I love cities. They are the engines of our nation’s energy, diversity, cultural opportunities, social interaction, and entrepreneurial vibrancy. Cities are where most of our population lives and where most of our economic growth originates. Cities are the base from which we’ll create the future.
But I also love the natural world. I think a connection to nature is essential for our peace of mind, for appreciating that we all eat (and live) on the table set by the natural world (and how vulnerable it is to our exploitation of it), and our understanding that the world and the universe is bigger and older than any of us and will survive long after we are gone.
You can get a bit of a nature fix in the city. Sometimes a city-wide bike ride gives you a glimpse of what you know you should go back and explore some other time: Boston’s Hub On Wheels and the Transportation Alternatives New York Century are always worth the effort. (My condolences to everyone who let the early-morning rain keep them from this year’s Hub ride – by the time we started at 8am the rain had stopped and by 11 the sun was out in full bloom: a wonderful day!) Our parks, our riverbanks, the harbor, the forests and farms that somehow exist within the metropolitan area – all these are vital for our mental and physical and even societal well-being.
But sometimes it’s really good to get out. Really far out.
WALK, HIKE, BIKE
Thoreau famously walked for dozens of miles, not just to get somewhere but mostly to just experience the world and think. A group called FreeWalkers continues that tradition today.
Large bodies of water always feel infinite. My wife likes to be next to the ocean, with its endless waves and openness. Best is walking along an empty beach in the off-season, with the wind and still-warm sun beating down. Or spending a day (or an overnight tenting trip) on Boston’s most overlooked natural resource, the Harbor Islands.
Myself, I like high-altitude backpacking and cross country bike trips. Foot and bike. Every year or two my friend Larry and I lift 40 pounds or so and head up. We’ve gone to the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, the Alps, and even the Whites. On my bike I’ve gone around Vermont and Massachusetts and across Maine (all with my cousin and brother), on the Bon Ton Roulet ride around the Finger Lakes (where the wine tasting rivals the cycling), across part of Massachusetts with the Mass BikePike tour, and this past week about 100 of us did the totally wonderful first annual, fully supported, Berkshires to Boston bike ride: three days of gorgeous scenery (have you ever noticed that Vermont is really only an extension of western Massachusetts?) culminating on the fourth day with Hub On Wheels’ great circle around Boston.
(A note of special appreciation: Berkshires to Boston is organized by the visionary and hyper-energetic Gary Briere, who somehow also finds time to be the Chief of Recreation for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), as well as MassBike and lots of local people in each of the delightful towns we passed through.)
FROM FARM TO CITY
On a long ride over so many different types of paths and roads, the differences really stand out. The comfort and pleasure of riding on low-traffic, tree-lined, relatively smooth pavement is tangible. The tension of being next to heavy or high-speed traffic, the physical discomfort (and safety concerns) of riding on cracked and pot-holed asphalt, the ugliness of some of our commercialized streetscapes (although built-up areas can also be well designed) – all turn joy into jumpiness.
For those of us who live in cities, or simply recognize their central role in a sustainable future, the lesson is clear, at least for what it will take to get more people out of their cars and outdoor on foot or on bikes for commuting, recreation, exercise, or even for short trips to shop, visit, or for family time. We need to step up our development of rail-to-trail and rail-with-trail conversions, our off-road paths through our parks and along water-ways, and our upgrading of low-traffic residential streets into pedestrian-and-cyclist-priority “neighborways” with low-speed limits. We need to line each of these routes with trees and storm-water-catching “swales” so that they become extensions of our parks, of nature, deep into our neighborhoods. And we need these walkable and bikeable greenways not only in the suburbs but in the urban core.
Creating a regional Green Routes system that attracts large amounts of pedestrian and bicycle usage requires both lots of local efforts as well as a regional coalition. Over the past year there has been a new effort, with significant technical support from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), to push forward on town-by-town projects. In the “urban core” – the sweeping area between the lower reaches of the Mystic, Charles, and Neponset rivers – an effort has begun to identify gaps in the existing greenway segments and to link those segments together with each other and the larger regional system. Regionally, there have been intermittent gatherings of people from advocacy groups, municipal government, environmental and recreation groups to explore how to work together for policy and funding changes to facilitate the local projects. The opportunity for success has been immeasurably improved as a result of MassDOT’s recent “Healthy Transportation Policy Directive” (policy P-13-0001, issued 9/9/13 but not yet posted as of this writing). It is a powerful statement that puts teeth into the requirement that sustainable ped/bike facilities must be included in every departmental project. (We, the concerned public, need to make sure that it gets quickly integrated into every aspect of MassDOT policy and procedure so that it will survive the upcoming change in gubernatorial administration!)
We can’t, and shouldn’t want to, escape from nature. But we must increasingly live in, and should welcome, the higher built-density of our expanding urban areas – both in the cities and in the emerging suburban “town centers.” Combining the two imperatives is not only necessary, it’s do-able – but only if we make it happen!
Recent related postings:
> NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks
> THE FUTURE OF RAILROADS: Why Rail-To-Trail Conversion Is The Key To Both Eventual Rail Restoration and Current Off-Road Networks
> GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative to Revitalize Urban Transportation and Well-Being