Sandy Springs has the right foundation in place to build urban trails connecting its scattered parks, trail expert Chuck Flink told a big crowd at the Sandy Springs Conservancy’s annual “Thought Leaders” dinner April 13. He called for a city “greenprint”—the parks version of a blueprint—to shape a green future.

Chuck Flink of Greenways, Inc., speaks at the Sandy Springs Conservancy's annual dinner April 13 at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel. (Photo John Ruch)

Chuck Flink of Greenways, Inc., speaks at the Sandy Springs Conservancy’s annual dinner April 13 at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel. (Photo John Ruch)

“I traveled down Roswell Road today and I understand the angst,” said Flink, president of North Carolina-based consulting firm Greenways, Inc., who has worked on hundreds of trail plans across the country. But, he added, “The quality of the parks you have in this community is really, really high…This is a great legacy to build on.”

Flink said Sandy Springs also has great examples close to home in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood—the PATH400 multi-use trail, which has a planned extension into Sandy Springs, and the “Buckhead Collection” master plan for interconnected parks and trails.

“The PATH400 is a wonderful opportunity for this community,” Flink said at the dinner at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel, adding that the Atlanta BeltLine park/trail system it connects to is “the most amazing public works project in the U.S. today.”

Also at the dinner, the Conservancy, a parks advocacy and funding organization, gave its annual Greenspace Champion Award to a local hero of the biggest park within city limits: Park Ranger Jerry Hightower of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which he helped create in the 1970s. Hightower said he was touched by the local honor and that the Conservancy itself deserved to be honored more than himself.

Flink–who sported a green tie and a green bicycle-shaped lapel pin–is an advocate of “greenways,” meaning any type of park-style trail—whether paved or unpaved, or following a natural feature like a river or a human-made one like an old railroad bed. In the late 1990s, he worked in metro Atlanta on some of the earliest trail plans, including the Chattahoochee River master plan and Cobb County’s section of the Silver Comet Trail.

The nationwide trail trend is driven by demographic changes, Flink said. The millennial generation wants less car-only transportation, he said, and the rapid pace of development in the South’s population boom can create feelings of dislocation.

Park Ranger Jerry Hightower of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area holds the tree-shaped Greenspace Champion Award he received at the April 13 Sandy Springs Conservancy dinner. (Photo John Ruch)

Park Ranger Jerry Hightower of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area holds the tree-shaped Greenspace Champion Award he received at the April 13 Sandy Springs Conservancy dinner. (Photo John Ruch)

“I’m not surprised to be in Sandy Springs having this conversation…about a sense of place,” Flink said of the quickly changing suburban city in the heart of the nation’s fastest-growing “mega-region.”

As part of its wide-ranging “Next Ten” planning process, Sandy Springs is sketching out a yet-to-be-defined network of greenways. Flink praised the Next Ten consultants and said Sandy Springs will end up with a top-notch plan. But he did not give specific advice about fleshing out the greenway plan.

In fact, Flink said, he sometimes leaves those details up to cities that hire him. Instead, he teaches them to develop a “vocabulary” for talking about green spaces—terms like “greenways,” for example—and a “toolbox” of various tactics that could be used to create them. (That includes dealing with “not in my back yard” resistance, he said.) Also important is having an overall vision, he said, asking whether Sandy Springs sees itself as another “edge city” or as a place of natural resources, thriving businesses and vibrant neighborhoods.

Flink did offer some specific examples of greenway and park projects he has worked on that might apply to Sandy Springs. In Charleston County, S.C., he took the hands-off “toolbox” approach; 10 years later, he said, the county has conserved more than 20,000 acres of green space in 130 separate projects.

In Raleigh, N.C., he helped create an “ecological framework” for the city, which is coping with fast, massive population growth. A key reference point was a slogan that turns typical urban planning on its head: “a city within a park.”

Another example is Greenville, S.C., where the city replaced a downtown highway bridge with a pedestrian bridge and helped to spark creation of the “Swamp Rabbit Trail,” whose unusual name became a selling point, he said. (The name sparked some audience chatter about the possibilities of Sandy Springs’ turtle mascot.) “Everybody thought it was crazy,” Flink said of the bridge replacement plan, but it spurred Greenville to become “one of the best small cities in the U.S. today because of a really bold move.”

Conservancy Executive Director Billy Parrish later said that the green space “vocabulary” could be useful in Sandy Springs. Flink was slated to discuss his ideas further with Mayor Rusty Paul, City Council members and city staff in an informal meeting April 14.

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