Great Rivers Greenway is a Model of Regional Governance

Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

The Chouteau Greenway is a vision for a connected central corridor from the St. Louis Arch to Forest Park. It is just one part of an ambitious plan to connect the entire region with a ring of parks.

To execute on this grand plan, GRG, a public agency that’s developing an interconnected system of trails throughout the St. Louis area, has forged a unique regional partnership comprised of public and private stakeholders.

Largely funded by public sales taxes combined with some federal grants, the agency is overseen by a board of directors drawn from both business and community stakeholders. The agency’s budgets are independently audited and the GRG works closely with the offices of the mayor and county executives. Every single Greenway plan is openly discussed at community meetings, and other public forums, held all over the region. All the meeting minutes have been made available to the public, since inception, over 15 years ago.

“Inclusivity and transparency is at the core of GRG’s mission,” says Susan Trautman, CEO Great Rivers Greenway. To underscore this point, she points to lessons learned ‘the hard way,’ from way back in the origin story of the agency itself.

The Origin of the GRG

The first vision for a “Network of Interconnected Parks” appears in 1907 in a 208 page document called “A City Plan for St. Louis” commissioned by the Civic League, a collection of around 900 of the city’s most prominent businessmen and politicians of the day. While their goals were noble, their processes were flawed.

So flawed, in fact, that the President of the league at that time, complained, “the Civic League has always been an organization of the well-to-do and well-educated men and women of the community and has not enlisted the interest and cooperation of all sectors of the city and men and women in all walks of life.”

In other words, even in their own estimation, the Civic League was an elite organization dedicated to beautifying the City but held little regard for the needs of the locals and their neighborhoods. By contrast, as if the manifold lessons of history were a beetle stuck on its back, the modern effort seems to have simply flipped over the top-down structure to help aforesaid collaborating visionaries find their feet and momentum again.

Starting with an organization called St. Louis 2004, which operated from 1996-2004 and was also a privately-funded civic planning organization, the modern protagonists were promoted the values of clean water, safe parks and community trails. Backed by grassroots organizations such as Coalition for the Environment, Sierra Club, Trailnet, Grace Hill and Greenway Network, among others, the civic planning group lobbied to put a 1/10th percent sales tax on the ballot known as Proposition C.

Proposition C was passed overwhelmingly. The new sales tax provided the funding — and the public mandate — needed to carry out an ambitious, decades long, development plan.

However, in order to ensure an equitable distribution of the collected taxes across the region, provide regional governance, and implement a master plan, it was clear that a new type of organization would be required. With input from a wide variety of nonprofits, civic organizations, and the board of directors representing the counties and cities involved; the grassroots civic planning group resolved that the new agency should not be bound to the loyalties of a single administration, nor a small group of self-interested parties, but instead would be devoted to a regional vision.

They formed the Great Rivers Greenway District, chose a director, and tasked the newly formed agency to define a plan.

Creating the “River Ring” Master Plan

The plan was formed by the funneling of ideas and proposals from developers, neighborhood associations, and various ‘parks and recs’ departments through countless community surveys, open forums and other outreach initiatives.

Funding assistance came from organizations like Trailnet, the Public Land Trust (a partner that has purchased land and resold it to the GRG, and federal government agencies like the EPA, HUD, and the Department of Transportation; the latter providing crucial federal dollars in the form of TIGER grants (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery).

In 2004, the GRG introduced the Citizen-Driven Regional Plan, which synthesized many development plans into one master plan called the “River Ring.”

Essentially, the master plan was a collection of 45 greenways from parks to places for a total of 600 miles of trail around St. Louis City, County, St. Charles and Illinois. In effect, each greenway is its own master plan.

With a published master plan the GRG began a process that will take decades to complete; spanning multiple administrations and generations of voters.

Since then, for nearly 15 years so far, the GRG has been painstakingly planning and developing greenways from as far South as the Meramec River; West as far as O’Fallon and Lake St. Louis; and North to the Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, 1200 square miles within St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County.

A New Type of Regional Public Agency

Technically, the Great Rivers Greenway is a tax district all by itself, but it’s much more than that. The GRG essentially established system of regional governance that had never existed before in Saint Louis.

“The GRG” says Susan Trautman, CEO Great Rivers Greenway, “works with over 300 partners — public and private — across 3 counties (St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Charles) and 120 municipalities.”

As a regional entity existing within a web of county and city jurisdictions, the GRG is the primary steward of public funds earmarked exclusively for greenway development. They choose which projects to invest in and pay for design and implementation.

Yet, in practice, the GRG also operates as a think tank and community organizer. Previously civic planning proposals were drafted by private groups of interested parties, or government appointed task forces, who then submitted those plans to government committees for approval. Now, around such questions of ‘where’ and ‘what’ to build, the GRG has elevated conversations beyond the closed doors of boardrooms and projected them firmly into the public sphere.

Under the GRG, everything is done out in the open and at ground-level. Every proposed site and the neighborhoods they would impact is surveyed, and then their findings are put up for public comment and discussion.

So far, 121 miles of Greenway have been built, with many recent milestones, such as selecting a development partner to create the final plans for the Chouteau Greenway trail. The sheer size and magnitude of the full undertaking requires radical organizational stamina.

Emma Klues, Director of Communication for the GRG, asserts that the work completed thus far — and the ambitious vision for the future — could never have been achieved without a repeatable formula and a robust framework. In a meeting with EQ, she underlined four critical organizational principles that the GRG is founded on:

1) A framework to inform decision making and provide stakeholder input.
2) A design based on a clear vision and shared goals.
3) A fully represented community.
4) Funding, governance and the stewardship of that funding.

“Without these things, you can’t get anything done,” she said.

For the most up to date information on the Greenway’s progress, visit: https://greatriversgreenway.org/news/

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10+ years of New York and St. Louis agency experience as an integrated producer of broadcast, social, digital and radio taught Jason Sindel to beware the agency woo and embrace the authentic story. A St. Louis native, Jason is inspired by the radical changes taking place in the city and is a contributing writer on EQ.