Feature Article - November 2019
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A Path Toward Conservation

The Environmental Benefits of Trails & Greenways

By Chris Gelbach


Green Commuting

Projects like the Anacostia RiverWalk Trail also provide tremendous new commuting opportunities to cyclists that can help combat global warming and improve air quality.

"If you can design trails with transportation in mind, you can significantly reduce the amount of traffic on the road in many cases and certainly improve air quality," Ciabotti said.

Maximizing the transportation potential of a trail can involve efforts to not only connect communities through low-stress car-free routes, but also connections with local schools, universities, parks and other key destinations.

One example achieving this is the Razorback Regional Greenway in Arkansas, a 36-mile shared-use trail that connects six downtowns, three hospitals, 23 schools, the University of Arkansas, several major corporate headquarters, arts venues, parks, shopping areas and more.

In creating the design, Flink noted that an overland route was required for one portion that turned a three-lane road into a two-lane road with a buffered bike lane. "We connected it to three public schools where everybody was driving their kids to school," he said. "Today, we have these walking school buses and kids are bicycling to school for the first time and it's quite a phenomenon … Parents now take turns walking 30, 40 students to and from class. It's really great."

Flink also noted that connecting schools and the communities they serve can have a particularly strong impact on air quality through mode shift away from an endless line of idling vehicles. "The worst air quality we find in communities is often around schools at drop-off and pick-up times," he said.

Environmental Education

Connecting schools in this manner through a trail also creates opportunities for outdoor education. It can also include amenities such as outdoor classrooms on trails such as the Razorback Regional Greenway and the Ann Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mills, S.C. At the latter, the local schools touch the greenway, and teachers regularly take students out to outdoor classrooms built into the greenway.

"They're like mini outdoor auditoriums," Flink said. "They have seating that's done in a very beautiful, tasteful, natural way. There's a focal point in the space where the teacher's going to be, and it allows them to have the eyes of the kids on them and they can conduct their class right there."

Some trails are providing both cultural and environmental opportunities to students and other users alike. The Indianapolis Cultural Trail includes five acres of garden beds in addition to 25,000 square feet of rain gardens adjacent to the trail that filter 4 million gallons of water a year and help protect the White River watershed. The project also features seven public art projects along the 8-mile path.

In Idaho, the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes provides a solution to environmental problems created by the state's mining industry. The 73-mile asphalt trail and its gravel barriers help isolate the contaminants from mining, and today visitors can enjoy 20 developed trailheads, 17 scenic waysides with picnic tables and benches, and potential views of animals such as moose, osprey, eagles, herons, otters and beavers. It also serves as a living example of what is possible with environmental restoration, while reminding visitors of the challenges that remain.

"They've used it as a sort of an educational piece to get people to understand how the land got contaminated and what the process was for cleaning it up and maintaining it over time because it's a very visual real-world example of how that happens," Ciabotti said.

The Ecotourism Imperative

In addition to the environmental and educational benefits that it can provide, a smartly planned trail can also bring trail users closer to nature through a variety of ecotourism opportunities. According to Ciabotti, this can include elements such as incorporating birding, spur trails for hiking, fishing platforms, community gardening areas and more.

Austin's Violet Crown is an example of a trail that exploits several interesting natural attractions, following some of the most beloved areas of Barton Creek, including several swimming holes, climbing walls and trailheads. Once the full 30-mile trail is complete, it will stretch from Zilker Park (home of Barton Springs Pool and events such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival) through the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and into the rolling countryside of Hays County.

"Think about your project in the beginning and what type of other individual ecotourism benefits you could have," Ciabotti said. "There's reams of economic benefit studies we've got on thousands of trails throughout the U.S., and you can use the ecotourism dollars to help manage your corridor."

To seize the full potential of ecotourism, communities along the trail also must be ready to take care of ecotourism visitors with services such as lodging, bike rentals and restaurants. "They need to make sure that they're prepared to take care of the folks that are using it so that they'll come to their communities, spend some money … and capture the economic benefit as much as possible to help subsidize trail enhancements, amenities along the corridor, further trail development and ongoing trail maintenance," Ciabotti said.

In addition to these ecotourism opportunities, the growing focus on connections in trail networks is helping people use trails to access more natural spaces. The Virginia Creeper Trail provides a notable example given its location near the Appalachian Trail, the Jefferson and Cherokee National Forest and many other natural recreation areas. "The Virginia Creeper acts as a conduit for the public to access some of those areas, and they've done a really nice job with it," Ciabotti said.

The 34-mile trail gives people opportunities to bike, walk, horseback ride and cross-country ski, while meandering through open farmlands, forests, Christmas tree farms, streams, small towns, one of Virginia's largest trout streams and other scenic areas.

This kind of thoughtful design can make the most of local landscapes to create a vibrant experience for trail users. "I try to emphasize in the design variety, rhythm and syncopation," Flink said.

Flink recommends going out and really assessing the land with a focus not on being expedient in trail design, but instead with intentional thinking about the kind of experience you want people to have when they use the greenway. "What is the story you're trying to tell? What are the landscape features you're trying to highlight?" he said.