master plan.11

When Charlotte and Mecklenburg County began this greenway project, they were still tackling a concept that was unfamiliar to most of the public. Greenways had been in existence elsewhere for many years, however, and there were role model programs that the Queen City looked at in producing the 1980 plan. London, England, created one of the first urban greenway systems with the Green Belt Act of 1938. The act preserved natural areas for the shaping of urban growth. A newer example from Europe was the town of Amstelveen, an extension of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The entire town was designed as a system of greenways and canals that were bordered by parks and reclaimed land. In the United States, some of the most successful programs were in Boulder, Colorado, Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, and in Cedar Rapids, IA.12

What these role model programs had done was to successfully design and utilize a corridor system. The ideology of greenways is tied to the ideology of corridors, their characteristics, environmental, economic and social benefits. The corridor concept involves two types of corridors: natural - rivers, shorelines, ridge tops and man-made - railroads, canals, roads, utility lines. In all cases, the characteristics of the landscape elements are that they are longer than they are wide and that they are unifying features within a landscape. Corridors are "unifying" in that they connect items of the same kind, whether those items be vegetation, soil, animal species, or historically significant buildings.13

Natural corridors play a significant role in the ecology of a landscape. Corridors can preserve and connect elements in the landscape of the same age and kind. They also mandate how man interacts with a landscape by providing him a specific path. Corridors act as conduits for all types of life. In this way, they allow species to migrate, escape danger, and breed. They allow for the flow of pollen, seeds and other nutrients. Ultimately in this way, natural corridors combat biological fragmentation within an ecosystem and the bad things that go along with that such as species endangerment, erosion, defoliation, and interbreeding. Successful natural corridors allow for biological succession and can withstand drought, flood, or fire. In an urban environment these natural corridors can have a significant impact on the landscape ecology.14

Man-made corridors preserve built elements of a landscape having cultural or architectural significance. Man-made corridors typically lie along railroads, canals or paths. These landscape elements have a cultural significance because through history man has traveled over them or settled near them. The corridors themselves are a representation of earlier peoples and cultures. One fine example of such a greenway is the Delaware and Lehigh Canal National Heritage Corridor. Extending 150 miles from Wilkes-Barre to Bristol, PA, this corridor combines railways, a towpath canal, and industrial towns. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, there is the Bethabara Trail Greenway, built around the remains of the old Moravian town of Bethabara. Moravians settled in the Winston-Salem area in the 18th century on what they called the Wachovia tract. The greenway highlights this archeological project and thus includes buildings, artifacts and landscape.15

Much of the greenway system that presently exists in Charotte was planned between February and June of 1980. In those months, the Greenway Site Selection Committee worked to research the benefits of a greenway system in the city, the functions of a future greenway, the feasibility of greenway trails on 20 creeks and streams, and finally an evaluation of those various waterways. All this was recorded in the final report, which itself was the graduate thesis for Joan Sigmon, a master's student in Geography and Earth Science at UNCC. While this report did not provide an effective implementation strategy, it created the network upon which greenways are still being constructed. This network was both a landscape ideology and physical map for Charlotte greenways.

At the time, Charlotte had already a greenway pilot project in the McAlpine Greenway, a 300-acre park completed in July 1979. This pioneer greenway consisted of four miles of trails and bikeways, soccer fields, a boardwalk, and a lake to be stocked for fishing. It remains to this day the longest single tract of greenway in the city and county. Situated between Sardis Road and Independence Boulevard, the city developed McAlpine in the fastest growing region of Charlotte and by 1980 it attracted some 5000 visitors weekly. The park was unique in that is sat upon the old Monroe Road landfill. It also linked with the existing Boyce Road Park. The greenway was an excellent pilot because it illustrated so many of the benefits that the 1980 master plan sought to impress upon Charlotteans.16

In discussing landscape ideology, the report attempts to answer the question of "why?" that was relentlessly put to the greenways issue. The report opens with predictions on the future growth of the county and the statistic of park acres per 1000 people. As of 1978, Charlotte-Mecklenburg was considerably behind other North Carolina cities in this statistic, providing only 6.73 acres per 1000 people. Greensboro-Guilford, for instance, provided its citizens with 27.17 acres and Asheboro-Buncombe maintained 87.31 acres per every 1000 persons. The report grimly predicted that Charlotte would be 4,993 acres below the standard by 1995.17  What this prognosticating suggests is that greenways were perceived, at least, by the writers of this report, as a large solution to this park shortage. The county believed at the time that a system of greenways would either make up the acreage lacking in Charlotte's park statistics or would physically reach more people than the current acreage was.

Many of the listed benefits of a greenway system were tied to environmental concerns rather than planning or even recreation issues. Flood control, wildlife preservation, air and water pollution control, and microclimate control were the first answers posed to any reader's question of "why?" Greenways are the only form of green space in this examination that has this environmentalist bend to them. This is not just a marketing ploy, either. They are environmentally sound parks and have become a popular green space alternative as environmental consciousness has increased within the public since the early 1970s.

The master plan seems to implicitly show how greenways were a natural outcome of state and federal legislation on the environment. In listing benefits of the system, the report repeatedly brags about its compliance with various acts and laws. The 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments set 1983 as a target for national water clean up and greenways will only be part of this solution. The 1973 North Carolina Sedimentation Pollution Control Act set standards to reduce pollution by sedimentation without hindering development of the state. Greenways seemed to promise development that would simultaneously reduce sedimentation. Finally the 1971 North Carolina Natural Scenic Rivers Act, which recognized the scenic, recreational, historic, educational, and scientific value of rivers, creeks and streams, seemed to point to greenways as a park alternative.18

The report also lists social and economic reasons for greenways in the county. Social ideology behind greenways revolves around the connections greenways strive to create. Greenways bring physical and thereby social cohesion to the urban landscape. The economic pluses of greenways are wrapped up in property values and property taxes. Put simply, greenways would increase adjacent property values but moderate taxes by restraining expensive floodplain development and reducing flood damage costs.

Ultimately the 1980 Master Plan creates a linear park system out of 20 creeks and streams to serve four objectives. The first is "provision of both active and passive recreation for the areas of the county with the largest present and potential needs." In designing the system, the county strove for parks that would reach as many people as possible. The next objective is "supplementation of the developing park system; linkage between neighborhoods, commercial centers, parks, schools and other urban growth areas." Linkages and connections are key words in greenway ideology. The third objective relating to the Open Space Movement is "open space preservation." Lastly, the ambitious objective of "reduction of reliance upon the automobile within the urban region" hints at the increased possibilities for intra-city biking and jogging that come with greenways.19

The original Master Plan took just as long explaining the rationale behind the prioritizing of creeks and stream as they did explaining the rationale behind the greenways themselves. The 20 waterways under consideration were evaluated under site and situation characteristics. Site characteristics were topography, vegetation or soil, while situational characteristics were the land uses nearby or the accessibility of the creek to all. All such information was gathered on "streamwalks" through the muck, rocks and rapids.20  Then the planners took all this information and put it into a matrix that gave a numerical value and thus rating to each stream. Though this rating was not used to prioritize creeks and streams it did make for easier comparisons between the values of different creeks.21  The end result was a system of linear green spaces that the city and county are still trying to realize.

The "Green Necklace" can only really be appreciated by viewing it completely on a map and then walking down each one of its streams. What it accomplishes is that it makes Charlotte and Mecklenburg County seem fractions smaller. It is like a new system of pathways that connect the entire city and that you never even knew existed. These creeks are to most Charlotteans merely little ribbons of water that they pass over in their cars. Folks might not even realize that a creek like Four Mile Creek is actually more than four miles long. You may only pass over it on one particular bridge. Most don't realize that Little Sugar Creek runs beyond the border with South Carolina or that Long Creek runs all the way to the Catawba River. Greenways do not just promise a system for pedestrian and bicycle travel to all far points in the county either but a network that connects within itself many times over.

In completing the green space evolution, as it stood in 1990, the greenway is a radical departure from the past in several ways. It proposes a total system of natural landscape that stretches like a spider' web over Charlotte. None of the other green alternatives are nearly so pervasive in their scheme. This ambitious plan has no doubt slowed the efforts to construct the system. Greenways are in no way a private enterprise but have been a public project from the start, formulated entirely by committee. Though planners continue to produce innovative ideas on paper, this public aspect may also hinder the evolutionary process. The ideology behind greenways is also unlike that embodied in the other landforms. Tax benefits, environmental statistics, and land-use planning theory are certainly more cut and dry than the words of men like Latta, Nolen or even Arthur Jones but they make sense for the modern city. Greenways cater to an urban culture that demands efficient use of its time, maximum pleasure and minimum inconvenience. If implemented fully, they would provide instant-gratification green space.

Since the adoption of the 1980 Master Plan, considerably more had been accomplished on paper than on land. In May 1999 the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners adopted a new master plan, the first official update of the 1980 plan.22 The plan is much more developed in its implementation planning and expands the Green Necklace from the 1980 planned mileage of 73.7 miles to 214.6 total miles of green space.23  However, the report also makes it clear that as of 1999, only 29.9 miles of greenways actually exist on land.24  In this respect, this chapter describes more of a policy evolution than a land evolution. Built or not, greenways are the alternative under consideration at the close of this century and are subject to the same factors of human agency and landscape ideology as previous species of green space.