Section 508 Navigation
American Trails header Skip Navigation
HomeAbout usTrailsWhat's hotCalendarTrainingResources & libraryPartnersJoin usStore

Trail Tracks opinion forum

Gray City, Green City; Gray Planet, Green Planet

The World Columbian Exposition and its legacy of inspiration and activism for trails and greenways.

By Robert Searns, Urban Edges, Inc.

"While trails and greenways might not be the big answer to some of the big questions— maybe, like the White City, they can inspire bigger thoughts and bigger actions."

It was to be the event of all events, the showstopper of all show stoppers. It would celebrate the emerging greatness of America on the 400th Anniversary the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It was to be a triumph of technology, a triumph of culture, a triumph of art and beauty over the still bleak and oppressive 19th Century urban industrial landscape.

The World Columbian Exposition was all of these things and more. Also known as the Chicago World's Fair of 1983, it was a benchmark of hope and greatness. It brought together the great civic leaders, the captains of industry and the best designers of the day including the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel Burnham and Louis H. Sullivan.

These planners and architects envisioned and designed the "White City" with its spectacular exhibit halls and canals. Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture created a beautiful green landscape, not a fussy garden or contrived replica, but a bucolic celebration in the midst of a city&emdash;an ideal of how people and nature could and should live together. The White City was build and then demolished more than a century ago, but is far reaching legacy lives on. It became a model of what a group of committed individuals could accomplish with a vision. Its ideas and its examples inspired a national city-beautiful movement. Cities like Denver and Kansas City were transformed when their leaders returned from the Exposition to create new parks and waterways. Denver's greenway system, in fact can be traced to Mayor Robert Speer being wowed in Chicago.

About the same time Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot began to hatch their vision of a national parks and national forest system. Roosevelt epitomized the "can-do spirit of that era and, though many may not know this he was also a dedicated naturalist. He wanted to preserve the awe of places wild and give all American— both the elite and common, ownership in a green legacy.

"Once again, the gray and banal threaten. People hunger for leadership. Again, we need visionaries; we need the Gifford Pinchots and the Teddy Roosevelts."

There was a dark undercurrent during these times as well. Erik Larson in his book, The Devil in The White City chronicles this struggle between hope and neglect, between the corrupt and the inspired, between the banal and the visionary. He said the White City showed Chicagoans (and the World) that life can be more than the dank, gray, polluted landscape they were accustomed to, that economic prosperity need not eclipse natural beauty, the human spirit and civic pride. In fact these three do best when wedded. It also portrays the vision and perseverance— undaunted by naysayers— of the leaders of that time to make the vision a reality.

A century later, we are witnessing these same cross currents. Indeed, today, our planet is like a city more tightly interconnected by jet planes and computers than were the neighborhoods of 19th century Chicago. Once again, the gray and banal threaten. People hunger for leadership. Again, we need visionaries; we need the Gifford Pinchot's and the Teddy Roosevelt's. We need the Burnham's and the Olmsted's. As public lands are threatened, as ice caps melt, we again need that vision.

The trails and greenway movement has been emerging, hopefully, as a part of that vision. Civic leaders across the North American landscape, even across the continents are pursuing that vision and hundred of communities have been transformed. While trails and greenways may not be the big answer to some of the big questions, maybe, like the White City, they can inspire bigger thoughts and bigger actions. We hope so. We also hope you will come to the Quad Cities this fall to the 18th National American Trails Symposium. We also hope you will contribute your stories, opinions and ideas to the American Trails Web site and to this publication. Jump on board!! You are needed more than ever!!

American Trails has come into its own in its unceasing mission to promote trails and greenways accessible to all Americans. Our Web site now receives over 80,000 hits a month with people hungering for more information about finding trails, using trails, and creating new high quality trails and greenways. Trail Tracks, our highly successful quarterly has now re-emerged as American Trails Magazine. We hope you will enjoy our new name and continue to enjoy the continuing straight forward, no nonsense trails and greenway advice that is the Trail Tracks tradition.

Please note also that Trail Tracks will live on. We have bestowed this name on our new op-ed section that will appear in each edition of American Trails. We invite you to be a part of Trail Tracks. Send your comments, letters, or maybe an op-ed submittal. We also continue to encourage your articles about great trails, great trail and greenway planning and design, trail safety and other topic our readers will want to read.

In closing on behalf of the Board of Trustees of American Trails, let me extend a heartfelt expression of gratitude to Roger Bell for his dedicated years of service as National Chair of the Board of American Trails. Roger, American Trails would not be what it is today without you!! Roger continues to serve on out board as Vice Chair. We also thank Pam Gluck, our steadfast Executive Director and her erstwhile staff Mike Bullington, Candace Mitchell as well as our Web Master and editor of American Trails, Stuart Macdonald.

Robert M. Searns is the founding owner of Urban Edges, Inc., a planning and development firm based in Denver. He has worked with communities nationwide on greenways, trails, and outdoor resource conservation. He co-authored, with Chuck Flink, Greenways: A Guide to Planning, Design and Development, and contributed to Greenways, The Beginning of an International Movement. Bob is also a member of the Board of Directors of American Trails.

Submit your opinion, article, or editorial to American Trails at or if you have questions call us at (530) 547-2060.

American Trails offers this website as a public resource to share ideas and opinions on trails and greenways. We have not evaluated the accuracy, feasibility, or legality of any of the material or articles. The opinions and editorials presented here do not necessarily reflect the opinion or support of American Trails. American Trails does not discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis or race, religion, nationality, or political affliiation.

Related topics:

More resources:

page footer

Contact us | Mission statement | Board of directors | Member organizations | Site map | Copyright | NRT | NTTP