by Paul Kingsbury, communications manager, The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee
You probably know green-space preservation has many benefits for cities. Cleaner water. Storm protection. Wildlife habitat. Cooler city temperatures. Improved public health.
But could conservation also help build friendlier communities?
“Isn’t it a glorious day?” said the stylish, white-haired woman. True, the winter temperatures on this recent Saturday were still in the frosty 30s, but the sun had finally appeared, and the skies were a buoyant shade of blue. And we were experiencing it in nature, on our greenway. “I totally agree,” I said. “In fact, I just texted a friend the same description—glorious!”
I had never met the woman before, but the spontaneous exchange didn’t surprise me. I have friendly little conversations like this on our greenway in Nashville all the time. It’s not due to my charisma, I’m certain. It’s the setting.
I walk the Richland Creek Greenway nearly every day, often with my wife. I walk it because I enjoy it. But mostly I walk it because we have two big dogs—Heidi the Labrador retriever and Smudge the Golden retriever mix—who demand it. Or they will cause trouble. Dog owners, you know what I mean.
My dogs, my wife and I are fortunate to have a beautiful, four-mile loop greenway only a mile and half from our home. Richland Creek Greenway has provided handy regular exercise, which helps keep us fit and makes all four of us growl less and wag more.
The greenway has also been a daily window into nature. We’ve had all sorts of wildlife encounters there: families of ducks quacking in Richland Creek, male and female kingsnakes writhing in their mating ritual, a baby snapping turtle scuttling across the trail to the creek, bats fluttering over our heads in summer’s warm dusk, even a startled doe bounding into our path.
It’s well documented that when cities protect natural areas, they preserve habitat for many kinds of wildlife. So my animal encounters are not surprising. Studies also show urban green spaces contribute to people’s physical and mental health—allowing us to burn off calories, unwind and decompress.
But one thing I never anticipated when the greenway first opened . . . neighbors talking and catching up with each other. Neighbors greeting each other for the first time. Neighbors acting, well, just plain neighborly.
It happens every day on that greenway, even though—to be realistic here—many other neighbors are blithely whooshing past on bicycles, roller skates or are plugged into isolating earbuds. Still, it’s a place where a surprising number of people have spontaneous meetings and conversations.
For my part, I regularly see and chat with Angela the Realtor, Brooks the Property Investor, Cal the High School Teacher, Karen the Psychotherapist, Fran the Professional Dog Walker, Bernard the Sixty-Something Barefoot Runner, Jason our District Councilman and others.
What a pleasant feeling when I encounter these folks and catch up a little bit! It lifts my mood. But looking at the bigger picture, I like it because it means we are breaking down the barriers that modern life puts up between us, the barriers that Facebook only pretends to take down.
I doubt our city ever anticipated this when it began creating Nashville’s 65 miles of paved, off-street greenways just 21 years ago. Like many cities in America, Nashville began building its greenway network mainly because it was trying to improve our health and preserve the beauty of open space.
Little did they know that they would also be improving our social lives!
Every day, people are out there enjoying this community asset. In droves. Walking dogs, running, biking, skating, pushing their strollers and having conversations.
Most of them probably think they’re going for their health. So they are, but they’re also contributing to the health—the social health—of our community. And that’s a benefit we can build on.
Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy