What’s Old Is New Again

By: Carl A. Dickson, Director, Dauphin County Parks and Recreation Department


The Capital Area Greenbelt is a 20 mile historic trail encircling the capital city of Harrisburg. Around the turn of the 20th century, advocates Horace McFarland and Mira Lloyd Dock proposed very ambitious plans for an “emerald necklace” connecting community assets and larger parks. They were part of a national “City Beautiful” movement to enhance recreation, nature preservation, and flood control in urban areas. Leading horticulturist Warren G. Manning coordinated design aspects. While the plan was never fully realized, surprisingly, major sections were constructed. Later, suburban growth led to the decline of many cities, including Harrisburg, and the eventual abandonment of many of the developed sections of the Greenbelt.

In the late 1980’s, before the current interest in urban multiuse trails, ambitious volunteers rallied to support city government to revitalize the trail. Through hard work and determination the loop was brought back to life with the cooperation of five municipalities. Old sections were restored by volunteers and new connections were created.

In time, federal and state governments recognized the alternative transportation opportunities of “multi-model” trails and significant funding started to become available. National trail standards developed and with them higher user expectations. The historic Capital Area Greenbelt was found woefully deficient. An engineering study confirmed basic issues such as inadequate signage, poor trail intersections with roads, and a lack of good trail links as all issues affecting the greater potential of the trail. Also, the collapse of the city finances, ending in receivership, contributed to the necessity to find new supporting partners for the Greenbelt.

The Dauphin County Commissioners were asked to extend their Parks and Recreation expertise to advocate for the Greenbelt and to act as the applicant and manager for grants. A litigious history between the County and the Greenbelt was placed aside and a new healthy alliance was formed for the benefit of the public.

Over the past five years about 4 million dollars have been raised to develop and implement a new signing plan, correct crossing inadequacies at seven intersections, pave additional sections of the existing trail, plan for the correction of erosion issues, and construct two substantial spurs to the main loop. Excellent relationships with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Dauphin County Gaming Advisory Board, and the Dauphin County Commissioners have encouraged and supported many of these developments that are in progress. The strictly volunteer Capital Area Greenbelt Association makes is all come together.

The future of the Greenbelt looks good. A new generation of urban dwellers is eschewing automobiles in favor of urban living. Walkable cities are back in style. With the completion of the physical updates to the Greenbelt it will become increasingly relevant as a transportation alternative, a way to increase the health of the region, and an opportunity to bring the community together.

The Greenbelt has become pivotal to a number of other trail proposals as greater efforts are made to connect trails regionally. A Proposed Statewide Major Greenway, The Northwest Lancaster County River Trail , the Susquehanna River Trail, the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Mainline Canal Greenway, and the proposed 911 Memorial Trail – all intersect with the Capital Area Greenway and may provide greater connectivity in the future.

Photo Credit – Carl Dickson