Have Path, Will Travel

In an urban, densely populated area, finding nearby property to develop green space where families can recreate is a tremendous challenge. So is environmentally friendly transportation.

In 2000, the city of San Antonio, Texas, decided to use a one-two punch to address those challenges. City leaders placed on the ballot a proposition asking voters to approve a sales-tax initiative to fund hike-and-bike trails along the city’s creekways.

Voters took that leap of faith and approved a sales tax allowing the construction of a series of creek-based linear trails along three of the city’s waterways.

Eleven years later--with the purchase of more than 1,100 acres of environmentally sensitive land, as well as the completed construction of 22 miles of trails and another 15 under construction--voters have shown their approval by extending the program.

The new initiative, approved in November 2010, provides for the continued development of trails along numerous waterways across the city, including the Salado and Leon creeks, as well as the Medina and San Antonio rivers.

In addition, the city will begin land acquisitions and trail construction in new locations, such as the Westside Creeks, major tributaries and connections between existing trails. People from all walks of life have the opportunity to reap health- and fitness benefits from multi-use trails.

“These trails offer unique recreational opportunities for our citizens and visitors,” says Special Project Manager Brandon Ross, who oversees the Linear Creekway Program for the parks and recreation department.

“The program also helps to preserve property during significant flood events. It’s been extremely well-received by our citizens with trails getting steady use from the moment they’ve been opened to the public.”

The Details

The plan calls for a total of 45 miles of paved trials to be completed. Land acquisition and construction of the trails is expected to cost $65 million.

Each segment includes a 10-foot-wide trail, along with trailheads that have parking, signage and other amenities. There are shared-use paths, designed to accommodate all modes of non-motorized transportation.

The goals of the greenways program are to:

• Extend outdoor recreation and fitness opportunities, including hiking, biking, bird-watching and other recreational uses

• Preserve riparian habitat and urban forest

• Promote alternative transit opportunities by enhancing bike and pedestrian connectivity among neighborhoods, parks, schools, retail shopping and employment centers

• Increase the effectiveness of stormwater drainage by protecting natural floodways from encroaching development, and allowing floodway maintenance crews to remove trash and woody debris.

The ancillary goals include:

• Facilitating neighborhood revitalization and inner-city development

• Conserving and interpreting cultural resources

• Developing stronger community pride

• Providing economic-development opportunities

• Lowering crime rates in greenway corridors.

Trail design objectives include:

• Maximizing accessibility for all potential users

• Creating a durable, sustainable trail that requires minimal maintenance

• Promoting user-friendliness and safety

• Minimizing impact to native vegetation and wildlife

• Incorporating interpretive features.

Friendly Advice

Cities considering the institution of a similar program will find that land acquisition along creekways presents its own set of interesting challenges, according to Ross.

“It’s very different than buying land for other capital projects because the land is usually vacant floodplain that can’t be developed. This makes the land much less expensive in most cases,” he explains. “However, this cost savings is offset somewhat by the cost of designing and installing trails and bridges that will withstand severe flood events and properly handle the associated drainage.”

Trail design can also be a challenge because it’s important to minimize the impact the trails have on the surrounding environment.

“The land surrounding the creekways is often home to the largest, healthiest trees in an urban area,” Ross says. “It’s a good idea to weave the trail within existing clearings and then require contractors to keep their equipment and vehicles within a narrow (14- to 16-foot) corridor.”

Incorporating natural-looking, native materials--such as using boulders in place of rip-rap--also contributes to the quality of the end-user’s experience. If done properly, the completed trail blends in with the natural surroundings.

Public Approval

In San Antonio’s program, signage located at the trailheads and along trails provides directional maps and information about each greenway and its unique natural and historical features.

In a city with a historically high incidence of hypertension and diabetes, the trails are an important component in the parks and recreation department’s fitness marketing campaign, Get Active. Get. Fit. Step Up to Recreation!

“We’re offering citizens a new, unique and beautiful place to ride their bikes or hike as families.” Ross explains. “Some of these trails have spectacular scenery, which encourages citizens to spend time getting in touch with nature in their city parks while getting fit.”

The parks and recreation department provides regular maintenance along the trails, including removal of trash and other obstructions, such as low-hanging branches. Park police provide security by using ATVs and mountain bikes.

Approval of the sales tax allows the department to pursue phases that were previously unfunded, including additional tributaries. With the continued implementation of this innovative creekway program, citizens can look forward to a future in which a system of trails along waterways serves as pathways that connect them to healthy living.

Kelly Irvin is the public relations manager for the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department in Texas. She can be reached via e-mail at Kelly.Irvin@sanantonio.gov.