The war over rural greenways has largely been won, but the battle for urban greenways is only beginning.
Towns like Dungarvan and Westport are reaping the benefits of creating dedicated, nature-based corridors for cyclists, pedestrians, and everyone to enjoy. The benefits come through better recreation and improved health outcomes, but also in people’s pockets.
Mayo County Council reckons the Western Greenway brings in €7.2 million annually to the local economy, and it has worked together with Fáilte Ireland to promote a gastronomic food trail around the greenway.
Up to 10,000 people enjoyed some outstanding coastal scenery along with the restored Victorian viaducts and tunnels of the Waterford Greenway on its first day of operation.
The Mullingar-to-Athlone section of the Galway-to-Dublin Cycleway is now officially open for business, and the Athlone tourism website provides ready information about hotels and places to eat along its route.
The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is unsurprisingly beset with towns up and down the country, all asking when they can get a greenway.
Not so for urban greenways, and perhaps it is simply because we haven’t created that many yet.
The Grand Canal Greenway remains the isolated case in Dublin. While it is neither a fully protected nor exclusively nature-based route along much of its way, anyone can cycle from Docklands all the way out to Lucan served by a dedicated cycle track.
The NTA has plans for lots more of them though. The 2013 Cycle Network Plan for the Greater Dublin Area contains a “Strategic Green Network” using the city’s rivers, coast and parkland corridors.
Yet it was at an event for a new proposal, the South Dublin Quietway, that concerted – and to some, surprising – opposition arose to the idea of cycle routes traversing parklands and residential areas.
A meeting organised by Fine Gael Councillor Paddy Smyth, whose idea the quietway is, has reportedly become notorious. A leaflet attributing false claims to the councillor was distributed anonymously on the day of the meeting.
The councillor himself admitted he may have stacked the odds against his initiative by holding the meeting in the evening time. Many of the people in favour of the scheme, he says, have young families, and were busy getting children to bed.
Even though many in the meeting indicated they would look forward to using such a facility, there was vocal opposition.
One of the main points of objection was that the initiative would reduce the value of property.
Well, a lot of people mightn’t like it if a new piece of infrastructure, whether for bikes, cars or spaceships, came along and reduced the value of their property.
That would be a fair enough claim from anybody, if there was any likely loss.
Yet experiences from other countries tell us the opposite is likely to be the case. Greenways, it seems, are an amenity and they make an area more, not less, attractive to potential buyers.
One 2004 academic study in the US suggested that greenways “may indeed positively affect proximate properties’ sales prices, in the most positive case to the extent of one fifth of value”. Something most people wouldn’t likely turn down.
Now industry and property organisations agree. According to the US National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Homebuilders, residential properties realise a 10 to 25 percent gain in value the closer they are located to greenspace.
A greenbelt in Boulder, Colorado increased aggregate property values for one neighbourhood by $5.4 million, resulting in $500,000 of additional annual property tax revenues. The tax alone could recover the initial cost of the $1.5 million greenbelt in three years, according to the study.
The San Antonio Riverwalk in Texas is estimated to have returned anything between $2.4 million and $4.3 billion to its community, depending on the assumptions used. The walk is a café-lined riverside boulevard, and its existence is thanks to a local conservation society set up in response to floods that killed 50 people in 1921.
American developers are now selling “lifestyle communities”, according to the Urban Land Institute in a report (produced together with PricewaterhouseCoopers) on “Emerging Trends in Real Estate”. The hottest aspect of these is the “greenspace” community, sometimes referred to as “the golf course community without the golf course”.
Another ULI report identifies a trend they call “Trail-Oriented Development”. Apparently this is the latest phase in the evolution of urban development from car-centric to people-friendly design in a “marketplace that increasingly values active transportation”.
Indeed, some in the US real estate community have become almost obsessed with a commercial product called Walk Score, which gives residential addresses marks out of 100 for how walkable their neighbourhood is.
The application calculates how accessible each site is to basic amenities such as cafés, restaurants, schools, and parks. It is estimated that every one-point increase in walkability equates to a $700 to $3,000 increase in home value.
Perhaps the most celebrated example of all remains the High Line in New York. The regeneration of this elevated, formerly abandoned and disused rail corridor had such positive impacts on local real estate that the very cultural groups that campaigned for its redesign as an urban greenway in the first place were then priced out of the area.
While this prompted heated debates about social equity and the effects of gentrification, there was no doubt as to the value that could be captured from urban greenways.
A brilliant UK study by the now sadly defunct Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment called “Does Money Grow on Trees?” equally quantifies the positive impact of quality green space on residential value.
Bizarrely, some councillors at the Dublin meeting saw fit to ignore plain evidence.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Claire O’Connor claimed that providing a neighbourhood quietway would be bad for children’s health and safety.
Not only did she fail to provide any evidence for this, she made it clear that she thought it better not to look at the experience of other countries.
If she did so, she might find out from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that greenways help to: reduce obesity, increase physical activity, control hypertension, protect against developing non-insulin-dependent diabetes, improve symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety, reduce the chance of premature death, reduce arthritis pain, and prevent osteoporosis, with no negative health impacts being noted in this research into trails and their effects on humans.
Jeffrey Tumlin, an eminent transport planner in the US, goes further on the proven benefits of physical activity in his Sustainable Transportation Planning standard textbook. Active travel, he states, can make us: “fitter, smarter, able to handle complex reasoning, sexier [yes it’s true and to do with the production of oxytocin apparently], more loving and more trustful”. So what’s not to like?
The United States’ Surgeon General even got in on the act, asking American communities to install trail systems and become more active. In the US, he said, one in three houses is on a street with no footpath, and America’s health is suffering badly.
In 2016 the Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most widely recognised general medical journals, produced an editorial series of articles quantifying the health outcomes that could be gained through changes to urban design and the transport system.
Not only are the benefits of active travel to public health unequivocal, governments are urged to develop new governance solutions to promote better health outcomes though improved design of the built environment, especially in urban areas.
To cope with the demand for rural greenways, the Department of Transport has decided to produce guidelines for their funding and development.
It isn’t clear whether these will provide standards and incentives for urban greenways. If there is any sense, they will.