A decade ago, Dallas was not exactly what we would call a recreation enthusiast’s playground. If we wanted to do something outdoors, chances are we’d drive an hour or more to a state park.

The Trinity River Corridor Project didn’t exist. Groups formed to save then-neglected White Rock Lake were only just gathering steam. If we wanted to bike around town, we’d have been safer peddling in a suit of armor.

Today, that’s all changed.

Now we walk, bike, skate or jog from downtown to Plano with little interruption.

This move toward a more recreation-friendly city was given a major boost a few years ago when city parks department officials surveyed residents and found that trails and soccer fields – not traditional neighborhood parks – topped Dallas residents’ wish list.

Since then, designers and planners have gone into overdrive, as have a handful of grassroots groups that have been raising money on their own for different sections of the trail network.

Though only 85 miles of the overall, 229-mile trail network has been completed, it’s clear that priorities in the land of the SUV have started to shift. To the optimistic eye, Dallas is now poised – and probably sooner than later – to claim its own manifest destiny of sorts, joining a series of short trails into one continuous stretch of car-free splendor.

“I personally am really excited about this,” says Kevin Felton, president of For the Love of the Lake, a White Rock Lake volunteer support organization.

Felton, who says he has an “if you build it, they will come” philosophy about the trails, says he’s glad the city is focusing on its urban core.

“These amenities need to be where the people are,” he says.

Funding has already been secured for another 16 or so miles of trails. And more announcements are expected in coming months.

Willis Winters, assistant director of the city’s park and recreation department, which oversees the new trails’ design and construction, sees the trend continuing.

“We see the trails are emerging as a higher and higher priority,” he says.

ON THE RIGHT PATH

So where are these paths? What follows are some of the projects in or connecting to our neighborhood:

Lake Highlands Trail is a 1.4-mile planned trail that has been partially funded but not yet built. The trail runs in an east-west line at Church Road between Skillman and Audelia.

The trail will connect the neighborhood to Lake Highlands High School and Lake Highlands North Park, primarily along a TXU right of way. Plans also call for exploring whether it’s possible to link the trail to the existing White Rock Creek Greenbelt Trail, which would be another three miles at a cost of an additional $3.5 million.

The 2003 bond program provided money for design and construction of the Lake Highlands Trail. Planners say the trail could open in 2007.

Cottonwood Trail will be a four-mile concrete trail that will connect Preston Ridge Trail in Far North Dallas to White Rock Creek Trail. It’s a key part of providing 35 miles of continuous trail from Plano to downtown.

All but 1.5 miles of the Cottonwood is already built, but four small remaining sections are complex and expensive. Supporters say it will take $4 million to complete the work, which will essentially connect existing trails north and south of the high-five interchange at Central and LBJ.

The cost to complete the trail is high because the connection spots are difficult to design and construct, supporters say. Texas Instruments kicked off the fundraising campaign with a $25,000 donation.

“Those are expensive segments primarily because you’re tunneling under the highway at the high-five” and constructing new bridges, says former Dallas City Council member Mary Poss, who has been working to secure funding for the Cottonwood.

At the high-five exchange, plans call for a 500-foot tunnel under Central Expressway, she says.

“This trail will be a very exciting trail…because it will be complete with the amenities that people want,” Poss says, citing things such as more trees, park benches and emergency phones.

GROWING SUPPORT

While completion of the entire trail network is still at least a couple of years away, support for the trail system is growing.

“The mentality toward trails has changed significantly,” says Winters, the assistant parks director. “It’s quite a change from 10 years ago.”

Back then, when the city built a small neighborhood trail in far North Dallas called Kiowa Parkway, Winters recalls, many residents resisted the idea. He says some residents feared it would bring criminals into the neighborhood and provide them with a ready means of escape.

In fact, parks officials and residents say, just the reverse has proved to be true. The trails are so well-traveled by neighborhood residents – who don’t hesitate to report a suspicious person from their cell phones – that some residents now feel safer.

“It’s a built in crime-watch – that’s the way we describe it now,” says senior park planner Michael C. Hellman.

To some, the political support for the trail system is overdue.

“We’d love to see the trails built,” says Bruce Fitch, president of the Dallas Trekkers Walking Club. “In my opinion, it needs a lot of work.”

“Dallas is not a walking friendly city,” he says. “We would dearly like to see more emphasis made on making Dallas a walkable city.”

Dallas Trekkers is part of an international organization that has mapped about 1,500 trails in 41 countries. Although North Texas members have mapped out a dozen 10-kilometer trails – including one that makes use of the existing Katy Trail – Dallas is playing catch up, even compared to other Texas cities, Fitch says.

“Take a city like Austin, and it has done a lot with trails,” he says. “Dallas has a lot of cities that don’t even have sidewalks.”

But others see the tide turning soon. In March, park department officials briefed the city officials on the trail network master plan. The city’s Park Board is set to approve the plan this year and officials are optimistic about securing more funding in future bond programs. Meanwhile, they’re working on design and construction of the remaining miles that have been funded but not yet built.

Trails enthusiasts say the plans will not only provide more green space, but also strengthen the sense of well-being for recreation enthusiasts.

“Dallas has not been very bicycle friendly,” Felton says. “The trails have really improved that. You’re still somewhat out on your own out on the roads.”