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Rambling: will Americans do it?

In downtown Stuttgart, West Germany, the weekday "rush hour" means hundreds of people walking to work on an elaborate system of trails and walkways leading into city center from the outlying residential areas. Tiny Switzerland's trail density, if matched in the U.S., would mean seven million miles of pathways here. Holland has trails on virtually every dike, and every city and village in Denmark seems to be linked with a trail.

Are we missing something in this nation? Should we look into the activity called "rambling"-So popular that the European Ramblers Association boasts 2.5 million members in 20 countries? Those are good questions to ask the 15 Americans-this writer included-who visited five European countries last spring as part of a Trails Information Exchange Tour sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. The WalkWays Center and the American Trails Network planned the trip with British host Arthur Howcroft, Chairman of the European Ramblers Walking Committee.

Those 15 Americans will tell you emphatically that we can learn much from the creative ways in which European nations meet the people's needs for quality outdoor experiences.

"Well, " you might say, " it's different in Europe. Those are relatively small countries with very dense populations." True, but why does our being big and blessed with a less dense population reduce America's ability to provide trails and walkways close to home? The answer, of course, is that it doesn't! We simply haven't recognized our enormous potential, or perhaps haven't had the right incentives to realize it.

The incentives are there if we will but notice. The mental benefits of walking are well known. Doctors have long regarded walking as the ideal exercise for keeping fit. And finally, the economic benefits of trails and walking are beginning to be recognized. For example, a quality outdoor environment or a shopping area accessed by walking can become a major draw for tourism and business growth in a community.

Trail-related activities can have positive effects in almost every aspect of human existence. Americans today are seeking out safe, attractive places to walk, especially close to home. We are fast becoming aware that if a place is to be desirable and livable, it must be walkable.

The Europeans have known that for centuries, and they take their on-foot activity seriously, moving it a long step beyond plain old walking. Those millions of enthusiasts do what they call "rambling"-officially defined as walking for pleasure with or without a definite route. It encompasses what we would call hiking, walking, strolling, climbing, ambling, wandering-and even commuting.

There is reason aplenty to increase the availability of clean, attractive walking opportunities in America. For example, how many times have you arrived at one of our famous chain hotels and been unable to get beyond the parking lot on foot?

And the desire for more and better walking facilities is ripe as well. Reports show that walking is now the most popular and one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in America.

But if Americans are to be afforded the pleasures of rambling as Europeans enjoy them, there are some actions we must take.

First, we must insist that planners and developers build walkways and inviting open spaces into their projects. How frustrating it is to look out your apartment at a new shopping center, but be unable to get there without retrieving your car from the garage and driving 10 minutes each way through maddening traffic! Planners must accommodate walkers.

Europeans do that as a matter of course. Our touring group observed it in every country visited-a railroad bridge in Belgium with a pedestrian way; a walkway tunnel under the autobahn linking a West German city with residential areas; special bridge for walkers in Paris; greenways in Switzerland for the use of shoppers and workers.

Craig Evans, President of the WalkWays Center in Washington, DC, stated in his annual report: "A walkway system can be a showcase of how existing features in a landscape-an abandoned railroad right-of-way, utility corridors, city sidewalks, a canal towpath, a city dock-can be thoughtfully adapted to form a unified and useful outdoor space. It creates a public environment where people want to gather, explore, and learn. That promotes conservation at its most basic level-knowing our World. "

Everywhere in Europe we saw examples of sterile urban landscapes converted to walking ways enhanced with plantings of trees and other greenery. They ranged from single paths to entire cities redesigned to accommodate people on foot. The quality of life and the economy both benefited.

Two issues need particular attention in this country-availability of easily accessible areas of open space, and the investments to make them usable.

We are perhaps the wealthiest nation in the world when measured by the proportion of publicly owned land. We have the world's finest systems of National Parks, National Forests, and Wildlife Refuges, and the many holdings of state and local governments. But these vast holdings are poorly distributed in terms of nearness to the population. Much of the federal estate is in the West and Alaska, and all but unreachable for much of the urban population. Even "close-by" National Forests are not accessible to people by foot or public transportation.

Private properties hold the key to linking people to much of the public lands. But private land is often not available, or is too expensive to be purchased for public use. Further, there has been little incentive for the private landowner to allow public use on these lands, due to the liability burden.

Again, the European situation offers examples. We American visitors had been led to believe that the European trespass "rights" were far different from those in the U.S. That is not entirely so. In England, for example, the citizen does not have the inherent right to cross another's property. That privilege has been hammered out over the years by a unique partnership of citizens, landowners, and government, through England's Countryside Commission. Central to the Commission's remarkable success has been the adoption of a user code of ethics, which assures that the land and activities are protected and that the consequences of the user's activity are his responsibility and not the landowner's.

If we Americans are to realize the potential of linking people with the land, we must reform the liability laws of our states so that private landowners are not exposed to the outrageous burden of irresponsible user action.

As responsible citizens, we can adopt and enforce upon ourselves a code of behavior that will warrant invitation to use private land.

Such efforts, combined with economic incentives where appropriate, should open up many of the crucially needed private lands. Those incentives might take the form of tax reductions, parking fees, user fees, or even revenue generated by a "Passport" system allowing people to utilize a pattern of lands in a particular area.

Lastly, it is time to renew and expand the spirit of volunteerism. No country or community can any longer afford to provide for all the needs and desires of its citizenry through tax-supported government activity. In Europe volunteers are responsible for the majority of trail budding and maintenance and even rights-of-way acquisition.

Many fine volunteer programs already exist in this nation. The acquisition of open space, greenways, and trails is entirely feasible. Government needs to encourage and assist those efforts rather than placing unwarranted restrictions and red tape upon them. The energy and imagination of a motivated public can far exceed what government can do alone.

We can become a nation of "ramblers." We can greatly extend the benefits of re-creation gained by putting ourselves on foot in a natural environment. The benefits are substantial, and the investment is within our means.

Pathways to Progress

As more and more Americans turn to walking as a regular lar form of recreation, they are beginning to voice dissatisfaction with their inability to find safe, attractive places to walk near their homes. And they are taking action to change public policies which, for the past 40 years, have allowed city planners and builders to consistently, ignore the walker and pedestrian in favor of the automobile.

As a result, more and more communities are beginning to pay greater attention to the walker.

For example, all redevelopment projects along the Hudson River waterfront in New Jersey must now include a publicly accessible walkway Eventually these segments will be linked up to form a continuous path with a 17-mile-long view of the Manhattan skyline, passing through parks and historical sites en route.

Minneapolis has a double loop of 40-mile-long trails-one reserved exclusively for bicyclists, rollerskaters, and skateboarders and the other for walkers and joggers-which encircle a necklace of lakes within the city limits.

A new coalition of citizen groups and public agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area is creating a double ring of trails, one along the Bay the other following mountain ridges in a 400-mile loop through nine counties. A series of "spoke" trails leading through the Bay Area's communities is also envisioned.

Other communities are turning abandoned railroad rights-of-way into trails. And groups in High Point, North Carolina; Peoria, Illinois; Marion, Kansas; St. George, Utah; and hundreds of other communities across the nation have initiated walkway and trail projects. Several have been started by two or three neighbors or co-workers who were looking for a better place to walk and decided to take matters into their own hands. Such small efforts can set the stage for gaining the support and money needed to establish more extensive pathway systems, with easements across private property to link segments together.

Several national and regional groups can help if you want to improve the walking, bicycling, or other pathway opportunities in your community 7hose organizations include:

The WalkWays Center, 733 15th St. NW, Suite 427, Washington, DC 20005; phone 202 737-9555.

*Rails-to-Trails Conservancy 1400 16th St. NW, Dept. AF, Washington, DC 20036; phone 202 797-5400.

*American Hiking Society 1015 31st St. NW, Washington, DC 20007; phone 202 385-3252.

*Appalachian Mountain Club, 5 Joy St., Boston, MA 02108; phone 617 523-0636.

* American Trails, 1400 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.
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Title Annotation:Greenways & Rambling: Ideas for Healthier Cities; includes related article
Author:Evans, Craig
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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