Greenways: A healthy investment in a community's future
Everyone knows that obesity is epidemic in the United States. Georgia has among the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the nation. These three diagnoses are connected - obesity leads to diabetes, and the most common cause of death among diabetics is heart disease. Studies have shown that regular physical activity can help people maintain a healthy weight and is more effective than medication at preventing diabetes in those who are at risk.
Unfortunately, in the United States we have traditionally planned our cities around the automobile, making it difficult to incorporate physical activity into daily life. The percentage of trips taken by bicycle or on foot by residents of urban areas in different countries is illustrative: 46 percent in the Netherlands, 34 percent in Germany, 16 percent in Britain, 12 percent in Canada, and only 7 percent in the United States.
Those of us in the health care and public health communities traditionally think of medications, diets and surgery as ways to improve health. But the "built environment" is an equally important factor. Research has shown that when people have interesting or useful destinations, and when they feel safe (from both crime and traffic), many will choose to walk or bike. Multi-use paths like those in the Oconee River Greenway Network provide safe, traffic-free environments for commuters and family-friendly recreation.
Some homeowners worry that a greenway will harm their property value. In fact, the opposite is typically true. Studies of properties adjacent to the Burke-Gilman trail in Seattle, the Luce-Line rail-trail in Minnesota, and other shared-use paths have found that being near a greenway actually increases the value of property. In our own community, condominiums and homes are popping up along the length of the North Oconee River Greenway because developers realize that it adds value and appeal to their properties.
It's important to remember that greenways are about more than just cycling, walking and jogging. They provide a green corridor through our urban landscape and a place for quiet reflection, park activities and picnics. They also are an important corridor for wildlife, and a focal point for stream and river conservation efforts.
The North Oconee River Greenway consists of about four miles of multi-use path running through the heart of town, connecting the University of Georgia with the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Funding comes largely from federal and state transportation programs and local sales tax funds; the Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission has never used condemnation to acquire property. Resources already have been secured for key additions to the greenway that will connect it to the East Athens Community Park, restore the historic rail corridor along Oconee and Oak streets to the planned park-and-ride lot at the Athens Perimeter, and continue along the river to College Station Road. Moreover, the University of Georgia is planning to build a bridge that will connect the greenway with East Campus. These are all exciting developments and will make it easier and safer than ever for commuters and students to choose bikes instead of cars, and for families to enjoy the river and its environs.
We feel strongly that expanding the greenway is good for Athens: good for the health of its citizens, good for its economy, and good for the environment. Greenways in Seattle, Madison, Wis., Washington, D.C., and Greensboro, N.C. have become a popular and important part of the public health, transportation and recreational infrastructure of those vibrant communities. They are an important investment in the health and quality of life of a community, but they are not necessarily inexpensive.
Cooperation and coordination between Athens-Clarke County's Leisure Services and Public Utilities departments is an important strategy for reducing costs and should be strongly encouraged. Sewer easements often run along rivers or other gradually down-sloping routes, making them ideal for walkers and cyclists; plus, they require access by county workers for maintenance of the line. Asking that our elected officials and Public Utilities staff consider the possibility of future greenways along appropriate sewer easement corridors is just the smart thing to do.
The Barnett Shoals Interceptor is one such corridor. It runs near hundreds of student apartments, and with the planned multi-use path from College Station along the river and then crossing to East Campus, it would become a great option for students and faculty commuting to UGA. That gets people off congested thoroughfares like College Station Road and Lexington Road during commuting hours, reduces pollution, and improves the public health. What's not to like?
• Ebell chairs the Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission and the Clarke County Board of Health.Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 050908
News, updates, commentary and more from BikeAthens. BikeAthens is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Athens, GA. BikeAthens promotes transportation and land-use policies that improve alternative modes of transportation, including pedestrian, cycling, and public transit options. The mission of our organization is to make alternative transportation a practical, convenient, and safe option for all citizens of Athens-Clarke County.