One point we emphasize about the Idema Explorers Trail is that it is much more than a typical multi-use pathway or non-motorized transportation route. It also will be a 35-mile long linear park.
This idea comes to mind when thinking about the latest section of trail construction: Phase I of the “Georgetown Segment” along Cottonwood Drive in Georgetown Township. Work recently commenced on the project, which includes 1.17 miles of 10’ wide asphalt pathway running along 10th Avenue (starting at Golfside Drive) and Cottonwood Drive (ending, for now, at a property owned by Ottawa County Parks). The work is expected to be completed by mid-summer.
While this is the culmination of years of intensive planning and effort and will have critical transportation benefits, the project is proceeding under the radar and is not likely to be the most beloved part of the trail. Even more so, it may be hard to convince people that a pathway along one of the busiest roads in Ottawa County is part of a park. However, I will give it my best try.
In communities in east and central Ottawa County, the river can feel distant or forgotten. Nearly everything is faced away from the river. One way we hoped to change this is by locating the trail along or as close to the river as possible. In fact, out of the 27 miles of new pathway planned for the Idema Explorers Trail, over half of this new trail will be in scenic parkland and/or riverfront or waterfront areas. The other half of it will be away from the river and often along roadways, some of which, like Cottonwood Drive, include heavy traffic.
To create a park is to design a space where people will want to linger to enjoy nature, enjoy being outdoors, and enjoy being around other people. One reason that this is challenging along Cottonwood Drive is because it is the high traffic, five-lane road with few spaces that are inviting or where people would want to linger. Additional, its most notable natural features are either tucked deep behind houses and businesses (the Grand River and its floodplain forests) or buried under concrete and asphalt (the Watson Drain, which connects Maplewood Lake to the river).
Therefore, to make this segment more park-like, we hope to add vibrant and welcoming features that will create spaces to relax, linger, interact, and where people connect to each other, their community, and history. Additionally, since the natural features are lacking, we are looking at ways to insert nature and/or reveal nature along the route.
Due to our project constraints, the touches will be relatively simple but impactful. It will include educational and wayfinding signage that is part of a larger story that will help uncover the forgotten natural spaces such the Grand River and Watson Drain while also setting this space in the context of the Grand River Greenway and its Watershed. The signage will also likely help connect people to their community and history. Finally, we are reviewing spaces along the segment to create at least one trail “oasis” or “plaza.” The space may include native landscaping, benches, signage, and other landmark features to add character while allowing users to take a break.
It is also important to note that since Cottonwood Drive is a central location in Georgetown Township, the trail could have an impact beyond those walking or biking of the trail. Being located on this well-traveled road will help raise the profile of the Idema Explorers Trail and remind people that they are near the river and live in a riverfront community even if the river is not always in sight.
Completing the trail connections and creating a space that also feels like a park will take time, but I believe that even along Cottonwood Drive, we can make this happen and that the Idema Explorers Trail will become something that community gravitates to and takes pride in. In some senses constructing this segment is a modest step in this process, but it is an important one.