Why Trails are America's New Town Squares


Minnehaha Falls

Americans are people on the go! The urge to move is part of our national character since the beginning of the Republic and greatly influences how we spend our leisure time. 

In the 19th Century, Sunday drives in carriages (and later cars) became a favorite pastime. Urban planners responded by laying out lovely green ribbons of parkways—which remain beloved places to this day in many communities.

But for harried 21st Century commuters, who spend long hours in cars or buses each week, driving seems too reminiscent of work. On evenings and weekends they want to take off on bikes, skates, longboards or their own two feet. That’s why communities are now busy creating new trails and greenways across America and throughout the world.

Trails are becoming  the new town square where people bump into their neighbors, sparking conversations and friendships. When speaking to audiences around the country, I often begin by asking people to name a favorite commons in their lives. More often than not, one of the first few mentioned is a local rail-trail or parkway.

Let me map out some of my most favorite pastimes here in Minneapolis. I bike a dozen blocks south from my house to Minnehaha Creek Trail, a green oasis lining a rushing stream that was protected from development in the 1880s. I follow its winding, wooded path through city neighborhoods to Minnehaha Falls, highlighted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha”. Watching the water tumble over a 50-foot wall of rock endlessly fascinates and relaxes me. Then I amble over to Sea Salt, a café in a historic park building that serves topnotch fried fish, best enjoyed on the outdoor patio. Sipping a beer while waiting for my fried clams to arrive, I plot the rest of my journey. 

8/4/2014 10:08:29 AM

Hooray for "the commons." Even when I had my own backyard, growing up in Brooklyn, I preferred the streets and my public park --that's where the other kids were. Today, the park is where I prefer to get my exercise--it's so much easier to invite others to come along.

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