To Connect and Protect: the Effect of Gaston's Growing Greenway Network
Way back in the 1800’s, famed landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned a chain of parks across Boston’s southern reaches. Each park would be connected to the next by a walking path, offering both a buffer for the fragile marsh ecosystem there and an alternate mode of transportation for Boston’s growing population.
Today, that chain of nine parks connected by trails and waterways is known as Boston’s "Emerald Necklace." It covers 1,100 acres and stretches seven miles.
It’s also one of the reasons that Boston is a contender for the most walkable city in the country. Pretty significant for a town frequently tagged as having the worst traffic congestion as well.
As towns across Gaston County look to improve quality of life and make spaces, Olmsted's vision of a multi-purpose linear park has once again become en vogue.
For a long time, a split in the South Fork River divided the town of Cramerton. On one side, the shops and restaurants of downtown. On the other, neighborhoods of mill houses and estate homes. And in the middle, an undeveloped piece of land called Goat Island.
In 2012, the Goat Island Greenway opened—its new pedestrian bridge connecting downtown, the island, and the rest of Cramerton. The greenway, and its bridge, made it easier to access the island and walk between residential neighborhoods and the commercial district.
Things sort of took off from there.
The town built an impressive, 37-acre park on Goat Island with a playground, dog park, and disc golf course.
Next came kayak launches on the South Fork River Blueway (the river version of a greenway).
New businesses opened, like Floyd and Blackies coffee shop (which also rents kayaks under the business name The Floating Goat).
There was a new energy in downtown Cramerton.
“There are endless benefits to our greenways,” explains Eric Smallwood, Cramerton’s Director of Parks and Recreation. “The biggest is conservation, but they also add to quality of life, they’re an economic driver, and they connect communities that have become isolated by suburbanization.”
In fact, it was that blueway that brought Eric to Cramerton. He and his wife moved here three years ago, after falling in love with the town on a paddle trip down the South Fork.
They bought a house near the Riverside Greenway, which he uses to ride his bike to work. He organizes group runs and paddles, helping other people explore the greenways and blueways.
And he’s introducing a new generation to his beloved Goat Island. “I take my 2-year-old son out there early on Sundays, before anyone else gets there” he notes. “My son loves riding his bike on the greenway.”
Eric’s story isn’t unique. People have begun to prioritize access to greenways when deciding where to live.
According to a survey of recent homebuyers by the National Association of Home Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders, greenways and trails ranked as the second most important community amenity out of a list of 18 choices.
That desire to live near a greenway translates to higher home values.
Generally, the walkability of a neighborhood has a significant impact on home values. One study of 90,000 homes found that those in walkable neighborhoods were valued at $4,000 to $34,000 higher than similar homes in less walkable neighborhoods.
And in Apex, NC, for example, the Shepherd's Vineyard housing development added $5,000 to the price of homes closest to a greenway. Those homes were the first to sell.
Increased home value is just the start of the economic benefits a greenway spurs. They can also bring visitors. Visitors who spend money today tell their friends about the cool town they discovered later.
Cramerton has become experts at it.
“One of the most fun parts of my job is planning ecotourism events that bring people to our town,” Eric says. "I don’t think they’d be possible without our greenways and blueways."
Those events bring a lot of people. Eric says about 350 people ran in the Goat Island Games 5k. And 1,600 people came to Goat Island for National Trail Days, 70% of which were from out of town.
In marketing, it’s called brand awareness. For Eric, it’s a little more personal.
“I get to speak with lots of people at these events. And a guy that ran the 5k told me he didn’t even know there was a town this close to Charlotte with a river running through it’s downtown.”
Two weeks later, that man returned with his whole family to spend time on Goat Island and have lunch in town. He called Eric to express how much fun they had.
There aren’t exact figures to quantify these interactions. But Eric says this type of ecotourism is on the rise, and it has an impact on the town.
“People come to an event on the greenway or to paddle the blueway, and they have a coffee at Floyd and Blackies or a taco and a beer at Doffer's Canteen. Then they tell their friends how great Cramerton is.”
In other cities, the economic effects of greenways are well-documented.
The Beltline Trail in Atlanta often serves as the usual example. In its 12 years, the trail has generated over $4 Billion in economic development, an 8:1 return on the public private investment in the trail.
Charlotte’s Rail Trail is a 3.5 mile path that connects Uptown with South End. It’s regularly full of people strolling from shops, breweries, and restaurants. It’s helped make the area a sought-after place to live and is often featured by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Association in articles and marketing material.
In Mount Holly, the new Lake Front Trail is part of a larger greenway initiative for the town, says City Manager Danny Jackson. The opening of that trail has been delayed by some Duke Power construction work. It should open by the end of the year, he says.
When it does open, it will connect Tuckaseege Park with downtown Mount Holly. Eventually, there could be a biking and pedestrian bridge from the park to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. It would give Mount Holly a unique opportunity to connect with the Center’s one-million yearly visitors and offer residents a valuable amenity no other town would have.
Back in Cramerton, crews are working on a three quarter-mile extension to the Goat Island Greenway. It will connect to an existing section of path at the South Fork Village apartments, creating one contiguous trail from downtown Cramerton to Wilkinson Blvd. That extension is due to open in June, Eric says.
“The Goat Island extension runs parallel to the river,” he explains. “It’s a land corridor that will be conserved for as long as anyone can foresee. That gives wildlife a home, and it naturally cleans the water before it gets to the river.”
Actually, all the greenways in Cramerton, and many of the others in Gaston County, serve this purpose. They stand alongside our waterways, naturally cleaning water and mitigating stormwater runoff that would end up in the Catawba.
Considering the Catawba provides drinking water for about two million people, that’s a pretty important job.
In Gastonia, The Avon/Catawba Creeks Trail does this. So does the Mountain Island Lake Trail and that new River Front Trail in Mount Holly.
In fact, Gastonia was an early adopter of the greenway plan. In addition to the three-mile Avon and Catawba Creeks Greenway, Gastonia has the Highland Rail Trail. This 1.5-mile stretch of paved greenway follows the historic Carolina and Northwestern Railway from downtown to Rankin Lake Road. Eventually, the Highland Trail will connect all the way to Rankin Lake Park.
Greenways also offer a choice in transportation that’s ecofriendly, and sometimes faster than driving. Cramerton residents who live just north of the South Fork River, for example, can take a short walk to downtown, instead of a longer drive.
In Minneapolis, a city often praised for its extensive greenway system, many commuters say it takes less time to ride their bike to work than it would to drive. And they save on parking, gas, and car maintenance.
When the Goat Island Greenway extension opens, it will become part of the Carolina Thread Trail.
The CTT is currently a 260-mile network of greenways and blueways spread across the Carolina Piedmont.
But the Thread Trail Master Plan calls for much more. If the entire network was built out today, it would include over 1,600 miles of greenways lacing the Carolina Piedmont. Those trails would connect millions of people to the places they work, play, shop, and eat.
In Gaston County’s portion of the plan, there are 265 miles of existing and proposed greenway. The plan was a result of a coalition put together that included the county, local municipalities, and the Thread Trail team. It was guided by input from citizens across the county.
The Carolina Thread Trail is also an organization, led by the Catawba Land Conservancy, dedicated to helping towns like Cramerton actualize greenway projects. They don’t actually build trails, that’s up to the local counties and towns. Instead, the CTT provides planning support, organizes trail maintenance training and volunteer days, and helps guide funding efforts.
Funding to build the Goat Island Extension came from the Town of Cramerton, a construction grant from the CTT, and a grant from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Eric credits these groups, along with town leaders who approved a greenway plan several years ago, with getting to this point.
“The Goat Island Greenway extension is a great example of everybody coming to the table, working towards a great result for everyone,” He says.
That’s the way all new greenway projects in Gaston County come to fruition. It starts with a community lead plan and includes a lot of support from several people and organizations.
The Goat Island Greenway extension is one step in a much larger plan. Next up is another half mile extension north of Wilkinson Blvd. That project is about 50% funded, Eric says. The land for that piece of trail has been provided by True Homes, and it will run between their new development, The Villages at South Fork, and the river. The waterway near the development will be protected and the builder will have a sought-after amenity to help sell their homes.
Piece by piece, all these small segments will add up to a walking and biking trail that will begin in downtown Cramerton and end in McAdenville.
“We’re connecting a business district in Cramerton and the business district in McAdenville with all the town homes, apartments, neighborhoods, and commercial businesses along that corridor,” Eric says. “At the same time, we’re protecting the South Fork River and adding to the quality of life for our residents.”
We think Mr. Olmsted would approve.