The Future of Trail Development in North Carolina

Charles A. Flink, FASLA, Greenways Incorporated

The North Carolina General Assembly enacted the 2023-2024 budget, and the Great Trails Program received almost $55 million in funding for future trail development. This is GREAT news for North Carolinians and, from the mountains to the sea, enables our communities to address pent-up demand for trail development. Please take the time to send a note of thanks to your General Assembly representative.

Throughout my 40-year trail planning, design, and development career, I have witnessed first-hand the transformation in trail development standards, from the start of my career in the early 1980s to the present day. The historic funding of trails from the General Assembly is exactly the financial investment needed to address some of North Carolina’s outdoor needs. What does the future hold for trail and greenway development? How will trail and greenway standards evolve to meet the needs of future generations? Let me offer one perspective.

I have selected the year 2050 as the basis for this look into the future. As we gaze into the crystal ball, it is clear there are many opportunities and challenges ahead. I will focus on just a few. It is important to know that in the next three decades, North Carolina will be more populated, our weather conditions will be hotter and wetter, and the number of people who will want and need access to the outdoors will increase dramatically. We must plan and prepare now to meet those future needs.

More People: North Carolina’s population will grow to 14 million by 2050. We will add approximately 3.5 million additional people during the next 27 years. Most of these new residents (more than 2 million) will choose to live in the Piedmont Crescent, which stretches from the eastern edge of the Triangle to south Charlotte. This growth in population will dramatically impact rural counties that surround the three metro areas: Triangle, Triad, and Charlotte. New land development will replace farms and forests. Our counties and communities need to conserve and protect interconnected greenspace now to provide the necessary land and water rights of way for future trails.

Hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts participate in Earth Day at the Anne Springs Close Greenway, Fort Mill, SC. Credit: Chuck Flink

Hotter Weather: The summer of 2023 was the hottest in recorded history. Record summer heat occurred simultaneously on all 7 continents. The forecast for the next 27 years is for more extreme heat. The number of 100-degree days is forecast to increase dramatically, and when combined with more wet/humid days, will result in challenging outdoor living conditions. We need to keep extreme heat in mind as we plan, design, and build trails.

Intense Rainfall and Storms: As planet Earth warms, we will see a dramatic increase in water vapor and, as a result, more extreme weather. We need to anticipate more intense rainstorms and damaging floodwaters. Stormwater negatively impacts trails, and we will need to account for intense rainfall as we design, construct, and manage our trails. 

What are some other variables that will influence trail and greenway planning, design, and development?

The Evolution of the Off-Road Trail: We have already experienced an evolution in off-road trail design. When I began my career in the planning and design of trail systems, the average width of an urban trail was 8 feet, greenway corridors ranged from 25 feet to 100 feet in width, and single-track trails were 2 feet wide. In 2023, those trail tread and corridor dimensions have changed. Many urban trails are a minimum of 10 feet, with a preferred width of 12 feet. Greenway corridors now vary in width, at times encompassing the width of the floodplain, which might be several hundred feet wide. Single-track trails also vary in width depending on terrain, from 4 to 6 and even 8 feet in width. Most importantly, the cost to build a mile of an urban trail has increased from $100,000 to more than $2 million per mile.

The standard width of urban shared-use single-tread trails in 2023 is between 10 and 12 feet. Credit: Davitt Woodwell

As more people crowd into the Piedmont Crescent in the years to come, one of the next evolutions in off-road urban trail development will involve separating wheeled and non-wheeled users. For the past four-plus decades, urban trails have been constituted as a single tread for multi-users. Combining all user groups into a single tread has created conflicts among users. Population growth will create a magnitude increase in trail users, a desire for more access, and more concerns over user safety. In our urban areas, we will see a different type of multi-tread trails emerge as a standard practice in trail development: one tread designated for wheeled users, including e-bikes, and a separate non-wheeled tread for pedestrians and mobility-impaired users.

Example of a multi-tread trail, the Joe Louis Greenway. Credit: SmithGroup and City of Detroit

The Evolution of On-Road Bike and Pedestrian Ways: Similarly, we will witness dramatic changes in the on-road travel experience for cyclists and pedestrians. In the 1980’s, we began to designate roadways for shared use (cars and bikes), using signage and painted lines. Today, protected bike lanes are the avant-garde, but in the years to come, this form of bike facility will be incorporated more frequently into North Carolina’s Complete Streets, encouraging and enabling more people to ride bikes for commuting purposes. Densely populated areas will rely on microbmobility solutions to solve urban transport challenges, elevating choice in transportation in favor of more cycling.

One version of a Protected Bike Lane. Credit: Chuck Flink

The Importance of Green Infrastructure: We must also elevate the role of green infrastructure in community development. Toward that end, corridor widths will respond as much to ecological needs as human needs. Greenways, as multifunctional landscapes, will be needed to accommodate excess stormwater and mitigate extreme heat in addition to solving human transport. Greenways will also be valued as “gene-ways” enabling plants and animals to migrate toward cooler landscapes of the planet.

Aerial view of the Razorback Greenway in Arkansas, illustrating the ecological corridor protected as part of trail development. Credit: Chuck Flink

How You Can Contribute: You might be wondering what you can do to support the future of trails and greenways in your community. Continue to be engaged, be vocal, volunteer your time, support your community trail development and management programs, support local merchants who serve trail users, and most importantly, get out and use your local trails. 

Chuck and Marjorie Flink riding their E-bikes on the American Tobacco in Durham County. Trail. Credit: Chuck Flink

About the Author:

Chuck Flink, FASLA, is an award-winning author, environmental planner, and landscape architect. He is widely regarded as a national and international leader in greenways, trails, and resource conservation. His most recent book, The Greenway Imperative: Connecting Communities and Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, is available on

Headshot of Chuck Flink. Credit: Mark Hall