by Tim Beatley

Mindy Fulllilove, Columbia University psychiatrist and author, likens the pedestrian pathways and urban trails to arteries in the circulatory system of a city: essential conditions for creating a healthy city. There is much to be said for cities where neighborhoods are physically connected, and where it is possible to move across a city easily (and joyfully).  A coherent sense of one’s entire city is one benefit, as well as an ability to experience the different ecological zones and habitats there. A well-developed urban trail system delivers significant health benefits, helps to entice and tempt residents outside, and is recognized as a key positive attribute of quality of life.

The cities in our Biophilic Cities Network offer some inspirational examples of the importance and power of investing in networks of urban pathways and trails. For instance, Singapore continues to expand its Park Connectors system, tying together major parks and nature areas and making it remarkably easy for residents and visitors to experience nature and to spend time walking outside. Some stretches of this network offer especially dramatic perspectives on both nature and the buildings and other built elements that sit within this “city in a garden.” My favorite stretch is the Southern Ridges, where much of the trail is elevated and literally takes one through the tree canopy. The trail in several points floats above and across major roads below, and bypasses ground level car traffic through bridges like the visually striking (and quite biophilic) Henderson Waves. This bridge serves itself as new vertical public space, as visitors and residents stop to rest or picnic at the top. One walking on this stretch of the Park Connectors is likely to experience a lot of nature, from birds and abundant butterflies, to nature less expected like the Monitor Lizard that I encountered one day on this trail.

In New York City, Mindy Fullilove has been instrumental in creating the so-called Giraffe Path–a 6-mile long pathway connecting seven different parks in northern Manhattan. Hike the Heights is a yearly event that Fullilove and others have helped create which “invites New Yorkers to explore and celebrate the area’s natural treasures by combining physical activity, art and fun!”  One aspect of this event is the “Parade of Giraffes,” where kids create giraffes of all shapes and sizes, and then displayed in the parks along the walking route.

What are some of the desirable qualities of an urban trail system? It should provide opportunities for short meaders, as well as longer treks, and should ideally connect important sites and destinations. Urban trails offer the chance for brief respites, to see and experience nature close to where we live and work, and to provide a unique and different way to see and experience the city.  A trail system ought to accomodate a variety of different ways of moving through these spaces (e.g. hiking, biking, cross country skiing).

A trail system ought to accomodate a variety of different ways of moving through these spaces (e.g. hiking, biking, cross-country skiing). As an example of diversity, consider Anchorage: where there are more than 120 miles of paved, multi-use trails, but also 130 miles of “plowed winter walkways,” and extensive ski trails, and even 36 miles of dog mushing trails! Once an urban trail network exists there is still work to be done in stimulating its use, and in getting people outside and walking through the city.  Events and celebrations are important, as the Hike the Heights event suggests. Urban trail maps are also helpful, such as the Hike the Heights Map. Increasingly, iPhone apps can direct and guide and inform about the green spaces, parks and sites to visit (e.g. See TrailLink, developed by the Rails to Trails Conservancy), but they can also be tools for generating spontaneous group walks and hikes, bringing urban residents together around walking and hiking. There are a number of other apps, such as Gociety and Snowflake, aimed at helping to coordinate social activities and events such as skiing and hiking. Signage and wayfinding are other important elements, and maintenance and safety are critical as well.

Other important elements, and maintenance and safety are critical as well. Anchorage has one of the most extensive systems of urban trails anywhere, and an army of citizen-volunteers–through a program called Trail Watch–who patrol and monitor the trails, equipped with their cell phones can be identified by their visible arm bands.

Thinking about the many potential ways that humans move across a city further helps us to think about the needs of the many other species we share city spaces with and how they must move around as well. Here we need to be equally concerned with their movement and safety. A notion of the city as habitat understands that there are many biological routes and pathways and trails followed by non-humans (from fish and bird migration routes, to micro-movements of insects, amphibians and small mammals crossing streets and city spaces).  Singapore has been a leader in this regard as well. There is an initiative there called “Nature Ways,” aimed at creating biological connections and corridors between biodiversity-rich sites in the city. Singapore NParks is responsible for planting new trees and vegetation to ensure these connections and there are now some 60 kilometers of Nature Ways there.

The Henderson Waves Bridge is the tallest pedestrian bridge in Singapore. It is part of a larger trail that takes pedestrians through three major parks: Kent Ridge Park, Telok Blangah Hill Park and Mount Faber Park.

Other cities from Brisbane to Edmonton have invested in wildlife bridges and passageways to ensure biological connectivity for other co-inhabitants in the city. Edmonton has adopted an engineering manual that enshrines wildlife passages (or various sizes and types) as a regular design consideration in future infrastructure projects and the city has already built 27 wildlife passages to date.

Trails have the ability to physically connect different and important elements of nature in a city, provide biological connections and linkages, and also to create important spaces for bringing people together. One of the most ambitious urban trail projects is the Trilha TransCarioca, a trails network under development in Rio de Janeiro. As the map indicates, it would traverse the city allowing a resident to travel from shore to mountaintop, linking major parks and ecosystems, including the city’s iconic Tijuca National Park. I spoke recently with Pedro Menezes, who came up with the idea for the trail some twenty years ago and is finally seeing it come to fruition. The vision is audacious indeed–eventually is would extend 250 kilometers in length, and already some 120 kilometers have been built and are open to the public. Providing movement corridors for species, such as toucans, is a primary goal. “We also want the trail to put the Rio population closer to its nature”, Menezes tells me, “so they can cherish more, appreciate more the value of it both in terms of recreation but also in terms of ecosystem services…” So far it has been largely driven by volunteer help, with some 2000 volunteers actively involved. “The enthusiasm is great,” Menezes says, telling me about a recent volunteer training event where they expected 250 to sign up, but instead had more 1000. Such an urban trail is clearly a matter of pride for many and will certainly become over time a highly valued aspect of the Rio urban experience.

Like the Rio trail, many of our best urban trail networks occur along water, offering unusually impressive vistas of nature and respond to our innate tendency toward finding places of “prospect and refuge.” Coastal cities from Oslo to San Francisco to Sydney offer examples of how walking can walking, jogging, hiking can place one in close proximity to the marine world. The Boston HarborWalk and the new San Francisco Blue Greenway are positive examples of this trend.

Years ago we lived for a time in Sydney, Australia, and were especially impressed by the ability to walk and hike along the steep edges of that coastline, connecting beaches and providing unusually dramatic views of the ocean and shoreline.

These kinds of urban trails and pathways that bring us in close proximity to water represent an important element of blue urbanism, but in many cities are going even further, now commonly thinking about the potential of blue trails that exist on or in the water–along riverways and waterways that could be traversed by canoe, kayak, or water taxi. In partner city Milwaukee there is an Urban Water Trail, and an elaborate network of water trails in New York, connected all five boroughs there.  Partner city Wellington, New Zealand, has even established a snorkel trail, a part of the Taputeranga Marine Reserve.

Coogee Sydney Coastal Walk

How cities might make equip citizens to make the most of these water trails is an interesting question, and I am intrigued by recent experiments with some form of canoe-share or kayak-share, similar to (or in combination with) bike-share systems now common in cities around the world. Purchasing a canoe or a kayak is a significant obstacle and creatively making such bluescape vehicles easily usable, for short periods of time, would be helpful indeed.

Biophilic cities, to return to Fullilove’s metaphor, require a healthy circulatory system of trails and pathways–to provide social and biological connections. But also biophilic cities allow us explore, to discover, to experience close to where we live and work, moments of exhilaration and awe, and to provide vantage points and perspectives that allow us to see the whole of a place, and to understand where we sit within this urban ecological tableau.