Follow the Green, Grassy Road

August 12, 2021
Landscape Architecture Sustainability Parks & Open Space

Designed to get people somewhere, greenway trails connect parks, link communities and create expansive networks for non-motorized transportation.

Long and linear, greenway trails often follow the path of natural features in existing landscapes, such as streams or rivers and are sometimes developed along unused railway corridors. These grassy or vegetated areas can be created and cultivated or reclaimed and improved for public recreation use, and unlike typical trails, are designed to get people somewhere, often connecting parks, linking communities or even creating regional or statewide networks for non-motorized transportation. The most successful trails are ones that include destinations or stopping points along the way to give the community a reason to travel, whether for recreation or functional reasons.

The Many Benefits of Greenways 

For runners and cyclists, rather than circling the same one-to-two-mile loop at a park, greenways offer the chance to run or bike for many miles and never see the same scenery. In many of the city, county or state-wide trail-planning projects RDG has designed, the resulting plan allows users to bike upwards of 30 miles on a trail going from community to community without crossing a road.

One such example of this is the Gray’s Station Master Plan project in Des Moines, Iowa. Currently in development with plans to open in the summer of 2020, this 84-acre neighborhood is designed as an area where people of all ages can enjoy a unique combination of urban and natural amenities. Built on a green framework that promotes the safe movement of pedestrians and bicyclists over the efficient movement of motorists, the physical and social connection among users occurs through these lush greenways and surrounding spaces.  

Standing Bear Lake Trail in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo by Kun Zhang.

Connecting downtown areas or assorted parks via greenway trails provides an alternative to driving and encourages visitors to walk or bike instead, improving both their health and the environment, and increasing safety for cyclists and pedestrians. Practically speaking, trails can offer easier access to schools and grocery stores for those without a car and welcome in communities that have limited publicly accessible green spaces.

Greenway trails can help improve the health of waterways and natural areas in the community.  When a trail follows the path of a stream, its presence prevents development from coming too close. Or, the decision to create a greenway may reclaim previously developed land and return it to a more natural state, over time allowing native plants and wildlife to return, improving drainage in the areas and decreasing pollution.

This article was originally published in August 2016 and updated in August 2021.

Written by Scott Crawford, Landscape Architect