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Once known as paths through the woods, greenways are gaining popularity as hot spots for tourists and a viable form of travel for commuters eager to ditch their gas-guzzling cars.
It's happening across the globe in Egypt, where a 4,000-mile greenway proposed along the Nile River is envisioned as an international eco-tourism hub.
And it's happening (on a smaller scale) in Raleigh, home to a 68-mile trail network that connects parks, schools, hospitals and shopping centers.
A linked linear corridor of open space that usually runs along natural features such as floodplains, rivers and streams. Most greenways include a 10-foot asphalt path for walking and biking.
Three cool greenways to try in Raleigh
1. An artsy route: Enjoy sculpture pieces as you walk along a two-mile roundtrip portion of the Reedy Creek Trail on the N.C. Museum of Art grounds.
2. Take a hike: For a more challenging experience, the Lake Johnson Trail has a paved trail on the east end of the lake and a natural foot path on the west end.
3. Afternoon stroll: The Crabtree Creek Trail between Lassiter Mill Road and Kiwanis Park is ideal for strollers. It's a leisurely 3-mile route in a natural setting.
The city will mark a milestone next year with the opening of the 28-mile Lower Neuse Greenway Trail, a $30 million project connecting Raleigh with Wake Forest, Knightdale and Clayton.
"Greenways can be transformative if we expand our notion of what they can be, and what they can do for us," Chuck Flink told a packed lunchtime audience last week at the Raleigh Urban Design Center.
Before Flink rose to national prominence as founder of Greenways Inc., a company that has worked in 200 communities and 35 states, he worked as a young staffer in the city of Raleigh's planning office.
A draw for visitors
Today, Flink travels the world preaching the benefits of greenways. He told 80 or so listeners how other communities are finding success.
Greenville, S.C., tore down a highway bridge and installed an urban greenway near the Reedy River that became the centerpiece of a downtown renaissance. Restaurants, shops and residential development totaled $200 million in private investment.
Greensboro used an abandoned railroad route to create a four-mile biking and walking trail that loops around its downtown.
The key is not just to add more miles of greenways, but to make sure they connect with sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrian bridges to create an "ultimate grid," said Sig Hutchinson, a Raleigh greenway advocate.
That's how you get commuters to use them. Raleigh has sought ways to connect downtown with greenways in outlying parts of the city.
Hutchinson unveiled to the audience what he called his previously "double-secret" vision. Relying partly on existing sidewalks and paths, it would link downtown to the N.C. Museum of Art on a route that runs from the Convention Center past Central Prison, Pullen Park and Meredith College.
The route - crossing the Beltline on an existing 660-foot pedestrian bridge - would connect to the Green Environmental Education Center, Schenck Forest and Umstead State Park.
Often, sections of greenway networks are plagued by narrow sidewalks and poorly marked entrances, Hutchinson said: "These are things that just need a little bit of paint, a little bit of signage, a little bit of branding."
Greenways generate their share of complaints. Problems generally center on "user conflicts," i.e. cyclists crashing into walkers.
The field is changing, Flink said. Instead of 8-foot-wide trails, the new standard is 12 feet to allow more room for cyclists to safely pass.
As gas prices hover near $4 a gallon, more people will choose to walk or bike - making street safety even more important, Mayor Charles Meeker and advocates have said.
A 2009 community survey found that 2.5 percent of Raleigh commuters (about 10,000 people) walk to work - a 25 percent increase from 2000 figures.
Providing transportation options is important, but greenways also can showcase the Triangle's natural beauty, Hutchinson said. When the Lower Neuse Greenway Trail opens next year, hikers and bikers will gain access to a scenic stretch that previously offered few opportunities for public enjoyment. The trail will connect with an East Coast greenway running from Maine to Florida along a "mountains to sea" route, Hutchinson said.
Flink and Hutchinson paid homage to Bill Flournoy, the father of the North Carolina greenway movement. Flournoy devised Raleigh's first greenway plan as a graduate student at N.C. State University in the 1970s.
Four decades later, Raleigh is devising its first pedestrian plan - a blueprint for improving sidewalks, crosswalks, crossing signals and trails.
This fall marks the first time that money for sidewalks, bike lanes and greenways have been included in a city transportation bond referendum. The proposed $37 million bond is bound for the Oct. 11 ballot.