There is a concept in the world called the Right to Roam. In Swedish the word is allemansrätten or “everyman’s right.” In the U.S. we typically don’t abide by this concept except on publicly owned property. The vast majority of land in our communities is privately owned.
Because of our strongly held beliefs in the sacredness of private property it is difficult to carve out a sliver of new public space for roads, utilities and even sidewalks. And because of our dysfunctional fear of liability more and more land is being cut off from public use altogether. Sometimes even on publicly owned property.
What generally remains as public space in small communities and rural areas are the public road right-of-ways. Unfortunately those rights-of-ways tend to be narrow and rarely include any accommodation for the non-motoring public. We have an epidemic of roads that have been designed for cars and not people.
It may not be a concern to people who own hundreds of acres of land or who live near ample public facilities such as parks and recreation areas. But for the masses access to space for recreation and exercise (or even non-motorized transportation) is at a premium. We have limited time to enjoy our meager public spaces with our jam-packed work weeks and far-flung commutes. For a society that values convenience we sure have sold our souls in regards to trading proximity to the outdoors for the pleasure of driving our cars.
Our world has provided tools of convenience and labor saving devices which have nearly made our bodies obsolete. And we're suffering for it. We're losing skills like hand writing and we've lost most of our opportunities to stay naturally healthy. So now we have to fashion or find ways to exercise our bodies. We drive to the gym to run on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike. Why don't we just ride our bikes? Fear? Conditioned to convenience? Maybe it’s that guy that yelled out the window of his SUV to “get on the sidewalk” or “roads are for cars.”
One way to maximize public space is to build more trails. It doesn’t matter if they’re singletrack dirt or fourteen foot wide paved multiuse trails. Trails provide more experiential surface area to any community. They connect us to remote places; they connect us to near places. They connect us to each other, and they connect us to strangers. Trails invite us to move, to travel, and when we travel we strengthen important neural connections in our brains. We exercise our minds, and we exercise our bodies.
Trail require little real estate. And in fact, they don’t require prime real estate. For dirt singletrack often junk land is best. You can even build multiuse trails in places where no one wants to do anything else. Floodplains are great places for paved multiuse trails. Utility rights-of ways. That fringe along the edge of an industrial area. All good places.
|Trail in Berea, KY|
|A narrow sliver between platted neighborhoods in Arvada, CO|
|Trails in the Cherry Creek floodplain, Denver, CO|
|Multiuse trail in a power line easement, Arvada, CO|
In conferences and meetings I continually hear about how important physical activity is. I hear that it is vital for us to have access to opportunities for exercise and movement. I wonder why we have to talk about it so much if it’s so important.
I remember that when I was a kid there were all kind of places I could ride my bike and hike and play. There were pockets of wooded land where my contemporaries build forts and ran amuck. It was an important part of growing up. It seems like a lot of those places have vanished or have been fenced off.