Feature Article - April 2018
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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.