By Year of the Trail Honorary Committee member Mitchell J Silver, FAICP, Hon. ASLA
Mitchell Silver is no stranger to trails and greenways. He has spent much of his lifetime planning, designing, and developing public policy surrounding them. Formerly serving as the Director of Planning for Raleigh and then the New York City Parks Commissioner, as well as being the first Black president of the American Planning Association, Silver’s work in equity and access for all has been transformational. Based in Raleigh, Mitchell is the Principal and Vice President of Urban Planning for McAdams Co. We’re honored to share his thoughts, experience, and expertise.
“Welcome to the North Carolina Year of the Trail, a program to create physical space on trails and to start a conversation to look at trails from different points of view. It is an undisputed fact that spending time outdoors makes you physically and mentally healthier. As an avid runner and biker and a former New York City Parks Commissioner overseeing over 30,000 acres of parkland, I have seen and experienced the benefits of trails and greenways firsthand. Trails and greenways have been steadily growing in the United States, from urban centers to rural areas. This trend accelerated even more after the
pandemic when more Americans discovered these hidden green gems literally in their backyards. The popularity of trails and greenways has grown over the years, and that trend is likely to continue.
The benefits of trails are not just limited to healthier living. According to the National Association of Realtors, living near a trail or greenway can increase your property value by 3-5%. People migrating to new places rate access to parks and greenways as essential amenities, especially older adults who
are retiring but remain extremely active. In some regions, like Minneapolis St. Paul and along the Hudson River Greenway in New York City, greenways are not just used for recreation but as transportation.
Not all trails or greenways are the same. Urban trails can traverse through nature, but also through parks and edges of lakes and rivers offer wide open vistas and views. Suburban and rural trails and greenways can be nestled in a wooden paradise immersing the visitor in a solitary and isolated experience.
As a Black man, the reality of enjoying trails and greenways is different. I am not always comfortable being isolated in the woods, especially if I am alone. I do not feel comfortable in a predominantly white space where I am perceived as a threat, and someone would do harm to me. Do I belong here? Is he going to steal my bike? Do not make eye contact. What should I do if I get sandwiched between two attackers? Where is the nearest trailhead? How do I escape? I am not alone in these feelings. This reality is a common fear among people of color and women of all races. In July 2018, two years before the pandemic, Candice Pires wrote an article for the Guardian, “Bad things happen in the woods: the anxiety of hiking while Black.” The sub-heading summarized the conflicting emotions of experiencing trails – “Three African American hikers describe the fears and stereotypes they have faced – and why they love hitting the trails.”
The statements were painful but familiar. One man interviewed from Chicago said, “It’s a very real fear for black people, especially those from urban communities, that bad things happen to black people in the woods, like lynching.” He went on to share, “When we started the hike, I had to let go of a lot of what I was feeling. An hour into it, we stopped to take in this view, and I was amazed by everything I was experiencing. I love not hearing the commotion of the city. No cars, no yelling, no arguments on the corner. Just the water, the birds, and the wind. It was like a reset button.”
A woman from North Carolina shared, “I live within walking distance of a nature trail, and I would never go there by myself. It’s not the younger generation but, the older generation that you see that look at you like you have no business there. Like you don’t belong. It’s like calling get out. Get away. Even though it’s public land, some people are like, I’m white, and therefore I have more rights, and I’m better than you.” On the positive, she shared her love for the outdoors. “What I love about hiking and the outdoors is breathing that clean air and seeing the greenery all around me and not hearing cars. Fresh air energizes me.”
A very close friend Alison Mariella Désir and a leader in the running community, just released a book called Running While Black. While the book is about finding freedom of running, Alison insightfully and powerfully exposes the reality of running in public space as a Black woman and shares fears and emotions that remains a reality in a white-dominated society. Her vividly described stories once again exposed the dilemma many people of color face between navigating a love of the outdoors with the added burden of being forced to confront your color.
As we look to improve existing and expand trails across the country, we must understand the fears, discomfort, and alienation many Americans feel about experiencing trails and greenways. Most of us see the benefits of trails and greenways from urban centers to small towns. These are tough issues to solve, but let us start with a new approach, something that is within our power. Let us strive to make all people feel welcome on the trails. Make eye contact. Smile, nod, cheer, “way to go,” “keep up the good work.”
As the North Carolina Year of the Trail gets underway, let us all pledge to strive to create a State network of trails and greenways that are welcoming and safe for all.”