Single Track Saves the City

Susan Dieterlen
Aug 28, 2017 · 4 min read

Call it biking the urban wild. Portland, Oregon, is developing a citywide off-road trail network, called the Portland Off-road Cycling Master Plan. Conventional planning processes will produce a network of single-track trails through natural areas, instead of the much more common paved bike/pedestrian trails. Portland is reported to be inspired in this effort by the broad popularity of mountain biking within the area, but the advantages of “wild” urban trails over conventional multi-use paths are worth considering anywhere. A network of single-track through the city is a network of urban wilds, with a built-in community of people to use them.

What are these advantages? First, there’s the array of benefits to physical and mental health that come with exposure to everyday nature, particularly vegetation. Key to this list are lower perceived stress, greater time spent exercising, and improved mental focus. These three benefits lead to a host of secondary effects, from lower blood pressure to better mood and social relationships. Research on this nature-health connection generally finds that benefits are significant, but small, meaning that the ideal way to benefit from them is through activities done on an everyday basis. Thus, the trail through the natural area across the street is potentially much better for your health than the trail at the state park twenty miles away. It’s the everyday that makes the difference.

Single-track trail traversing a “wild” urban area; in this case, a former quarry.

Key to the the mental health benefits is mindfulness, or the necessity of being present and focused on the moment. The more rugged surface of unpaved trails promotes this, as does the narrowness of single-track. The limited views through trees and shrubs promote the feeling of being away from the city, even in locations well within city limits. This feeling of being away, or “extent,” is also key to achieving health benefits from nature, as is the feeling that a landscape can’t be understood completely at a glance, that it contains scope for exploration.

Biking or running on a trail is obviously good for the trail user’s health, but it’s also good for everyone else’s health, in terms of the climate change mitigation benefits of urban wilds. The abundant vegetation of natural areas in cities sequesters carbon, which aids in offsetting climate change. These same natural areas also help cities adapt to the impacts of a warmer, more volatile climate, through lowering the temperature of adjacent areas and creating more area for rainwater from storms to infiltrate.

Urban trail networks of any kind fight climate change by promoting human-powered transportation over cars, but an urban off-road network in an outdoorsy town like Portland goes further. If many people — Portland found 12% of county residents — are already doing single-track recreation, they are likely driving to those trails. Trails in the city eliminate at least some of those trips. This is not to say that trail users will never drive out of town, but as with everything having to do with lowering our impact on climate change, it is what you do routinely that matters, not the special occasion. It’s the Tuesday night ride, not what you do one Saturday each summer.

An urban wild network promises major advantages to local wildlife and its ability to withstand the disruption of climate change. A substantial challenge for wildlife of warming temperatures and changing precipitation levels is the ability to move fast enough to keep pace with a livable climate. For some creatures, this means moving up in elevation or farther north to stay with cooler temperatures, while for others it means moving to stay with adequate moisture levels. Cities and many suburbs are obstacles to this movement, because they interrupt the habitat necessary to allow wildlife to travel. This fragmentation of habitat is offset by urban wilds, especially those that occur in a connected network, because the wild areas provide wildlife corridors, a kind of safe route for creatures to move through the city. Even manicured lawn, like in the top photo, is inhospitable to many organisms. Even though it’s green, it lacks sufficient shelter and may well lack adequate food and water sources as well.

Conventional pathway in a manicured park setting

There are more benefits — reduced maintenance, improved views from adjacent properties — but this short list illustrates the advantages of a wild trail network like this in an urban area, that are not available with a more conventional trail network. Intriguingly, a wild trail network may be much less expensive, and therefore far more feasible, to build in urban areas that already have ample amounts of vacant lots, brownfields, and other urban wild spaces. Traditional trails are surprisingly expensive to build, so the cost difference between simply adding single-track to existing wild areas and clearing those areas, establishing lawn, and constructing an asphalt trail, could be quite substantial. Since urban wild spaces are usually seen as waste space, using these spaces more or less as they are to get a desirable recreation and health benefit is well worth considering, for many places other than Portland. Maybe your town needs some killer in-town single-track, too.

Written by

Urban designer and environmental scientist, looking at the world.

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