Flink: Three decades of making connections with greenways

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Chuck Flink on the American Tobacco Trail south of downtown Durham, N.C. Flink wrote the master plan for the 22-mile trail, one of dozens of greenway projects he has led for more than 250 communities across the U.S. and overseas.

As founder and president of Greenways, Inc., Chuck Flink has led the planning and design of dozens of projects across the U.S. and overseas. As a long-term board chair and current chair of our Advisory Board, he’s also helped lead the growth of the East Coast Greenway.

Chuck Flink has a basic piece of advice for anyone planning, designing, or advocating for a greenway: Look up. Greenways are not about the asphalt or concrete or stone dust under foot, he says. Instead, they are about the trees that the trail passes under, about the landscape and the built environment all around it.

Flink first learned that lesson in the mid-1980s as a young greenway planner for the City of Raleigh, N.C. A few years out of landscape architecture school, he lucked into the job with no particular knowledge of greenways. With the backing of a well-connected Greenway Commission and the blessing of his supervisors in the city’s planning department, he was empowered to close gaps in Raleigh’s network of trails. At times he’d literally be building trails, leading a crew of guys from the parks department, walking just ahead of the bulldozer to mark the trail with flags. Remembering to look up meant routing the greenways to feature shade trees and scenic vistas rather than tearing them down.

Three decades later, Flink led the creation of a 36-mile, $40 million Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway, which opened in 2015. That project, funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, embodies his “looking up” concept by taking its users past coffee shops and B&Bs, creeks and lakes, public art and parks while connecting six communities. “This is 21st-century greenway design,” he says, “to create a Main Street feel to the route.”

Flink’s path to international recognition as a greenways expert was not a straight line — nor did he map it in advance. When a newly elected city council showed little interest in greenways, Flink left his job with the City of Raleigh after little more than a year to hang out his own shingle. He was emboldened by a freelance contract to design greenways at Research Triangle Park outside of Raleigh, where the tenants’ association was worried about the safety of employees who were running in the streets during their lunch breaks. Flink called his fledgling business Greenways Inc.  “I wanted to work on greenways, and I was incorporating,” he says.

His consultancy name was either a stroke of luck or genius. The greenways movement was gaining new steam in the late 1980s. President Ronald Reagan, encouraged by Laurance Rockefeller, appointed a commission to look at how Americans were using the outdoors. A key piece of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors report, released in 1987, was to “establish a national network of greenways,” Flink says. “America had created these isolated blobs of national parks, but [the commission] realized that people wanted linear recreation. Biking, walking, and running were dominating their interest.”

Two commission members then hired writers to research and write about greenways. Patrick Noonan, then president of The Conservation Fund, hired Charles Little to write a book about greenways. And Gil Grosvenor, head of the National Geographic Society, assigned Noel Grove to write a story about greenways for his magazine. Both writers found their way to Flink’s Raleigh office, thanks in part to his well-titled business. But the young planner’s network had also been growing. The Rails to Trails Conservancy formed in 1985 and Flink was asked to join the board of a sister organization, the American Trails Network (ATN), in 1987. At a fall 1988 meeting, two organizations — the National Trails Council and ATN — voted to merge into American Trails. The existing board members named Flink as their new board chair. “I think I was the young guy who wasn’t threatening to anyone,” he laughs.

Little’s book, Greenways for America, was published in 1990. And Grove’s article, “Greenways: Paths to the Future,” ran in the June 1990 National Geographic. With Flink’s perspective featured prominently in both, the floodgates opened for Greenways, Inc.

“The sun, moon, and stars all began to align,” Flink laughs. The National Geographic article in particular “gave me sudden street cred,” he says, and letters poured in asking for help in building greenways all over the world. “I’d been thinking I wanted to do work statewide, all across North Carolina, how that would be amazing because no one else was doing that. And now people are talking to me about international work.”

In the years since, greenways have continued to flourish. Flink has worked on projects for more than 250 communities in 36 states and consulted in a handful of countries as a planner, designer, and project director. He is co-author with Bob Searns of Greenways: A Guide to Planning, Design and Development and Trails for the Twenty First Century. He chairs the Board of Visitors at North Carolina State University, his alma mater, where he also teaches landscape architecture classes. Currently he is leading the development of the Wolf River Greenway in Memphis, a 36-mile corridor to connect neighborhoods east from the Mississippi River to Germantown, Tennessee. He began the project in July 2014 just as the Northwest Arkansas project was wrapping up.

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Chuck Flink, back row far left, with fellow East Coast Greenway Alliance trustees and friends. Flink led the 2005 strategic planning session focused on reorganizing the Alliance.

Flink heard about the East Coast Greenway early on. In 1996, Karen Votava, then the executive director, asked him to serve as the volunteer North Carolina coordinator. He sent an assistant to that year’s annual meeting, but by 1999 Votava was asking Flink to attend the board meetings, and by 2004 he was named chair of the board. He served on the board for 12 years, including five consecutive terms as chair, and now heads the East Coast Greenway Advisory Board.

“I understood immediately the power of the East Coast Greenway,” Flink remembers. “Yes, it was far-fetched, but everyone was throwing out big ideas then.” The East Coast Greenway’s staying power and allure over the last 25 years is still in that big-picture connection, he says. “Knowing that your local trail is connected to the rest of the East Coast, even if you’ll never ride to Miami, you can feel that you’re part of something bigger.”

Though he will tell you he’s simply fallen into many of his professional opportunities, Flink’s congenial, positive energy easily opens doors. “When I think about the best mentors and partners in my career, Chuck Flink is right there at the top,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, East Coast Greenway Alliance executive director. “He is the rare expert who brings the empowering strengths of humility and humor to every partnership.”

That humility includes not seeking the limelight. At ribbon cuttings and such, Flink is happy to stand in the crowd and watch as local officials and others celebrate the new project. He's glad to have local partners take ownership of their new venue, he says.

Flink was doing just that, standing in the crowd at the ribbon cutting for the Northwest Arkansas greenway, a project he had worked on for six years. Suddenly a woman threw her arms around him. It was the clerk of a Springdale, Arkansas, hotel where he would stay on visits throughout the project. One day a few years earlier she had asked Flink what was bringing him to town and he told her about the greenway. “Oh!” she told him, “I used to ride my bike when I was a girl, I should do that.” At the ribbon-cutting she told him through her tears that she'd been riding her bike, that she'd lost weight, and that he had changed her life. Job affirmation doesn't get much better than that.

“I feel like the most fortunate person on the planet,” Flink says. “I’ve been able to do work that means so much to me personally and professionally.”

Read more of our August 2017 newsletter, On the Greenway

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