Susan & Michael

“This is transformational for the region,” she says. “The River Ring … will make St. Louis a destination city.”

Susan & Michael

Susan Trautman has been in the parks and recreation field since she was 14 years old, when she took a summer job as a camp counselor. Through the decades that have followed, she has left a lasting mark on the St. Louis area, especially through her leadership in developing two of the biggest and most successful indoor recreation centers in the St. Louis area, in Clayton and Des Peres.

But nothing Susan has done to date compares to what she is doing now.  In fact, across the United States, there are probably few professionals in the field of urban parks and recreation who could equal what she is doing.

 A neat, trim woman with a quiet, melodious voice, Susan is executive director of the Great Rivers Greenway District (GRG), the public organization that is building out the most ambitious network of “greenways” – park-speak for trails, mostly – in the country.  The network is called the River Ring.  And within 15 years it will encircle and penetrate the Missouri side of the St. Louis area with 350 linear miles of trails for walking, biking, skating, jogging  – for every form of non-motorized transportation.   Eventually, it will grow to 600 miles in St. Louis, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County.

Meanwhile, Michael Buehlhorn is leading a similar effort in the Illinois side of the region.  Michael is Susan’s counterpart; he’s executive director of the Metro East Park and Recreation District, which is overseeing the creation of 200 or more miles of similar trails in Madison and St. Clair counties. The complementary system will not only tie the two Illinois counties together but will also link them to the Missouri side of the region.

Each network is funded by proceeds from a sales tax approved by the voters in the five counties in 2000.  Each already exceeds more than 100 miles of linear trails, and each is already enormously popular.

But it’s the River Ring that is now poised to grow more dramatically, because in April 2013, voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County approved an increase in the sales tax that will roughly double its funding.  The pace of expansion is therefore about to double as well.  

The voters’ willingness to hike their own taxes, Trautman says, shows how excited they are about the system.   And they have every right to be so excited, she says.  

The River Ring, she says, will give the St. Louis area something no other city in the country will have: an extensive network of trails that will not only forge new connections among all three of the biggest counties in the Missouri portion of the area, but that will also link the urban with the pastoral, providing new connections to nature for the metropolitan area’s 2.8 million inhabitants.

“This is transformational for the region,” she says.  “By making nature much more accessible for many of our people, it’s going to make us unique.” 

The Ring also will put St. Louisans in touch with one another as never before, she says.  In fact, it already is, because people seeing the same faces again and again on the existing network of trails strike up acquaintanceships and even friendships.  Those relationships, she notes, sometimes cross socioeconomic lines, knitting the region’s people together in new and unforeseeable ways.  

Economic development is another benefit.  Homebuilders, some of whom were initially wary, are finding that proximity sells, she says.  Commercial property owners are encouraged by increases in foot traffic and safety. 

In addition, Susan notes, the Ring is being developed to coordinate with the on-road network of bicycle lanes, shared-use lanes and other bike-friendly routes that’s taking shape in the three counties under the direction of the Gateway Bike Plan.  That means that St. Louis will acquire, in effect, a whole new transportation system for people – members of the Millennial Generation often being Exhibit A – looking for alternatives to the automobile.  

The benefits, thus, not only to the quality of life in the region, but also to its demographics, could be significant. “The River Ring,” she believes, “will make St. Louis a destination city.”

Nor is it only young people who will use the system and benefit.   Michael, in Metro East, says he already sees 80-year olds biking the trails. He also envisions people commuting by bicycle from Metro East communities like Collinsville, Ill. to downtown St. Louis – 12 miles distant -- within just a few years.

In other words, the Ring and its Metro East counterpart are creating healthier St. Louisans and a cleaner environment.  “We’re building,” Michael says, “a new way of life.”