WHY UNITED STATES?
Carved from pristine wilderness but increasingly bereft of green spaces once characterizing the land, America preserved some of its environment thanks to visionaries like John Muir (National Parks) and Benton MacKaye (National Trails). The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has built more than 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) of bikeways utilizing abandoned railway routes. By the year 2000, there were more almost 50,000 miles (80,470 kilometers) of biking, hiking and horseback-riding trails in the United States. The crown jewel of American hiking paths may be the Appalachian Trail. Urban green spaces like New York City’s High Line, Atlanta’s Beltline, and Boston’s Greenway are recent innovations allowing cities to breathe.
OXYGEN AS NATURAL (AND NATIONAL) RESOURCE
A 1921 article written by environmentalist, Benton MacKaye, first proposed combining preservation of nature with preventing and fighting forest fires, thereby interesting federal and state authorities. This vision, published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, included camps located one day’s walk from each other. MacKaye warned that urban workers were not getting outdoor exercise in a society “undergoing the bad combination of high prices and unemployment.” True in 1921 and equally relevant today. Proposing that the United States harness “an undeveloped power – our spare time,” MacKaye envisioned Americans devoting 1% of their leisure to developing facilities for outdoor community life. Where? Precisely in the midst of urban congestion. Stating that “it fortunately happens that we have throughout the most densely populated portions of the United States a fairly continuous belt of under-developed lands, contained in the several ranges which form the Appalachian chain of mountains,” Benton MacKaye proposed a trail that would provide an opportunity for stressed workers to prevent tuberculosis (then a scourge), anemia, exhaustion and even insanity. “Oxygen is optimism” was MacKaye’s keynote. As a result of MacKaye’s seminal article, the Appalachian Trail was created, stretching almost 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) from Maine to Georgia. Today, college students, retirees, and vacationing families, hike the Appalachian Trail. Those who complete the entire trek consider their achievement a lifetime badge of honor. In addition, the band of trees and plants along the eastern United States contributes to the uptake of carbon dioxide and offers Americans an ever-renewing supply of MacKaye’s valued resource – oxygen.
SCENIC, RECREATIONAL, AND HISTORIC TRAILS
There are several kinds of trails that combine to make up the National Trails System, authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1968. National Scenic Trails (NST) include the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide, Florida, Ice Age, Natchez Trace, North Country, Pacific Crest, and Potomac Heritage. Then there are local trails that do not require Congress but need formal recognition by the secretary of agriculture or interior; these National Recreation Trails (NRT) include more than 800 (400 in national forests). Critical to the system are connecting or Side Trails: as recently as 1990, the Anvik Connector was authorized to hook up to the Iditarod, made famous for its dog race still held each year. The Iditarod is one of the final category added by Congress in 1978: National Historic Trails (NHT) include the Pony Express, the Lewis & Clark, and the Trail of Tears memorializing the U.S. Army’s 1830 relocation of 15,000 Cherokee Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the southeast to what is now Oklahoma.
RAILS TO TRAILS
The National Trails System created interest in using abandoned corridors once pioneered by the Transcontinental Railroad to create greenways, a goal facilitated by a 1983 amendment to the 1968 law. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization promoting this cause, reports that by 2001 America had more than 1000 rail trails reaching over 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers). David Burwell, founder of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, proposed in 1986 at the Rensselaerville Institute in New York an interconnected network of trails across America. That same year, the National Park Service published its National Trails Assessment with similar goal. Authored by William Penn Mott, Jr., the report contains 19 tables with status and use data as well as a map of the trail system. Today all of the data comes to life on the first Saturday of June each year when more than 3,000 trail agencies, organizations, and businesses across the United States host events celebrating National Trails Day. As developing areas of the world pave infrastructure, it is a hope that citizens and governments consider how best to preserve wilderness while providing access for people to enjoy the environment.
Not all trails need preserve wilderness; some could possibly create it. In Boston, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (locally nicknamed the “Big Dig”) moved a commuter highway underground and built a park on top. The Greenway, running right through the middle of the formerly-congested city, invites families and office workers alike to enjoy lunch by the Rings Fountain, buy local produce from seasonal farmers’ markets, and breathe fresh sea air. All the while, cars and trucks transit beneath.
Millennium Park in Chicago is another example where transport was moved underground while a park was placed on top. The old Chicago Illinois Central train yard that once was visible is now underneath a new park that featured sculptures including the famous Bean, as well as an expansion of the Chicago Art Institute.
Boston and Chicago are American examples, but one might also admire the care taken by Thames Water to preserve walking paths along England’s New River. Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon is another example, as is Madrid’s Calle-30. Why not consider such models as that proposed by the authors of Building the World in their sequel tome, Building the Future? Sportsways – biking, hiking, riding, running, walking trails – could be built atop transitways placed underground?
Davidson and Lusk Brooke consider an important benefit of urban sportsways – disaster escape routes. The Swiss Army long maintained a bicycle troop that could reach areas not accessible by vehicle. It should be noted that during disasters such as earthquakes roads are often blocked by fallen rubble. But open spaces along urban routes, such as sportsways, could easily serve as paths for disaster relief. As Joanne Riley of University of Massachusetts Boston noted, sportsways would serve well as evacuation routes because they would already be familiar to urban bikers and runners. If Boston needed to move people from the office buildings of Federal Street, what better means than the Greenway? Moreover, getting medical relief and supplies into the city would be easier if unobstructed routes were available. Sportsways, by definition, would have open spaces.
Document of Authorization
Public Law 90-543
90th Congress, S. 827
October 2, 1968
(82 Stat. 919)
To establish a national trails system, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled.
Section 1. This Act may be cited as the “National Trails System Act.”
Section 2. (a) In order to provide for the ever-increasing outdoor recreation needs of an expanding population and in order to promote public access to, travel within, and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air, outdoor areas of the Nation, trails should be established (i) primarily, near the urban areas of the Nation, and (ii) secondarily, within established scenic areas more remotely located.
(b) the purpose of this Act is to provide the means for attaining these objectives by instituting a national system of recreation and scenic trails, by designating the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail as the initial components of that system, and by prescribing the methods by which, and standards according to which, additional components may be added to the system.
- Approved, October 2, 1968.
- See Building the World, pp 641-659.
VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications
Preserving Public Health: Americans suffer from obesity; adults and children alike top the scales making people in the United States collective 17 million pounds overweight. As Michelle Obama urges, “Let’s Move!” Can environmental preservation combine with public health through hiking and biking trails?
Sportsways and Disaster: Sportsways are open-space routes, ideally combined with transport underground. An example is Boston’s Greenway with its Central Artery beneath. In the case of disaster, can sportsways serve as routes for evacuation and medical assistance? Should Mexico City, Tokyo, Istanbul or Port-au-Prince consider building sportsways through their urban areas?
To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and ABC-CLIO here. Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of following:
(* indicates printed in Notebook series)
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. 1823. For e-book, see: www.online-literature.com/cooperj/pioneers/
Davidson, Frank P. “An Action Plan for Creating an Interconnected Network of Trails across America.” Report of a conference held at the Rensselaerville Institute, Rensselaerville, NY, October 1986.
Davidson, Frank P., Kathleen Lusk Brooke, and Cherie E. Potts. “Sportsways,” chapter in Building the Future. Boston: 2012.
James, William. “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In American Youth: An Enforced Reconnaissance, edited by Thacher Winslow and Frank P. Davidson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.
MacKaye, Benton. “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” Journal of the American Institute of Architects 9 (October 1921): 325-30.
Pearse, Innes H. and Lucy H. Crocker. The Peckham Experiment: A Study in the Living Structure of Society. London: Allen and Unwin, 1943. Reprinted, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
Taylor, Eugene, and Robert H. Wosniak, eds. Pure Experience: The Response to William James. St. Augustine, FL: St. Augustine Press, 1996.
Turner, Frederick J. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt, 1921.
U.S. Department of Interior. National Park Service. National Trails Assessment. 1986.
For more on Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” public health program: www.letsmove.org.
For an overview of the National Trails System that includes a table with the authorization dates and public laws of trails, see:
For information on the background and history of the National Trails System, http//usparks.about.com/library/weekly/aa060599.htm.
For Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, see: http://www.railtrails.org/.
For National Council for Science and the Environment, see: http://www.cnie.org.
For the Iditarod National Historic Trail, see: http://www.iditarod.com.
For equestrian trails in Canada, see: http://www.equinecanada.ca/.
For more on Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway offering farmer’s markets, yoga, tai-chi, and fitness walking, please see: www.rosekennedygreenway.org.
For more on the role of greenways in urban design: “Turning urban sprawl into sustainable cities,” Ryan Gravel, CNN Opinion, at
For Japan’s idea to build a back-up Tokyo: see “Japan Considers Building Back-up Capital in case of Emergency,” by Julian Ryall. The Telegraph, October 27, 2011. For the article, visit:
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.