Southeast Summit energizes greenway advocates

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Chuck Flink, president of Greenways, Inc., delivers keynote address for Southeast Greenways & Trails Summit in Durham, NC.

An action-packed, three-day gathering in Durham, N.C., left more than 300 greenway advocates and partners energized to do more good in their communities. The gathering featured mobile workshops and active options to begin and end the conference and a packed slate of presentations in between.

The Summit also prompted state and local officials, from Durham Mayor William Bell to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, to share  their support for greenways. "The more we can come together and unite on common ground these days, the better. And greenways provide that common ground," Reid Wilson, chief deputy secretary of the state's Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, told Summit attendees at a plenary lunch. Wilson also brought greetings from Governor Cooper, "who is a big supporter of greenways," he noted.

"When people come toward each other on a greenway, they say 'Hi.' Strangers actually interact with each other," Wilson said. Businesses are looking for infrastructure like greenways when they decide where to locate, he said, and he recognizes how greenways improve our physical and emotional health, "helping people get away from their crazy lives."


The lunch also featured the unveiling of “The Impact of Greenways on the Triangle,” a study prepared by Alta Planning + Design and sponsored by GSK. The report's key finding: The East Coast Greenway generates $90 million in total benefits annually for North Carolina's Triangle region (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and their surrounding communities), from gains in health and the environment to transportation and access benefits and economic gains.

"Communities are beginning to understand the value of greenways," Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Triangle's Wake County Board of Commissioners, told attendees as he shared the report. "Greenways are magic. And when you can paint the picture, take people on a trip, they get it," he said, as he projected stunning images of Greater Raleigh's greenways, an extensive network that Hutchinson helped to build.

Hutchinson offered his top lessons learned from developing an extensive greenway network in the Triangle: "1. Planning dollars are dollars well spent.  2. Don't worry about the money. Come up with your vision and plan and the money will follow.  3. Find a champion — an elected official or other leader who can help you make things happen."

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Sig Hutchinson, chair of Wake County Board of Commissioners, shared stories about the impact and growth of greenways in the Triangle region during a lunch plenary at the Southeast Greenways & Trails Summit.

The Southeast Summit began Sunday afternoon with three active options: a tour of the American Tobacco Trail's native plants, a walking tour of civil rights activist Pauli Murray's neighborhood, and a 5K run in part on a segment of East Coast Greenway. That evening greenways guru Chuck Flink delivered an opening keynote address that traced the history of greenways dating back to Frederick Law Olmsted and others, shared snapshots of current trails and greenways across the U.S., and addressed future challenges and opportunities — namely climate change and technology, including electric bikes.

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Panelists for the Southeast Summit opening plenary on philanthropy and greenway development (from left): Shaheen Syal of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Atiba Mbiwan of Zeist Foundation, Kathy Higgins of Blue Cross Blue Shield NC Foundation, and Andy Johnson of William Penn Foundation.

See more Southeast Greenways & Trails Summit photos

The summit opened its first full day with a panel discussion, "Getting the Green for Greenways: Philanthropy and Leveraging Public Support." Sharing their insights, priorities, and challenges were Shaheen Syal, communications director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation; Atiba Mbiwan, associate director of the Zeist Foundation and an East Coast Greenway trustee; Kathy Higgins, vice president of corporate affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation; and Andy Johnson, program director at the William Penn Foundation.

The panelists agreed that issues of equity — ensuring that everyone benefits from greenways and other community efforts — are top of mind for their foundations. "Take pride that you are working in a space where inclusion is part of what you do," Higgins told attendees, because greenways are open to all. Added Mbiwan, "The work we do is for the next generation. We need to better include our youth in the conversation." Addressing the urban/rural divide, Johnson noted that his foundation has seen rural communities benefitting from increased tourism thanks to greenways, which can grow demand for bike rentals, fishing outfitters, and other outdoor pursuits.

Over two days of workshops, presenters from 12 states delivered more than 45 sessions on topics ranging from coalition building to new technologies. Jeff Olson, a principal with Alta Planning + Design, shared the remarkable story of the $200 million Empire State Trail taking shape in New York State.  George Hess, professor at North Carolina State University, and Lisa Potts, senior greenway planner with the City of Raleigh, described how they surveyed greenway users and wildlife on a section of Raleigh's trails using a variety of methods. Attendees heard about public art (from a panel that included Autumn Cobeland, Summit artist-in-residence whose paintings graced our materials) and craft breweries as greenway partners, how the state of Florida is funding greenways, and strategies for closing gaps along the East Coast Greenway. Summit presentations will be shared online soon at

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Summit attendees touring the childhood neighborhood of civil rights activist Pauli Murray stop beneath a mural of Murray on a block in downtown Durham, NC.
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As the Summit drew to a close, Jeff Olson of Alta (on stage with Summit Co-Director Iona Thomas) reminded his colleagues that by building greenways, they are doing good work.

During a closing session, Southeast Summit organizer Iona Thomas called Alta's Jeff Olson to the stage to share his "next big idea." Two words, Olson told his colleagues: "Be good. The East Coast Greenway is an unqualified good thing. In a time of significant darkness [one day after the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, in Las Vegas, and weeks after major hurricane destruction in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida], we are the light. And a lot of people are looking for that."

Reflecting on the event, Greenway Programs Director Niles Barnes shares three more words: gratitude, excitement, and action. "Gratitude for all of the volunteers, sponsors, and presenters that made the Summit happen," Barnes says. "Excitement from all of the content that was shared and networking that occurred. And actions that are to come as a result of the Summit in the months and years ahead."

Thanks to our Southeast Greenways & Trails Summit host committee: Co-Directors Iona Thomas, AICP, McAdams, and Niles Barnes, East Coast Greenway Alliance; Lauren Blackburn, AICP, VHB; Todd Delk, PE, Stewart; Dale McKeel, AICP, City of Durham; Bryan Poole, City of Durham, Lindsey Smart, AICP, City of Durham, Sig Hutchinson, Wake County Board of Commissioners; Daniel Gottlieb, North Carolina Museum of Art; Sandi Bailey, Town of Cary; Trung Vo, PE, AICP, City of Raleigh; John Hodges Copple, AICP, Triangle J Council of Governments; Jason Reyes, AICP, Alta Planning + Design; Ed Johnson, RLA, ASLA, NC Department of Transportation; Smith Raynor, NC State Parks; Lisa Potts, City of Raleigh; Kenneth Withrow, AICP, CAMPO; Sarah O'Brien, ITRE; Aspen Romeyn, AICP, Triangle J Council of Governments; Dave Connelly, East Coast Greenway North Carolina Committee; and Jennifer Zuckerman, Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.

Thanks, too, to our major sponsors Alta Planning + Design, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, GSK, and Triangle Community Foundation as well as NC Department of Transportation, NC State Parks, City of Raleigh, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, REI, Stewart, VHB, Wells Fargo, AECOM, AMT, Backwoods Bridges, Town of Cary, CityZen, Crank Arm Brewing, Downtown Durham Inc., Ecological Engineering, Eco Counter, Fullsteam Brewery, JBI Bike, Kimley Horn, Kotis, Land Design, LimeBike, McAdams, Parks Hospitality Group, PermaTrak, Ponysaurus Brewing, Stantec, Trek, Trophy Brewing, Whole Foods, and WSP.

Read more of our October newsletter, On the Greenway

Not your usual conference parking lot: Attendees' bikes outside of Durham Convention Center.
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