As a member of the City of Asheville Greenway Committee and Multimodal Commission, Rich has a long history of advocacy for parks and green spaces that run through and connect neighborhoods. He was instrumental in bringing greenway planning out of North and West Asheville, into East Asheville through the Swannanoa River Greenway that was funded in last year's Transportation Bond referendum. With 3.5 miles of greenway built and another 7.5 designed or in process, Rich is excited to see through the vision of a city connected by bike and walking trails through every area of town, protecting streams and forested areas from overdevelopment, and realizing the Nolen Plan vision of a city surrounded and laced through with protected natural buffers.
Not everyone can drive to the Parkway for fun, and Greenways make important off-road paths that keep cars, bicycles and pedestrians from being forced to share our narrow roads, reducing traffic and the danger of accidents, while bringing natural beauty into our urban lives. As the network grows, they'll make important ways to work and shopping for people who don't own vehicles, and they'll help reduce stormwater runoff into our local rivers and streams, along with erosion and flooding.
Five Principles for Greenway and Park Development:
1. Protect the land now, build when possible.
What does this mean? It's no secret that rapidly rising land costs are having citywide impacts, including driving up costs of right-of-way for future parks and greenways. Meanwhile, heedless development, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods, is closing off Asheville's few remaining natural areas and planned paths. The city should act quickly to set aside the land marked in the city's many citizen-generated park and greenway plans, including the city-owned lot next to St. Lawrence Basilica (known to park supporters as St. Lawrence Green and detractors as the Pit of Despair) denoted as a future park in the Downtown Master Plan. Funding for design and construction can be worked through the regular city budget process or future bond referendums, but once the land is developed, it's gone. Like Harrisburg, NC, and other area cities, the City of Asheville must also require developers planning to build on marked greenway paths or future park land to set aside easements on their property rather than build over them. Land can be used for temporary uses like popup markets or natural parks in the meantime, but questions of preserving space and funding design and construction should be kept separate.
About that downtown Basilica park... Filed under "Things you thought would be settled by now." The Downtown Master Plan calls for two more downtown parks, including one on the corner near the Civic Center. A public process is leading toward the lot being partially developed, mostly for complex city-planning "activation" reasons: the lot is surrounded by a 20-foot retaining wall that needs a building in front of it to be useful and appealing to locals. While understanding that point, Rich continues to insist that the maximum amount of space remain under city control as a true public park and plaza, not a hostile, unusable "private plaza" controlled by a private property owner.
2. Empower neighborhoods to get a head start.
What does this mean? The long timeframe for projects means neglected neighborhoods in dire need of park space and bike/walking paths have a wait ahead, even if they're slated for eventual greenways. Rich is helping spearhead a project to support neighbors volunteering land rights and labor to help string together temporary trails (called "Natural Surface Trails") while they wait their turn. If it clears the legal and technical hurdles, we could see networks of dirt and mulch trails and minimalist parks spread throughout the city under neighborhood leadership, helping us get ahead of the pace of development that's turning over many of our most beautiful areas and carving out natural respites in the midst of a bustling city.
3. Tackle gentrification at the same time.
What does this mean? The next proposed set of greenways (in Southside, Clingman, Beaucatcher, River Arts, and Oakley) specifically target historically underserved neighborhoods to help increase their transportation and recreation options. The Greenway and Multimodal Committees made these decisions deliberately, but by the same token, these are also the areas most threatened by gentrification. In some corners, critics are already saying a greenway or park is a vector for gentrification. The city needs a robust commitment to help protect threatened neighborhoods from gentrification and help longtime homeowners stay in place. The benefits of greenways are meant to be enjoyed by the people living in these neighborhoods now, not new, whiter, richer residents of a gentrified neighborhood.
4. Improve access to greenways.
What does this mean? Right now, it's hard to get to a city park or greenway unless you live on one or drive a car. Rich has helped lead an effort to build greenway "connectors", on-street bike lanes and sidewalks, that will help people get to these natural protected areas, while at the same time working to ensure that they will be accessible by bus as well. As Asheville's working people are increasingly pushed to and outside city limits, the city needs to expand bus service to follow them. To reduce traffic and the expensive toll on infrastructure of so many commuters, the city and county need to establish transit service from Arden, Swannanoa, Leicester and Enka-Candler a high priority.
5. Get on top of maintenance.
What does this mean? The Parks Deferred Maintenance List is woefully neglected. Walton Street Pool is likely to be declared unfit for use by the Health Department this summer. The restrooms at Carrier Park are only this year being repaired. Grass at City-County Plaza and trees at Pritchard Park are being damaged by foot traffic and drought. Downtown residents, burdened with protecting Pritchard Park and providing music and other programming (to reduce unwanted loitering) are considering fencing off large sections of Asheville's central park to protect it from environmental degradation. Empowering neighborhoods to take ownership and protect their own parks and greenways is a good idea, but they can't do it without city resources and support.