For many of us, the abrupt onset of the Covid-19 era in early 2020 altered our relationship with both the physical space in which we lived and the patterns of time to which we had become accustomed. The world has not been the same since then, as each of us has learned in different ways.
During those uncertain, routine-altering months of adaptation and disruption in 2020, a period of lockdown and shutdowns and isolation, Little Compton’s housebound individuals and families looked for healthy, safe ways to entertain themselves and get some exercise. At the same time, state and local emergency orders to enforce “social distancing”–one of the many pandemic-instigated coinages we added to our vocabularies–either closed or strictly limited access to many parks, beaches, trails, and other public spaces. The drastically reduced car traffic in and to Little Compton provided an unexpected option for both year-round residents who were hunkered down and second-home owners seeking refuge. Many of us took over the town’s roads and streets as safe places to walk, run, and bike, while uneasily keeping our masked distance from our foot-powered neighbors. The suddenly repurposed public space represented by the town’s nearly automobile-free roads offered a giddy and welcome, if fleeting, sense of liberation and freedom.
Of course, many town residents and visitors have regularly used the town’s roads for recreation and leisure. Runners, walkers, bikers, dog-walkers, parents pushing strollers, and occasional horseback riders regularly traverse and enjoy our scenic roads. Most are careful and considerate, as are most vehicle drivers with whom they share the roads. But some are not. Especially during the busy summer months, all road users have no doubt experienced moments of exasperation or outright terror at the prospect of delay, confusion, or injury while sharing the busier and more crowded local byways.
“It is a priority of the Town to protect its historic sites and landscapes and to sustain the unique and rural character of the Town,” proclaims Little Compton’s Comprehensive Plan. However, the size, speed, and volume of motor vehicles now using Little Compton roads, especially during summer months, do not reflect genuine rural character. Indeed, most of us who enjoy quiet roads also drive the vehicles that disrupt their tranquility. The hulking, high-powered SUVs, pickups, delivery vans, and commercial trucks that roar along the roads today are a far cry from the animal-drawn wagons that ruled the roads for centuries or the less numerous and more modest motor vehicles of a century ago.
Except for a sidewalk in front of the Wilbur-McMahon School and a stretch of sidewalk along Main Street in Adamsville, the town and state, which maintain Little Compton’s public roads, have taken a somewhat passive approach to providing for the safety of the town’s pedestrians and bikers. However, both the town and the state, along with other government agencies and private organizations, have in recent decades created new off-road opportunities for walkers in particular.
The community’s pro-active efforts to protect the rural landscape began in earnest about 50 years ago. At the beginning of that era, local conservation advocates sometimes claimed that only about one percent of the town’s land was protected by some form of conservation ownership or restriction. Today, it is estimated that more than 26% of the town’s acreage is protected–and that percentage continues to grow. The number, size, and distribution of conserved parcels and other publicly owned land present a new opportunity to provide safe, enjoyable recreational opportunities for the public through the creation of a network of walking routes across town. Such a network could link conserved parcels, private property by owner permission, and, in some places, both public and private roads.
Back in 2017, I drafted the following proposal and distributed it to a few individuals and groups in Little Compton. I didn’t follow up on the idea at the time. Perhaps the time has come to give it a fresh look.
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Little Compton Cross Walks
A Visualization Exercise
The Challenge: To develop, through a series of conversations and meetings, a visualization of a system of dedicated, continuous walking routes across Little Compton. Such a route or system of routes might encompass existing protected properties; public and private roads; and private property subject to permanent, temporary, or informal trail easements.
Background: Over recent decades, conservation organizations and agencies have worked constructively with property owners to place almost a quarter of Little Compton’s land area in some form of permanent conservation protection, either in fee simple or by means of conservation easements and development rights. At the same time, some citizens and conservation activists/officials raise concerns about the percentage and acreage of conserved land to which the public has direct access, including opportunities for walking and hiking.
Conserved lands are distributed throughout the town. Some parcels are contiguous or very close to each other; others are isolated. Properties or property interests are held by a variety of organizations and agencies, including: Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust, Sakonnet Preservation Association, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society of RI, RI Dept. of Environmental Management, Town of Little Compton, US Dept. of Agriculture, and others. Protected properties have different legal status and restrictions with regard to public access. Such properties also have different characteristics (e.g., wetlands, vegetation, size, etc.) that may make them more or less useful and attractive as places to walk. Some recent conservation initiatives have provided good opportunities for walking and hiking, including establishment of the Simmons Mill Pond Management Area and the Dundery Brook Trail.
The Exercise: The exercise could begin with a small, informal group of citizens and town officials, perhaps sponsored by an existing town committee or conservation organization. Using existing maps and GIS data, public real-estate information, and local knowledge, the group will discuss and locate on a map possible walking routes. The group would not focus on “problems” surrounding the creation of such routes; rather, it would identify “issues” and “opportunities,” including ownership, maintenance, legality, finance, politics, varieties of walking routes and infrastructure, etc. The exercise might be expanded to include other organizations, agencies, property owners, and members of the public.
The Outcome: The initial work product of the exercise would be a map and a data base or matrix, identifying potential routes, parcels, and issues. Participants in the initial exercise could decide whether to recommend or pursue other steps, objectives, or projects. The process itself may be as important as the final work-product. The exercise may plant a seed for future conservation activity in Little Compton.
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In addition to the arrival of Covid-19, other changes on Little Compton’s physical and cultural landscape have reinforced the importance of safe, diverse walking and bicycling opportunities as necessary elements of the community’s physical and social infrastructure, for users of all ages and abilities.
Local conservation organizations and agencies, private and public, have in recent years created off-road walking areas that are perhaps already taken for granted. In fact, these projects are all the result of some combination of organizational and individual philanthropy; taxpayer support; and, perhaps most important, the hard work of community-minded people, many of them volunteers:
- The Nature Conservancy (TNC) established the John Whitehead Preserve on West Main Road, linking a new trail to the existing Dundery Brook Trail and Bumblebee Pond.
- That TNC trail network connects to the paved walking path, created by the town, that surrounds renovated playing fields and facilities adjacent to the Wilbur-McMahon School.
- The Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust last year constructed a new walking path surrounding a portion of the 24-acre Peckham property on Peckham Road.
- The Sakonnet Preservation Association received by gift from the Guild family a parcel of property adjacent to the mill pond in Adamsville, on which it has created a woodland walking trail north of the pond.
The town’s Comprehensive Plan, as amended and adopted in 2018, includes several specific “policies” and “actions” to support and expand walking and biking opportunities in Little Compton:
- Policy RC1.B. Prioritize the conservation of lands abutting conserved lands to create large protected greenways, habitat areas and opportunities for expanded recreational trails
- Action RC1.c. Maintain pedestrian trails including right-of-ways to the shore so that they remain passable
- Action RC1.e. Develop and implement a fiscally feasible Recreation Master Plan that serves the long-term needs of residents
- Policy T1.D. Encourage development of walking trails, multi-use paths and bicycle lanes
- Action T1.b. Develop a circulation and parking plan for the Commons that incorporates pedestrian safety
These specific proposals reflect broad town transportation, recreation, and conservation policies, as set forth in the Comprehensive Plan:
- The Town supports the State’s Transportation policy and a Complete Streets approach that transportation plans and investments should consider the needs of all users of our roadways; including: pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, motorists and citizens of all ages and abilities, including children, the elderly and the disabled.
- As a policy, the Town does support the promotion of bicycling and walking within the Town as a mode of transportation and the development of multi-use paths within the Town to serve as both a transportation and recreational resource for residents and visitors. Additional bicycle and pedestrian amenities should be considered and incorporated during the planning process for the Commons circulation and parking plan.
Finally, town officials and taxpayers have recently supported implementation of a Geographic Information System (GIS) by the town, which can provide a useful tool for visualizing opportunities for expanding and connecting the town’s network of conserved lands, public property, and trails. Development of town GIS capacity has been discussed for more than twenty years in Little Compton. In June 2021, the Town Council hired CAI Technologies to initiate GIS by digitizing the town’s Tax Assessor Plat Maps.
As a result, Little Compton at last will be able to take advantage of the rich statistical and natural-resource data base and maps available in the Rhode Island Geographical Information System (RIGIS). Assuming the town is willing to provide ongoing staff and financial support to augment and manage this technology, town officials and departments– including the Police and Fire Departments, Recreation Committee, the Building/Zoning official, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Agricultural Conservancy Trust, and Housing Trust–will have a valuable new resource available to manage and plan the town’s land and resources.
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The demand and need for opportunities to enjoy and use Little Compton’s landscape, for recreation, exercise, and other beneficial community purposes, will only intensify in the years ahead. The town’s land-conservation effort has been exceptionally successful in recent decades, if somewhat piecemeal and uncoordinated in execution and planning. That success, and its potential benefits for all members of the community and for visitors to the town, can be amplified by integrating and connecting conserved lands as a coordinated network. Perhaps the modest exercise of visualizing a connected network of designated walking routes throughout the town would be a small step toward that goal.
Competition over the use of roadways and constraints on the freedom to traverse the landscape on foot are not new concerns, of course. Henry David Thoreau, who witnessed the arrival of the railroad in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, in the early 19th century, worried about diminishing sauntering opportunities for his Concord neighbors and for his own ambitious walking excursions. In “Walking,” an essay published shortly after his death in 1862, Thoreau foresaw with considerable accuracy the fate of his native terrain:
At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.
The community of Little Compton is fortunate that it can still “improve our opportunities” for “walking over the surface of God’s earth.”♦
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A gallery of some public walking areas in Little Compton