Written by: Ben McKeeman, Land Planner and GIS Specialist
In celebration of National Trails Day, I wanted to take some time to reflect on how trails have shaped not only my upbringing, but also my mindset as a Planner.
As a child growing up in suburban Atlanta, I was fortunate to have two active, outdoorsy parents that seemed happiest when towing two small toddlers up the trails of Kennesaw Mountain on a hot, humid summer day. One of my earliest memories as a child is walking with my brother, parents and our mud-covered golden retriever along the banks of Sweetwater Creek, stopping to play on the rocks next to the remains of an antebellum cotton mill. If there was anything I could count on as a kid, it was that on any sunny, summer weekend, our family could be found hiking the trails of Sweetwater Creek State Park, or one of the many nature trails that surrounded our little part of the world.
As I grew older, and our lives busier, my parents still tried to make time for us to enjoy nature as a family. My father’s love for the big national parks out west, and his work at Yellowstone in the 1970’s, prompted the most memorable family vacation of my life during my middle school days. Starting at the Grand Canyon, we spent a week hiking some of the most beautiful trails this country has to offer, stopping next at Bryce Canyon, and finally hiking up the Narrows at Zion National Park in Utah. Our experiences hiking through the awe-inspiring scenery, and interacting with the park staff who made it all possible, is something that I have a deep appreciation for, even now.
By the time I started college, I had lost touch with the many trails and parks in our area, assumedly busy with being a teenager where weekends were devoted to working extra hours at my lifeguarding job or aimlessly walking around the mall with friends. It wasn’t until I started my final year of college as an exchange student in Hannover, Germany, that I rekindled my love of trails and realized what I had been missing out on for so many years. It was my experience walking the trails and promenades in Hannover, more than anything else, that prompted me to pursue my graduate program in Urban Planning the following year.
To me, the funny thing about Germany was how different the general attitude toward trails seemed to be. Compared to the U.S., trails were not just dirt paths in the woods for the outdoorsy few, but rather an essential part of everyday life, and even a basic transportation essential in the more urban areas. In addition to the expansive network of nature trails and hiking opportunities outside of my host city, I was surrounded by new types of trails that I had never experienced — right outside my front door. My dorm sat at the edge of the Georgengarten, a large ornamental park and trail network surrounding a historic 18th century palace, that was crisscrossed with dozens of trails, ranging from skinny dirt paths along the riverbank to 20+ ft. wide crushed limestone paths swarming with walkers, runners and cyclists. Never in my life had I seen so many different people, of all ages and backgrounds, outside experiencing nature together. It was on many jogs and bike trips through that park that I developed my thoughts on what makes a park truly exceptional, and how trails are so much more than those dirt paths of my youth.
Now, as a professional planner, I often still recall those experiences when evaluating or designing trails on projects. Though our little corner of the world is very different than the rocky valleys of southern Utah, or the trails dotted with European palaces, we have our own unique parks and trails that we can leverage to create experiences just as memorable and impactful for the toddlers of today, whose parents are taking them for a ride along the Towpath, or hiking down to Blue Hen Falls in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Our trails and their natural beauty can make an impact on us today, as we hike them on National Trails Day, and into tomorrow through those we bring along on the journey.
National Trails Day is the first Saturday in June, and is celebrated to promote awareness of the benefits that trails provide and an appreciation for the outdoors.