A Beautiful Vision

Funding & Planning Are Keys to Success With Trails & Greenways


Communities quickly are finding that providing trails and greenways is a great way to promote health and provide alternative methods of transportation. The fact is that trails and greenways make communities more livable, improve the economy, preserve open space and offer opportunities for physical fitness.

"There are a whole bunch of reasons [why trails and greenways are important]. Realize that they are an important economic enhancement to communities. If they are going to compete and attract a quality workforce, people are demanding these kinds of amenities," said Robert Searns, chairman emeritus of American Trails, owner of The Greenway Team Inc., and a greenway planning and development consultant.

Greenways are "corridors of protected open space managed for conservation and recreation purposes," while trails are "paths used for walking, bicycling, horseback riding or other forms of recreation or transportation," as stated on Americantrails.org. American Trails is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing and protecting the country's network of interconnected trails.

Experts concur that there's been a shift toward people wanting open space and trails close to home.

"There are all kinds of studies and research that these are an investment in terms of community development and values of homes and properties," Searns said.

Why They're Important

Besides providing economic benefits, trails and greenways also offer health and fitness opportunities by providing accessible spaces for people to get regular exercise.

Studies have shown that when people engage in exercise, medical costs go down, too. There have been "explosive issues of obesity and pathology with people not being healthy. Another side [to their importance] is the aesthetic side, places of refuge and greenery," Searns said, adding that creeks and streams are important as well.

"These greenways help create a sense of consciousness of the public. These are important quarters to preserve," Searns added. "They're important in protecting and containing flooding. You have less flood damage. These are tremendous green infrastructures, ecological payoffs, and there are studies upon studies [that show] that these types of resources are important to communities worldwide. I'm seeing it over and over again."

Trails & greenways make communities more livable, improve the economy, preserve open space and offer opportunities for physical fitness.

He noted an example of a greenway project, funded by The Walton Family Foundation, in Bentonville, Ark. The project in Bentonville (the headquarters for Walmart and other businesses) was designed, in part, to help "attract the best and brightest to live and work there," Searns explained.

The Razorback Regional Greenway is a 36-mile, mainly off-road, shared-use trail that extends from the Bella Vista Trail in north Bentonville to south Fayetteville. The trail links together dozens of popular community destinations.

It cost approximately $38 million, with the majority of funds needed to build it coming from a federal transportation grant and a matching grant and gift from the Walton Family Foundation.

The Walton Family Foundation advocated for and supported the development of trails and greenways in Northwest Arkansas. The foundation's pledge of $15 million was used to support greenway trail development in Fayetteville, Johnson, Springdale, Lowell and Rogers. The foundation has supported trail development in Bentonville for many years.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and Northwest Arkansas cities dedicated significant resources to bring the project to fruition, according to information from the Northwest Arkansas Trails website.

How to Get Started

To start a trails and greenway project, experts suggest that communities keep a few things in mind.

"The main overarching message on trails and greenways is that no one size fits all. Each project is unique in terms of opportunity and challenges. I would say, again, overall, we're very much in a golden age for development of trails and greenways in a particularly urban scale, but also on a rural scale," said Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of City Park Development for The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit organization that conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, natural areas and open space.

"There is a lot going on in almost every city by way of developing greenways and trails," Benepe said. "It's a very exciting time for people, but also a coming together of various interests—public health interests, transportation interests … and public health advocacy groups to help support in cities."

The motivation behind building more trails and greenways, if you look at most cities, has to do with issues of mobility and transportation, as well as public health.

"A greenway is way cheaper than building a highway," Benepe noted. "And, they are an inexpensive way to address public health issues and increase property values. Most city leaders are smart enough to increase advantages of that."

TPL has been involved with the creation of at least 40 different trails and greenways in the country, including The 606, or the Bloomingdale Trail, in Chicago. TPL partnered with Friends of The Bloomingdale Trail, a not-for-profit all-volunteer grassroots organization, and the Chicago Park District to create a 2.7-mile linear elevated greenway on an old freight way line.

"Pretty much everywhere you look, including small towns, people are seeing tremendous benefits of having greenways, which includes recreational use, and encouraging health and fitness. People are trying to reduce automobile use. If you have a separated bike path, that can be a huge quality-of-life amenity. A good bicycle trail network will often choose cities that they will care about," Benepe said. "Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities, have one of the finest greenway networks in the country."


As each project is unique, another important factor is for communities to have a vision, Searns said.

Many times, it begins when citizens get together and travel somewhere to see what other communities, like Minneapolis, have accomplished. With others' successes in mind, these groups then want to incorporate that into their own communities. "It starts with community activists getting together and working with political leaders to get something started," Searns said.

Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an American nonprofit organization that works with communities to preserve unused rail corridors by transforming them into rail-trails within the United States, suggested that often the best step that a community member can take is to get organized and get other people excited about the vision for a future trail.

"Friends-of-the trail groups have been the driving force behind countless successful rail-trails, particularly those projects that have encountered obstacles or opposition and needed steadfast advocates," she said.

"When you have compiled a master list of potentially interested organizations and individuals, you are ready to hold an organizing meeting," she added. "This meeting will help identify the core group of strong supporters who are willing to participate in a friends group. Afterward, you can meet with these core supporters to discuss formalizing the group's organization and purpose."

She said that the things you need to discuss include the following:

  • o Choosing a name for your organization that relates to the trail, such as Friends of the Coventry Greenway or Friends of the Rock Island Trail.
  • o Drafting a mission statement, a set of objectives and a timeline.
  • o Creating a website, brochure and other materials that identify the project and purpose of the organization, a map of the proposed trail and a membership form for other prospective "friends."
  • o Maintaining a newsletter to keep members informed about the progress of the trail.
  • o Finding out what your members' skills are, such as writing, graph design, business connections or meeting organization, and matching their strengths with your group's needs.

Obtaining Funding, Grants

Many opportunities exist to gain funding to help get trail and greenway projects off the ground.

For technical assistance, "the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program is an outstanding resource," Thorstensen said. "While RTCA does not give out grants or loans, the program 'supplies a staff person with experience in community-based outdoor recreation and conservation to work with partners on the ground."

The program is run by the National Park Service. Those who are interested can apply for assistance at: www.nps.gov/orgs/rtca/apply.htm.

Moreover, Thorstensen said the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) of the Federal Highway Administration is a common source of funding, a program managed by trail administrators in each state, and a grant program designed to be competitive.

"Therefore, only projects that meet certain criteria may be funded," she said. "These include the maintenance and restoration of existing trails, development or rehabilitation of trailside and trailhead facilities and linkages, acquisition of necessary easements, associated administrative costs, and new trails and educational programs. At least 30 percent of all RTP funds must be used for non-motorized trails."

To boot, the federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funds 10 different types of transportation-related activities.

"Through activity 3, known in law as Conversion of abandoned railroad corridors to trails, helps expand travel and recreational opportunities within communities. Rail-trails, as these types of trails are called, help to encourage physical activity and reduce air pollution," Thorstensen explained. "Since the Transportation Enhancements (TE) program began in 1992, approximately 9 percent of available TE/TAP funds have been programmed for rail-trail projects. Working within Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidelines, each state Department of Transportation (DOT) determines the eligibility of TAP projects for funding."

Examples of projects that may be considered eligible include:

  • Planning, designing and constructing multi-use trails along a railroad right-of-way.
  • Major reconstructions of multi-use trails along a railroad right-of-way.
  • Developing rail-with-trail projects.
  • Bike parking and bus racks.
  • Purchasing unused railroad property for trail conversion.

"Some states have their own dedicated funding pots for trail development. They are most often administered through the state's parks, recreation, conservation, natural resources or environmental protection department or agency," she said. "A variety of programs are available, including those that provide grants, matching funds and low-interest or interest-free loans."

Searns added that seed money from a city council or community can fund initial visioning and planning of an idea. On the public side and on the private side, an NGO (non-governmental organization) can help community leaders and advocates raise philanthropic money. Historically, on the federal level, there have been some programs in recent years.

"The other part," he said, "is encouraging land developers to see the light when it comes to proving these types of amenities."