Having grown up in another country, there are many words and sayings in English that escape me. Some months back, during a conversation about the Peachtree Creek Greenway, one strange word stood out -- NIMBY. After 15 years in this country, I am not afraid to ask for explanations, so I asked what that word meant. I was told that NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my back yard.”
For some days, I pondered over this word, especially since the Greenway is planned to run along the creek just behind my house. What is happening in our communities that there is a need for this NIMBY word? Why the reluctance of having something in my back yard as opposed to in the front of the house?
The Advantages of a Creekside Greenway and Trail
Many people have “turned the page” on the isolated suburban way of life and welcome a more integrated, walkable, public atmosphere in their choice of where to live. Other people are still doubtful of what would happen if we opened our secluded and thus “protected” neighborhoods.
For me, a neighbor living in Flair Forest, creating a new link between my home and what neighboring areas have to offer would translate into a gain and not in any way a loss. There already is a big wide street in front of my house giving anyone access to my property. Why would a trail in the back be any different?
What if it provided my family and me with an alternative to using the ubiquitous car? If such a trail existed, my boys and I could ride to Echo Ridge for tennis class, and it would provide them with independence to ride by themselves when they are old enough. We could visit friends in neighboring communities, take a good run without needing to watch out for cars, or take a stroll along the creek in urban-nature. I would have access to all of this from my back yard. What is the current alternative? A trashed dirty stream!
From Isolation to Ownership
During the last few decades, some cities and counties have turned things around for their residents. Solutions for day-to day problems have come from grassroots movements and local politicians willing to try different approaches. Their goal was to encourage isolated residents to feel part of the city or county they lived in and to make the residents feel that they owned their environment.
Innovation comes from thinking differently. Our suburban way of life has kept us within our homes and distant from our neighbors, creating a sense of insecurity because we do not know the people who live around us. Look outside your home window. There is no one, or maybe the occasional jogger and dog walker. Kids on bikes? No. Kids playing basketball at the neighbors? Climbing trees? No. Mostly because we don’t think that the streets are safe, and we are afraid of who might be “out there.”
We must start thinking differently about our social environment and start considering how diverse parts of our society might interact. We must also look for alternatives that have worked elsewhere. Some innovative ideas might have eye-opening results, such as bringing low income areas in contact with higher income ones, re-thinking transportation outside the automobile, and investing in unusual infrastructure.
In the 1990s, Medellin (Colombia) was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but in less than two decades the city decreased its violence by 79% by investing in “social urbanism”—putting first-grade parks and libraries in the most disenfranchised communities and integrating these areas with more affluent areas through cable cars, pedestrian walkways and public transportation. The result transformed Medellin from the world’s most violent capital into a cultural center and tourist destination. Similarly, in Kingston (Jamaica) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) education, employment and recreation for underprivileged groups are at the forefront of the cities’ investments that have resulted in decreased violence and safer communities.[i]
Public Spaces – Parks and Trails
Making the social environment more livable and more inclusive is important because the future vitality of a city or county depends on building integrated and inclusive cohesion. This is where public spaces come in. Public spaces create value to areas. Great public spaces help a society thrive. Where people go and where people meet are at the core of what makes the difference. No matter how high the high-rises and how wide the avenues, it is the public spaces in-between that are enjoyed by people and make a difference during a lunch break, an evening jog or an afternoon reading on the perfect bench.
Public spaces have transformed cities. The Swamp Rabbit Trail in South Carolina is a 19.9 mile multi-use linear park connecting Greenville’s city center to Travelers Rest town. The “unrealistic dream,” as it was first called, runs along the Reedy River repurposing an old railroad corridor. Construction started in 2005 and today draws more than 500,000 people a year, while nearby businesses have increased their sales by 85%. The trail transformed a sketchy insecure downtown area into an energetic bustling place. In 2016, Greenville County Recreation estimated the trail's economic impact on the county to be $7 million annually. The trail is now the gem of Greenville, and its nickname changed to the official “Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail.”[ii]
The New York High Line is another example of out-of-the-box thinking. This 1.45 mile-long elevated freight rail structure was destined for demolition in the 1980s. The neglected structure was saved by residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and transformed into an elevated linear greenway where more than four million people enjoy recreation in New York’s West Side. Today it is nicknamed “the Park in the Sky.”[iii]
In 2005, Brooklyn created a plan to transform two miles of abandoned and degraded industrial waterfront into a continuous park. Today the park offers active recreation, passive space, and restored habitat, not only changing the lives of people in the area, but the image of Brooklyn itself. This public space has integrated the borough as bridges and streets had not, making the East River part of the city and its connectivity. Now these parks are visited by people from all over the city as well as tourists who used to stay within Manhattan.[iv]
Other cities are also innovating using public spaces. Los Angeles’s river trail bike path, Detroit’s Vision of Greenways, and Raleigh’s Greenway and Trail System[v] are just a few examples of how well-thought-out public spaces attract and integrate people while improving long-forgotten and rundown areas. The positive outcome in all these efforts is not manufactured; it comes as a result of people’s desire for such amenities. Residents want an accessible go-to place to enjoy being outside, a place where people of all walks of life can interact, bump into one another and feel comfortable amongst others through using a common public space.
Public spaces transform cities and counties. Without these spaces, we have nowhere to enjoy beyond our back yards (if we are lucky enough to have one). Without these spaces, we become isolated in our home. We feel alone, and a sense of insecurity overcomes us. Public spaces are the places where we are able to come together. They give us a sense of belonging and thus of inclusion. They are what make residents want to live in their city or county.
Well-thought-out public spaces will change how we live and how we feel about our environment. Let us re-think, transform, imagine, create and allow ourselves the “risk” of change for what has proven to make other areas thrive. Let us connect with the next neighborhood and reach neighboring cities through a park that will take us there through a Greenway.
Notes and References
“The most far-reaching strategy for strengthening fragile cities involves investment in measures to boost social cohesion and mobility. Investments in reliable public transportation, inclusive public spaces, and pro-poor social policies can go a long way toward improving safety,” https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jan/26/fragile-cities-stability-development-robert-muggah
[iv] Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Open Space Master Plan