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Q and A with Davis Cable

by Mark Peres

May 7,2008

Davis Cable is Executive Director of Catawba Lands Conservancy. Prior to joining the Conservancy in 2004, he was with Wachovia Securities, where he was director of real estate research and corporate and investment banking. He was president of Allen & Cable, a real state appraisal and consulting company in Vermont before moving to Charlotte in 1998. Dave also provides executive leadership to the Carolina Thread Trail, a 15-county collaboration with the Foundation For The Carolinas and Duke Energy. He received a master’s degree in natural resource planning from the University of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree in geology and environmental studies from Bowdoin College.

You are leading the effort to build the Carolina Thread Trail. Tell us about the Trail.

The Carolina Thread Trail is a projected system of 500 miles of interconnected trails, greenways and conservation areas that will connect regional points of attraction and interests across 15 counties in North and South Carolina. The footprint of the Thread Trail is the size of Connecticut. It is designed to serve as a permanent legacy of conservation connecting people, towns and attractions. It is also a response to the rapid loss of open space happening in the region. We are losing 70 football fields of open space every day. We’ve lost 35% of Mecklenburg County’s tree cover in the past 20 years, and the pace is accelerating. At current rates, we will have gone from 73% open space in Mecklenburg County in 1976 to 13% in 2020. The Carolina Thread Trail will help us preserve green space, connect us to each other and create a sense of place. The time is now for us to act.

What is the status of the project?

We are in the process of raising $150 million for the Trail. Private contributions will fund $40 million, and the rest will come from local, state and federal sources. We have raised $17 million so far in private contributions. Our main funders to date have been Duke Energy, Wachovia, Bank of America, Foundation For The Carolinas, and the Knight and Spangler foundations. The dollars will be spent on master planning, corridor design, land acquisition and trail construction. We have a long way to go, but we are confident we will get there.

You just returned from a fact-finding trip to Europe to learn more about greenways. Several citizens accompanied you. Who sponsored the trip? Who went?

The German Marshall Fund was the primary sponsor and organizer of the trip. The Fund was established in the early 1970’s in celebration of the Marshall Plan and to promote perpetual transatlantic cultural exchange. The trip was also sponsored by the Foundation For The Carolinas and the Turner Family Fund. Ten of us travelled to Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels. I was fortunate to travel with Susan Britt, Planning Director for York County; Eric Davis, Director of Production at WTVI; Debra Campbell, Planning Director for Charlotte-Mecklenburg; Michael Marsicano, President and CEO, and Brian Collier, Senior Vice President, of the Foundation For The Carolinas; Susan Patterson, Program Director of the Knight Foundation; Johnathan Rhyne, Jr,. a partner at The Jonas Law Firm and on the Governing Board of the Thread Trail; Ruth Shaw, chair of the Governing Board of the Thread Trail; and David Williams, Planning Director of Gaston County.

Your trip began in Frankfurt. What did you learn?

We spent three nights in Frankfurt, which is similar in many ways to Charlotte. Both are wealthy mid-size cities and financial centers that aspire for greater cultural recognition and significance. But for hundreds of years, Frankfurt has been far more intentional than Charlotte about conserving natural landscapes and creating greenways. Thirty percent of the land in Frankfurt is conserved as open space – five times the amount of conserved space in Charlotte. Frankfurt has an inner green belt that runs through the urban core between the skyscrapers, and an outer green belt with thousands of acres of open space. Pedestrians and bicyclists are everywhere throughout the city. The greenways create community and sense of place. The greenways deliberately weave the arts into natural landscapes. Throughout the trails are artwork, sculptures and interesting man-made additions that bring whimsy and local history to life. The green beltways bring amazing vitality to the city.

The preservation of land in Frankfurt is representative of conservation of resources throughout Germany. The country is creating five Biosphere Reserves, each between 30,000 to 150,000 hectares – or 72,000 to 360,000 acres – over 1 million acres in total – of self-sustaining community preserves. The motto of the biospheres is ‘cultural and economic infrastructure to support sustainable lifestyles.’

And Amsterdam and Brussels?

We spent four nights in Holland. We initially focused on commuters and cycling in Amsterdam. Sixty percent of the residents use bicycles and over 80,000 are riding bikes everyday. The flat land and temperate weather lends itself to bike riding. Commuting is this free flowing, unstructured, ballet of bicycles, trolley cars and automobiles. We ended the trip with a day in Brussels, where we learned about an effort to create an interconnected greenway system throughout the European Union.

How do you compare what you saw there with development here?

Their whole orientation to resources and time is different. Whereas we have a mentality of abundance and think in terms of the moment, they have a mentality of scarcity and think in terms of generations. Let me share an example. We visited the old town hall of Frankfurt that had been severely bombed during World War II. They rebuilt the hall for community meetings. Along the walls are paintings of regional rulers that go back to the 1100’s. In 1506, one of their rulers set aside land for open space that is still protected today. Looking at the paintings is a walk through time. The last painting was painted when the U.S. began. Whereas we often define success as growth, they define success as efficient resource allocation, quality of life and community engagement.

How does what you learned on the trip inform the Carolina Thread Trail?

The trip was very energizing. It gave us a glimpse of a vision that is very powerful. We could clearly see the benefits of well-designed greenways and open space. We learned that although the context is different, they have similar challenges connecting their greenways. We have different development pressures here, and we can turn our growth into a positive. We learned some basic nuts and bolts about marketing, public art and thinking big that will help us. We also forged a bond among those who went on the trip that will help us advance the Thread Trail.

Anything further you would like to share about the trip?

The trip was stressful in a positive way because we were always on the go. We were very much drawn together by our collective awe and respect for how intentional community leaders are there about their landscape. The trip reinforced the challenge, responsibility and commitment we have to help protect and define our region. Any discouragement about where we are is offset by the potential gains of what we can accomplish. Green infrastructure is integral to a place defining itself. It is part of our organic DNA to connect to land. It is not a ‘want to have.’ It is a ‘have to have.’

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