By Dom Nozzi
An enormous number of Americans are fiercely opposed to the installation of bicycle and pedestrian greenway trails near their homes. As a greenway planner for Gainesville FL in the 1990s, I was shocked and disappointed by the level of hysterical opposition to something that one would think is a welcome addition to any residential area.
In seeking to reduce the opposition, we tried to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns by placing the trail as far from homes as possible.
But what we learned in Gainesville was that placing the trail in “uplands” would cause a firestorm of opposition and renewed cries that the City was not listening to citizens. Let’s not forget that for many NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), the concern about the trail being close to homes is cloaked in a more acceptable (and less selfish) “concern for the environment” (i.e., the environment is a smokescreen for underlying NIMBY opposition).
But even if we moved the trail to the “uplands” (and away from the more sensitive creek ecosystem that vocal “environmental” opponents are allegedly up in arms about), would this protect the “pristine” creek environment?
The creek ecosystem would still suffer from noise, cats and dogs, nearby houses, erosion and sedimentation, sewage leaks, stormwater runoff, herbicides and pesticides, vegetative removal, ad nauseam. Gainesville’s creeks have been suffering major environmental insults for decades due to these nearby homes and businesses and roads.
The greenway path we proposed, in other words, does not create the first negative impact on a “pristine” creek environment. Instead, it is an important tool to reverse these decades of mostly hidden abuse.
Much as we would like it to be true, I do not believe that the goal of making an urban creek a pristine environment (by preventing the installation of a greenway path) is a matter of political will or citizen education or laws and regulations.
It does not matter how much will or environmental sensitivity or concern we dedicate to urban creeks. Why? Because it is simply not possible to insulate an urban creek from nearby urbanism. Oh, sure, we could dream about removing all the homes and apartments and retail and office and parking lots and roads within five miles of the creek, but is that realistic? Or how about creating a “Gainesville Biosphere” in which we encase the creek floodplain with glass walls? The truth of the matter is that there is no financially or politically feasible way to create a pristine environment in the middle of the city — for all the reasons I listed above (and others I did not mention).
And I say this as a well-known wild-eyed environmentalist.
I have very little patience for “bleeding heart ecologists” who are behaving hypocritically. For example, when they so loudly and frequently express concern that a simple bike and foot path will cause major negative impacts to amphibians and reptiles, I think about relative impacts. Those two or three angry, concerned ecologists in Gainesville have probably killed more creek amphibians and reptiles as they drove in their cars over the past few years than will hundreds of bicyclists on a creek trail in 50 years.
And this is direct road kills caused by the cars the ecologists drive. How much damage is caused by a road as it slashes through creek floodplains? Did these ecologists (who lobby for a charter amendment that would forever prohibit the City of Gainesville from constructing a greenway path in the creek floodplain) support a charter amendment that would forever forbid the city, the county or the state from building a road through a floodplain unless it was bridged?
I suspect not.
And I have not even mentioned car impacts such as underground storage tank leaks, stormwater runoff from roads and parking lots, erosion, light pollution, fuel and oil droppings from cars that leach into the creeks, the removal of floodplain vegetation for parking lots and roads, air pollution, and noise.
I begin to wonder if the huge fight against a greenway path and the ear-shattering silence we hear when it comes to, say, road widening, is more due to the fact that the opponents of the path have given up the fight against the major forms of urban wildlife and ecosystem impacts and put up a tremendous fight against a path because it seems like a “winnable” fight.
I also begin to wonder if these ecologists know much about how much the creeks have suffered from abuse over the past several decades, and how much it continues to suffer. How much more can the creek ecosystem take before it collapses?