Just a year ago, people might have taken their neighborhood park for granted, passing it by on their way to a boutique fitness studio. But since COVID-19 came along, closing gyms and confining people to their houses, green spaces of all kinds have become vital places for folks to exercise, get fresh air, de-stress and get a glimpse other people, even if from a distance of six feet. Cities that have greenways — trails or strips of undeveloped land that serve both recreational and environmental protection purposes — have noticed a huge uptick in use.

green bridge that reads, "Great Rivers Greenway Grant's Trail"

St. Louis is one of those cities fortunate enough to have a vast greenway system. Since the start of the pandemic, the Great Rivers Greenway has seen a 50% increase in trail traffic. This 128-mile network is a complex collection of outdoor spaces linking neighborhoods and natural areas and impacting more than 100 municipalities and institutions.

Related: St. Louis to transform abandoned landscape into a vibrant new greenway

Susan Trautman, CEO of St. Louis’ Great Rivers Greenway, talked to Inhabitat about how the city developed such an extensive greenway network, why greenways are important and how they’re serving residents during the pandemic.

person riding bike on trail in city

Inhabitat: How did you get interested in greenway development?

Trautman: I am a lucky person in that I have always been involved in parks and open space. I started as a summer camp counselor as a teenager, and my passion grew from there. I have worked in many different park settings, but I started my career as a planner with Missouri State Parks administering the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This allowed me to travel our great state and meet many different park professionals.

Fast forward some 30 years later, I was recruited to Great Rivers Greenway. It is the best combination of all things, my love for the outdoors, my love for St. Louis and my love for working with a truly talented and passionate staff. Building greenways requires community involvement and building trust; we literally build adjacent to people’s backyards, and their input is essential to the success of the greenway. Each time we complete a project and I get the blessing of seeing people walk or ride the trails, playing in the park or giving their time to help maintain it, it reminds me how important this work is to the quality of life in our community.

person running on a path in a park

Inhabitat: Could you briefly describe the Great Rivers Greenway as to history, extent, purpose and future plans?

Trautman: Our mission is to make the St. Louis region a more vibrant place to live, work and play by developing a regional network of greenways. We are a public agency, created by a vote of the people in St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County in the year 2000 to create a sales tax dedicated to parks and greenways. Those funds allow us to collaborate with partners and communities to build, care for and bring to life this network of greenways, creating healthy habitats and watersheds along the way. Residents of the region believed in this enough to pass a second tax initiative in 2013. It’s an honor to deliver on the community’s vision for a vibrant, connected region.

There are 128 miles of greenways so far, with more being added every year. These projects are planned, brought to life and cared for in partnership with the 100+ municipalities and institutions they connect. We help our partners with training, volunteer workdays and support to ensure that people’s experiences are excellent no matter where they’re exploring.

Now in our 20th year, we’re working on an update to our long-term strategic plan, as we do every five years. This will be a two-year process that engages our constituents and works through how the model is working, reassesses priorities and tackles challenges we’ve uncovered to date in collaboration with partners and community members.

group of friends walking a dog in a park

Inhabitat: Why are greenways important in normal times, both for St. Louis and in general?

Trautman: Greenways offer people direct, immediate benefits that enhance their quality of life. With free, accessible places to exercise, they can live healthy lifestyles. Whether they’re connecting to public transit for their commute or just running an errand or visiting a friend, the greenways give people active transportation options. Getting outside is a way to connect with nature and each other.

The greenways also strengthen our civic wellbeing by supporting the environmental, economic and social health. They are more than just trails; these projects include wetland or prairie restoration, flood mitigation and new habitats to enhance our environment. The work to plan, design and build them supports contractors by reinvesting tax dollars locally. The greenways boost property values and become an asset that makes our region a more vibrant place to live, work, play and visit. They also enhance connectivity and collaborations in the community. We’ve seen time and time again that projects like these bring people together to invest in their neighborhoods, explore new ways of working and engage in the civic process of building a greenway.

person riding bike on a trail

Inhabitat: Tell us about the special importance of greenways during the pandemic.

Trautman: Right now, people are stressed, anxious and grappling for a sense of normalcy or something they can control. People feel stuck, focused on their health and we’re all reinventing what it means to connect to each other. We’re hearing from our constituents that their visits to the greenways boost not only their physical health, but their mental wellbeing, too. Watching nature moving forward, getting out of the house and off of their screens is a vital break in their day. Making a plan to explore a new place with their family becomes a highlight of the week. Some people desperately need alone time, some people need safely distanced time among others — both are options on the greenways. Even if people are stepping out just to read a book or eat a meal, the literal change of scenery becomes a huge opportunity right now.

We’re seeing record counts on our greenways right now, and we’re hearing from all kinds of people how much they value this being available to them.

Inhabitat: What has surprised you in your career developing greenways?

Trautman: A couple of things surprise me. When we first started building greenways, we often got a “not in my backyard” response to start. Now we hear, “When are we going to get our trail?” I have been really pleased to see the growing love for the greenways. With the COVID-19 crisis, the greenways have become an important lifeline for people to get outdoors; the use has grown exponentially.

We have always known the benefits of the greenways, but communities and their residents are reaching out for more and we can’t work fast enough. Many people think it’s just about laying asphalt for a trail, but there is a significant amount of planning and land coordination that is required. I was most surprised when I first came how long it can take to build a greenway versus building a park — which can be done in a year or so. Greenways sometimes take us 5 to 10 years, particularly if we are dealing with railroads or other agencies’ right of way. It’s complicated work. Imagine it is a mini highway built like a ribbon through multiple jurisdictions and landowners. It takes a lot of time, patience and ongoing community engagement.

yellow flowers in the foreground with three people running in the background

Inhabitat: What else should readers know about greenways in general or the Great Rivers Greenway in particular?

Trautman: Our latest flagship project is the Brickline Greenway, a major public-private partnership designed to transform St. Louis by connecting people and the city’s most treasured places. This urban greenway is a network of accessible paths and aspires to become part of St. Louisans’ everyday experience, connecting them to their schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, civic and cultural institutions and new spaces along the way.

The roadmap for this project calls for deep community engagement, innovation in governance, art at its core, sustainability strategies and equitable practices, serving as a catalyst for economic growth and opportunities for all. This is a great chance for us to build on the diversity, equity and inclusion work we’ve been doing for the past 4 years and really explore the impact a greenway can have on neighborhoods it travels through in a way that benefits both current and future residents.

We’re also excited that this project recently joined the High Line Network, a group of infrastructure reuse projects — and the people who are helping them come to life. We’re excited to see how we can breathe new ecological life into the city and repurpose some of the infrastructure to make it an even more vibrant and inviting place!

+ Great Rivers Greenway

Images via Great Rivers Greenway