In 2013, New York City announced its first ever master plan for Van Cortlandt Park. Included in this comprehensive strategic plan was the daylighting of the long-buried Tibbetts Brook, an improvement for pedestrian circulation, and the management of natural and historic resources. The same year, a $2.3 million plan was in place to widen and pave the Putnam Trail, which runs through Van Cortlandt Park on the former Putnam Railroad line that connected to Westchester.

The rail portions north of New York City have already been redeveloped as the North and South County Trailway, and city officials thought of the project as a logical extension. Of prime importance was to make the trail accessible to both cyclists and handicapped. But controversy ensued that has delayed the project, with the members of Save the Putnam Trail putting forth an environmental and ecological argument, fearing a loss of wetlands and biodiversity. They also cite the unnecessary use of asphalt in the plans, advocating for a different type of surface. As a reader from Washington D.C. tells us, “A similar trail north of DC was former railroad spur. It’s paved with crushed gravel and can accommodate nearly everything,” suggesting that there are alternatives that can be both handicapped accessible and more environmentally responsible.

Untapped Cities writer Christopher Inoa recently interviewed some of the stakeholders involved in the debate, including Christina Taylor, Director of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park; Karen Argenti, Bronx Council for Environmental Equity; Rich Conroy of Bike New York; and Rodolfo Diaz, a life-long paraplegic at Bronx Independent Living Services.

One scene in the video shows thirteen stone pillars you can see along the trail – used as testing stone for the building material at Grand Central Terminal. One of the options tested, Indiana limestone, was found to most durable and the easiest to transport.

Next, read more about the secrets of Central Park and those of Fort Tryon Park. Learn more about the Van Cortlandt Park master plan here.

[Correction: An earlier version of this video stated that environmentalists would compromise if the trail was covered in wood chips instead of pavement. According to a member of the environmentalist group, the use of wood chips for the Putnam Trail was never mentioned.”]

4 thoughts on “The Debate Over The Putnam Trail, An Old Rail Line in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park

  1. I hope that Rich Conroy as an educator can widen his scope a bit here – the environment and surroundings do matter. The trail is already shared by bikes, and improvements would benefit them as well, but not at the cost of context and surroundings, and environmental conditions. This is an opportunity for educators to teach flexibility, particularly when it comes to good environmental stewardship. It’s part of the job.

  2. The “environmentalists” or naturalists want stone-dust or compacted earth, not wood-chips. Not sure where you got woodchips from, except an email from an FHWA coordinator that we showed you as proof that there were many ways to surface this trail using the federal highway funding. However, that was only to show that there were alternatives. We have always advocated for at most stone-dust or crushed rock, which many successful ADA-compliant trails have used. And we want the trail fixed and made passable for wheeled users. But we don’t want it, and the surrounding wildlife destroyed. If wheelchair users want another road – and a destroyed nature area – than they should continue pushing for pavement. Better yet, go on the South County Trail, so acclaimed in some quarters, and see if that’s experienced as “nature.” We suspect it won’t be. Even wheelchair users want a trail experience in nature. But what is being proposed here is something that will destroy a trail experience – and nature area. There will be NOTHING left to see or visit.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Chris, the videographer, also contacted us about this issue and the above video is updated.

  3. Great story — thanks for covering this.

    It’s worth noting that the Putnam Rail Trail is completely paved for the 40 miles from its origin in Brewster, NY, all the way to the Bronx. The unpaved section in Van Cortlandt park is only a mile or two long, but it’s a pretty jarring changeover for people who want to bicycle commute from Westchester to the city — especially if you’re on a road bike.

    It’s a great ride and well worth doing

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