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Making Connections, Spurring Development

The Latest in Trail & Greenway Planning, Maintenance & Programming

By Chris Gelbach

When it comes to trails and greenways, securing funding to build out miles is merely the beginning. A keen focus on programming and maintenance is also critical to ensure that communities get the most return out of their trail investment. Likewise, making strategic decisions with an eye to future expansion and development can exponentially boost the transportation and recreational value of local and regional trail and greenway networks over time.

Ultimately, the potential return on investment in these projects cannot be overestimated. "Because trails are linear, they can have a larger impact versus other public investments in infrastructure," said Beth Poovey, director of greenways, parks and open space for the urban design and landscape architecture firm LandDesign. "They touch more properties and affect more people. The linearity of the park really helps to maximize real estate investment."

At the same time, Poovey noted that trails and greenways can typically provide these opportunities at a lower initial cost and lower ongoing operational costs than those associated with urban parks, creating more value for the investment.

Programming for Success

At the same time, an "If you build it, they will come" approach can result in missed opportunities and compromised long-term success for the project. "If you don't promote and program your trail, then at best, you're leaving a whole lot on the table when it comes to usage and the benefits that usage brings to individuals and the community as a whole," said Eric Oberg, director of trail development for the Midwest Regional Office of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. "At worst, you're developing an amenity that is not delivering on its promise, and you may not be getting the kind of usage that you should, would, could or maybe even said you were going to."

Early, frequent and honest community outreach that starts in the early planning stages can help you identify the right ideas for programming that will spur engagement in your community. So can a strong focus on including and activating programmable spaces along the trail, as well as at destinations that exist or that you create at trailheads.

"Typically, when you look at a greenway, there are going to be spaces outside of the trail itself that are programmable, whether it's for a small yoga class, an art class, or a tai chi class," Poovey said. "If you think about a greenway more as a linear park versus just a corridor, there's a lot more that we can do to leverage what we've spent on this investment."

While outreach to groups like walking, running and biking clubs is a no-brainer, the spaces surrounding the trail can provide programming opportunities that attract audiences that are not traditional trail users.

Oberg saw this firsthand in cities such as Richmond, Calif., and Cleveland, Ohio, through his organization's Urban Pathways Initiative. As part of that program, those communities used the property along the trail corridors to establish community gardens.

"The demographic was largely older women who didn't have space to garden because they lived in city apartments," Oberg said. "All of a sudden, there was community gardening space along the trail, and they were using it like crazy. And so you've got this demographic that are not your natural trail users or trail supporters—they're not the choir—and they became the biggest advocates for the trail."

In Houston, Trent Rondot, conservation and maintenance director for Bayou Greenways, noted that his agency is using a four-fold process of activation to engage the community that includes:

  • Building partnerships with various agencies and biking and running groups to get them to use the trails.
  • Working with parks departments to do 5k runs and other events along the trails.
  • Creating a volunteer program to give people a stake in ownership of their section of trail.
  • Initiating a trail ambassador program to give tours, answer questions, engage trail users through surveys, and serve as extra eyes and ears on the trails.

To roll out the volunteer and trail ambassador programs, Houston Parks Board also recently hired a managing director of activation and operations strategy.

It's also possible to partner with external organizations to build interest among specific key audiences. One example is the Kids in Parks program started by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (www.brpfoundation.org/initiatives/kids-parks), which puts interpretive signage and other materials and activities aimed at kids on trails around the country. The program now has 160 trails in 10 states with plans for future expansion and offerings for hiking trails, bike trails, disc golf courses, paddling trails and geocaching.

According to Program Director Jason Urroz, the different offerings are designed to appeal to different ages, with the hiking trails being used by kids who average 7 years old, and the disc golf courses being used by teens averaging 17 years of age. Considerations are also made in selecting the trails initially to ensure they will create a positive experience for the target audience.

For younger kids, this typically means a trail that's a mile long or less and not hilly. "It's about creating an introductory-level experience that is fun and engaging and has things for them to see and do along the way," Urroz said. "If you take a small child on a five-mile death march up the top of the mountain in the heat, that kid will never want to go hiking again."

In addition to interpretive signage and parks along the trail, other amenities such as benches, water fountains and restrooms make it more appealing for all users to go to and spend more time at the trail—hopefully allowing them to create more of a connection with the space.

Maintenance Considerations

One of the biggest challenges when launching a new trail project with an eye toward long-term success is securing sufficient funding for ongoing maintenance. "The hard truth is that the federal and most of the state programs that facilitate trail development in this country do not allow maintenance. Maintenance is not funded anywhere nearly as robustly as construction" Oberg said. "The best thing trail developers can do is understand the full lifetime costs of these projects and try to identify local opportunities to deal with the maintenance liability of trail development."

Houston Parks Board established an extensive maintenance and strategic plan before its Bayou Greenways 2020 project started. As a nonprofit organization maintaining public lands under an agreement with the City of Houston, the board also has a unique funding model, receiving grants from the city to fund maintenance from the incremental increases in property taxes generated from development near the greenways.

"In a city like Houston that doesn't have zoning, the development world kind of dictates who and what we will become," Rondot said. "Along these bayou greenways where we have new parks and new trails, you can definitely tell that the development world is responding to that. We are seeing new residential development, new commercial development. Ultimately, it's very easy for us to see how we're having an economic impact, which then turns around and justifies the funding model that is covering this whole program."

In addition to considering funding options for maintenance from the outset, it's also imperative to design the trail and its amenities to facilitate the task, including planning frequent access points for heavy maintenance equipment.

"It's really important to have access points along the way so that the heavy equipment is not on the greenway. "It's a deterrent in terms of using the trail if you have to get around a maintenance truck all the time," Poovey said. "It's better to plan how the maintenance is going to happen in the planning and design phase so that you're thinking through that—instead of figuring out how to take out the trash and how they're going to clean up the trail later."

On her projects, Poovey's team also meets with maintenance staff as they're going through a design to think about all the items that will be needed to make maintenance as easy as possible, whether that includes availability of potable water to hose off trails or stations with shovels.

The maintenance plan should also identify and prioritize high-traffic commuter trails as the first that need to be cleared in case of flooding or snow. "If your trail is a transportation conduit, you need to keep that sucker open," Oberg said. "If you're in a winter climate, that means snow removal. And that's a big deal."

The considerations for snow include making sure that you have the right equipment, creating a snowplow regimen, and considering which trails you will regularly clear. In areas that get enough snow and have consistent winter, Oberg recommends considering recreational trails that don't get plowed as an opportunity to promote winter activities such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

"Don't automatically assume that plowing has to be done," Oberg said. "In some places, it might make more sense to leave it and start promoting your winter sports programs."

In Dallas, decisions regarding maintenance are informed by Dallas Park and Recreation's use of electronic people counters that can differentiate between bikers and walkers and can tell which way they are going. The collected data helps the department better deploy resources to highly-used trails that might need more frequent mowing or litter pickup, and to collaborate more effectively with the Dallas Police Department on more effective deployment of trail patrols.

"For us, our value in just having the data is that it's incredible to really be able to articulate what our trail usage is around Dallas," said Dallas Park and Recreation Department Director Willis Winters. "It helps us request continued investment in building our trail system, and to justify making connections where we might have missing links."

Trail Surface and Width

Maintenance considerations also come into play when considering which surface to go with, the most common options being crushed limestone, asphalt and concrete. "The biggest indicator of maintenance needs will be surface type," Oberg said. "Limestone trails are going to be much cheaper to put down, but they're going to take constant maintenance."

According to Oberg, that maintenance can be done by low-skilled workers and even volunteer youth crews. For communities with more access to manpower than hard cash, limestone might be a consideration. But if you don't have access to a lot of labor, asphalt and concrete require far less regular maintenance.

In Houston, the primary trail surface used for decades was asphalt. But Rondot noted that given the city's humid climate, clay soils and flooding issues, asphalt trails only had a life cycle of about eight years. And since many trails experience frequent flooding and need silt removal after storms, using loose materials as a trail surface is not a possibility. As Houston builds out a vast network of bayou greenways, Houston Parks Board settled on concrete as its default surface material.

"The materials you use have to have the longest life cycle," Rondot said. "It makes no sense to put things out there that, before we completely build out the system, we're already going back to repair or replace things that we just put in Concrete trails in this climate will last 30 years."

The city has set an initial standard of 10-foot-wide concrete for new trails. While Rondot finds that a bit narrow in a few trail sections, the Houston Parks Board is limited in how wide they can go given that many of the trails are in Harris County Flood Control District land.

The Dallas Park and Recreation Department likewise opts for concrete in areas that are prone to flooding. It has set a minimum standard of 12-foot concrete for its linear long-distance trails. At White Rock Lake, a beloved park with a 9.5-mile loop trail favored by walkers and joggers, asphalt has been chosen to create a more forgiving running surface. The asphalt is poured between two one-foot concrete curbs and above an underlying concrete surface.

"It's sort of like a concrete cup or channel section with three inches of asphalt so it stays level," Winters said. "We roll the asphalt around once a year to keep it level and compacted. We typically do asphalt loop trails in the larger parks, but they do take a little extra maintenance." Those trails most commonly feature asphalt paths that are 8, 10 or 12 feet wide.

The city sees very high usage during peak periods on popular trails such as the Katy Trail, where a jogger died in 2010 in a collision with a cyclist. To attempt to control speeds, officials have installed radar geared toward bikers that flashes the speed at them when they're going too fast. Signs on the trail also remind people to do things like be courteous, watch behind your back and signal that you're passing.

The city also partners with various groups, including the Friends of the Katy Trail, which has funded a parallel soft-surface trail over most of the trail's length. Separate paths are something that the city has traditionally not been able to budget for itself given its focus on expanding the network of linear concrete trails.

"You can spend as much on the parallel soft-surface trail as you do on the main concrete trail," Winters said. "So it's a big expense and may almost double the cost of the trail if you have that."

To mitigate potential conflicts between bikers, runners, walkers and dog-walkers, Poovey recommends building trails that separate pedestrians and bikes from each other whenever the location and budget allows.

A best-case scenario in this instance might involve a 12-foot bikeway separated by direction, a 5-foot physical barrier that could take the form of a planting strip, and then an 8-foot path for pedestrians. The barrier serves not only to separate users, but also to create a pleasant recreational experience instead of a continuous hardscape that reads like a roadway.

"The problem with that is that it has a bigger footprint. It takes up more land, so it's typically more expensive. It might have environmental impact if you're in a sensitive area. And it also can have more impact on acquiring the land because there's more land to acquire," Poovey said. "It's hard to do it, but when you can it's really important to go ahead to plan for the amount of use you'll be getting in the future. And if you do a well-designed trail that's well-connected to destinations, you're going to get a lot of use."

Poovey also noted that it's much harder and more expensive to go back and retrofit a trail to be wider or to separate its users. And while some trails might be laid down initially as limestone trails with the intention of paving later, finding the funding later is often a challenge. Whereas a nicer trail in a targeted area that connects destinations can do more to increase property values and to attract businesses and developers.

"I think the high-impact, 'doing it right' trail can demonstrate a higher return on investment easier than just getting miles on the ground," Poovey said.

A Future of Connections

In Dallas, getting miles on the ground was a priority, and has resulted in over 150 miles of trails being built. But now, building connections between them is a priority, too. "The missing links in our trail system have come more and more into focus, and how much more effective our trail network would be if we could just make these connections," Winters said. "And usually they involve crossing interstate freeways between trails."

Building these connections has been delayed because of their high cost, but a capital bond referendum and the efforts of an organization called the Circuit Trail Conservancy has created the funding that is bringing these projects to life. The end results will ultimately be a 50-mile continuous trail loop around Dallas, with an eye to building an even larger loop in the future.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is likewise working with a variety of agencies around the country on eight TrailNation projects aimed at creating similarly connected networks across the nation, many of them hundreds of miles in length.

"I think the biggest message for any trail developer now is, what is your trail doing? What is it connecting? What's at either end of your trail? And if you can't answer those questions with something compelling, you might want to rethink your project," Oberg said. "It's got to be about connectivity and networks."



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