A Park with a City In It

capital city greenway 1968 raleigh
The 1968 Capital City Greenway report

Raleigh’s greenway system is a unique and forward-thinking network of natural areas within the city. Despite containing a ribbon as asphalt for cyclists and pedestrians it is far from your typical multi-use path. The Capital City Greenway is a natural preserve that reaches into and around Raleigh. It’s history began in the late 60’s with the intersection of one William Flournoy and the Raleigh Capital Improvement Plan.

We’ve spent some time with Bill Flournoy and we able to learn how the greenway system has grown from a concept on paper to an ever-growing natural refuge for people and wildlife alike.

The greenway system was part of the 1968 Raleigh Capital Improvement Plan and was called “the park with a city in it.” It would define the ideal of the system: to be a fully interconnected system of natural spaces wthin and around the city. The greenways are what we now might refer to as “green infrastructure.” Many cities are now looking for solutions to issues like responsible stormwater run-off management and providing wildlife corridors through urban areas, Raleigh has been implementing just these ideas since 1973 (albeit under a different name).

The first section opened was along the House Creek. Recently re-opened in 2013, the Raleigh Times covered the ribbon-cutting with then-mayor Tom Bradshaw and future mayor Clarence Lightner doing their best to pilot a tandem down the crushed-granite path.

raleigh greenway 1973 mayor bradshaw tandem
Mayor Tom Bradshaw and Clarence Lightner pedal a tandem down the first section of greenway, 1973. (Raleigh Times)

The greenway network began to take it’s current form with Bill Flournoy’s 1972 report, which he says “put more flesh on the skeleton” of the infant system. Through the 70’s and 80’s the greenways grew along the river and stream beds in Raleigh. The streambeds were essential to the project: not only are they natural areas needing protection but future (now current) regulations would prevent development on flood plains. While many of the creeks and rivers in Wake county were once open sewers, contaminated by industrial and residential waste, they are now recovering ecosystems.

raleigh greenway flournoy 1972
Explanation of development along waterways, from Flournoy’s 1972 report

The greenway founders wanted to provide attractions, or activity nodes, along the greenways. The Falls Lake Whitewater Study (1978) looked at the possibility of a canoe and kayak training area on a greenway corridor. Today, there are canoe launches along the Neuse River Greenway that provide another way to enjoy the natural area along the river.

So what does the future of the greenway system look like? Ever-increasing usage is a wonderful problem to have. While pedestrians traffic is increasing in sections near neighborhoods, the new, lengthy sections are attracting more cyclists than ever. Cyclists have different needs than pedestrians. Although not part of the original scope, a few improvements could make the greenway system much more functional for those on bikes.

Cyclists typically take longer trips than pedestrians. Therefore, way-finding is critical in making the greenway a viable option. This is especially important for beginner cyclists (the group most likely to ride the greenway vs. road). The older greenway sections in Raleigh could benefit from improved signage, with special attention given to road crossings.

The second target is ongoing maintenance. Built in the floodplain, the greenways suffer after heavy rain. Flooding washes silt and plant debris onto the path, creating hazardous conditions for riders. Pedestrians are much less affected by this. The older sections are also suffering from buckled pavement. These sections have never been repaired and in places are challenging to ride over.

We can look forward to increased connectivity on the greenway system as new sections are built. We can also help Raleigh Parks and Recreation improve the system by using SeeClickFix to report damage or debris on the greenway. This allows the city to address issues that they would otherwise not be aware of.

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