Book Review: Exploring Chuck Flink’s “The Greenway Imperative”

Posted 06/05/20 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Grand Canyon Greenway Trail in Arizona | Photo by Sarah Neal, courtesy Bright Angel Bicycles

For those interested in reading “The Greenway Imperative,” its publisher, University Press of Florida, is offering a limited-time price of $20, plus free shipping, through July 17, 2020, if purchased directly from its website using the discount code “TRAILS.”

Cover of The Greenway Imperative_Courtesy Charles A. Flink
Cover of The Greenway Imperative | Courtesy Charles A. Flink

Grand Canyon National Park is one of our most beloved and visited national parks, but few know the story behind the indelible greenway that winds through its pine forests and along the canyon’s rim. “The Greenway Imperative” by Charles A. Flink gives us a peek behind the curtain to its creation and that of nearly a dozen other impactful greenways.

Like a friend on the inside, Flink’s newly published book spins tales with great candor and a vivid eye for detail. When he began his career in the mid-1980s, the term “greenway” was not even widely known or used. As the book unfolds, Flink shares how his experiences across more than three decades of greenway planning and development shaped his understanding of what a greenway is and how these corridors can be used to help solve a host of challenges that communities face.

Charles A. Flink, the author of The Greenway Imperative | Courtesy Charles A. Flink
Charles A. Flink, the author of The Greenway Imperative | Courtesy Charles A. Flink

“The purpose of this book was to connect people with the broader meaning of greenways,” explained Flink. “I wanted to use the book to really talk about some of the broader questions of sustainability and resiliency, and conservation of the environment—how critical all that is—and wrap it into story form, so it’s easy to digest.”

In a world that increasingly seesaws between extreme weather events, a particularly pertinent story is that of the Red River Greenway connecting Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota. A few years before Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast, these Midwestern sister cities were ravaged by a catastrophic flood, the likes of which hadn’t been seen there in more than a century. As Flink writes in his book, it took more than $2 billion in federal aid and almost a decade to fully rebuild these two riverfront communities. In the aftermath, one of the solutions proposed to make the area more resilient to such storms in the future was the development of a greenway along the river.

Greenway of Greater Grand Forks in North Dakota | Photo by TrailLink user hickok23
Greenway of Greater Grand Forks in North Dakota | Photo by TrailLink user hickok23

Now part of the Greenway of Greater Grand Forks, which encompasses 2,200 acres of natural open space, the corridor is a beloved community amenity and a centerpiece of the region’s active outdoor lifestyle. But it was a bumpy road to get there, and Flink does not shy away from painting a picture of the initial resistance by some city leaders to the project. In one memorable moment from the book, after Flink touts the potential economic benefits of the proposed greenway, he is angrily told, “You are in Grand Forks, North Dakota. You are in the middle of nowhere, our community is on the way to nowhere, and nobody is going to visit your damn greenway.”

In sharing anecdotes both positive and negative, Flink hopes to provide a genuine reflection of greenway development. “I thought that telling the real story the way it unfolded would be of value to others,” he acknowledged. “So I shared in raw form and in explicit detail how the emotions were running and the fact that some in the community could not see their way to the solution.”

Swift Creek Greenway in North Carolina | Courtesy Town of Cary
Swift Creek Greenway in North Carolina | Courtesy Town of Cary

Concerns about the environment are amplified in the chapter “Turning Trash into Trails,” which follows the story of the nation’s first greenway constructed entirely from recycled postconsumer and postindustrial waste. The Swift Creek Greenway in Cary, North Carolina, emerges as a model project for helping to address issues of sustainability and the effect of the human footprint on the planet.

“That’s the one story that I hope has a huge impact,” said Flink. “I wanted to demonstrate that we can think differently. Rather than burying all this stuff in landfills, why don’t we figure out how to use it to build stuff? We ought to be innovative enough to start thinking about how we use [waste] as a resource for building the communities of the future.”

Miami River Greenway in Florida | Photo by Lee Smith
Miami River Greenway in Florida | Photo by Lee Smith

This central concern for our natural world is a recurring theme in the book. About midway, it covers the story of Florida’s Miami River Greenway and the efforts to conserve and restore this once forsaken urban waterway in Miami-Dade County. The aim of creating a greenway plan for the river included improving public access to the riverfront, cleaning the river of pollution, renewing native vegetation and wildlife habitat along the shoreline and preserving the Miami Circle, a unique 2,000-year-old archeological site at the mouth of the river.

 “The Miami River Greenway is a key project of the developing 225-mile Miami LOOP, an RTC TrailNation™ project connecting greenspace, transportation corridors, business districts and key cultural and tourist attractions throughout Miami-Dade County and beyond. Learn more in the Winter 2018 cover story of Rails to Trails.

“There was this recognition that—when I arrived in 1999—people didn’t know that there was a river in their downtown; they didn’t know that their city was named after a river,” recalled Flink. “I love these projects that allow you to make a cultural and natural connection to the heritage of a place. With the Miami River Greenway, we reconnected this very large, 6-million-person metro community to the landscape where the community was born.”

Flink’s work has taken him to more than 250 communities of all stripes across 36 states. Over the book’s 11 chapters, he shares nuggets of wisdom from some of these key projects that, while diverse in scope, environment and cultural landscapes, all share a common thread. His stories are meant to not just inform, but to inspire. Written for a lay audience, the book shares guidance, ideas and motivation to demonstrate how anyone can become involved in the greenways that shape our communities, our regions and, together, even our world.

“The value of greenways is that they connect us; they connect us to each other, they connect us to our communities, and they connect us to the environments we live in,” observed Flink. “I’m hoping these stories about them bring a smile to people’s faces and they feel hopeful about the future.”

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