Is the Durham Rail Trail Doomed to Mediocrity?

It's been a long time since the last post. Thank you for sticking around! Posts will likely continue to be sporadic, but I hope to get more content out periodically.

Recently, Durham started community engagement for the Rail Trail (formerly the Belt Line). The will be conducting public events. With my limited time, though, I jumped straight to the online survey. The questions on the survey concerned me a little, but more on that in a bit.

wrote a post a LONG time ago about why I was excited for this project. Obviously, and predictably, it the project hasn't met its deadlines, but I am still optimistic about what the Rail Trail can bring to Durham.

However, that optimism was tempered by the survey questions I saw. The first few questions are very open ended. "What excites you?" and "What concerns you?", etc.

The last three questions are what gave me pause:

  • What signs should be posted on this section of the trail to guide you and support navigation to points of interest? How can this trail help local businesses nearby?

  • What type of planting would you like around the trail?

  • Where do you want to go from the ends of the trail? Examples include BPAP, bus stations, my home, shops, restaurants, government services, Beauty World, Greer Street Cemetery, other trails, Ellerbe Creek
At first glance, those questions may SEEM just fine. However, they all point to a vision of the trail that is ok, but not amazing.

The questions paint a picture of a beautiful trail with plantings, maybe native plants, which would be great. The trail connects various parts of the city, local businesses with residential districts. It even connects other to trails and transit stops.

All of that is lovely, but it misses the potential of the Rail Trail. The Rail Trail shouldn't JUST be a transportation corridor. It should be a place in and of itself. It should be a destination. Actually, it should have multiple destinations and multiple origins as well!

In other words, it needs small commercial space. It needs housing of all types (affordable, market rate, etc). It needs civic spaces and it needs public amenities. There needs to be a purpose for people to be there.

Sure, people will visit the Rail Trail if it is just a lovely transportation corridor, a nice walk. But they will stay longer if they can grab a coffee to enjoy surrounded by native plants. They will stay longer if they have a great place to sit while they are waiting for their kids' daycare to let out (maybe they are having such a good time that they use a playground nearby even after daycare). Imagine a place of worship that has its post-service meet-and-greet just outside on the trail. What about a new food tour, started by a local entrepreneur that focused on all of the great restaurants along the trail? Personally, I just want to be able to grab a LocoPop at their Rail Trail pop up location!

Without a wide variety of reasons to go on the trail and stay on the trail, the Rail Trail runs the risk of being underutilized. Jane Jacobs wrote about "eyes on the street", or the concept that the more people there are in a space, watching out for each other, the safer the space will be. With great origins and destinations, there will be no lack of activity to ensure a level of safety.

With lots of activity, the Rail Trail also has the potential to be an important public square. Imagine everything from buskers and entertainment to peaceful protests and civil discourse. It could really be an important piece of Durham. But there is no discourse without people. Nobody will stand with a petition if there are no people to talk to. No busker will perform for an empty trail.

So, let's ask how the Rail Trail can help "local businesses nearby", but let's ALSO ask how it can create opportunities for local businesses on the trail. Let's ask "where do you want to go from the ends of the trail?", but let's ALSO ask what types of destinations do you want to see ON the trail. Let's ask what types of plantings you want to see, but also, what types of amenities you want to see.

Let's think about how to utilize the land along the rail trail that is owned by the city and upzoning the land that isn't. Let's think about encouraging requiring less parking along this corridor (the parts that our outside of the design district).

If this resonates, I urge you to fill out the survey or head to an event and express your support of enabling a variety of uses, even if the answers don't fit neatly into one of the questions presented. Finally, share this post on social media and join the discussion in the forums!

Check out the Forum!

To engage with other Durham enthusiasts, visit the forums here!

Popular Posts