Feature Article - July 2016
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A Beautiful Vision

Funding & Planning Are Keys to Success With Trails & Greenways

By Deborah L. Vence

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."