Get Connected

Create Greenway Trails to Get Your Community On the Move

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Perhaps your community isn't nestled in the mountains, or even the foothills, so a trail system has not been at the forefront of your mind. But even flatlands have greenway trail potential. Long and linear, greenways are grassy or vegetated areas that can be created and cultivated or reclaimed and improved for public recreational use.

The term greenway is actually tossed around quite a lot and can refer to everything from an area preserved as a wildlife habitat to the mowed area that follows power lines as they stitch their way across the landscape. For this story, think of greenways as nature-filled areas that include a trail (could be simple, could be fancier) intended for a variety of human users—most likely along with an assortment of animals.

Unlike a typical park, greenway trails are designed to get people somewhere, so they may connect parks, link communities or even create a regional or statewide network for non-motorized transportation. They may follow the path of a waterway (stream or river) or be developed along unused railway corridors or utility easements, noted landscape architect Andy Howard, a senior associate with Hitchcock Design in Naperville, Ill.

"Well-designed trails make use of the natural features in landscapes, while providing safe access, physical exercise and exposure to nature," added Matt Woodson, president and owner of Okanogan Trail Construction, Inc., (OTC) based in Cave Creek, Ariz. "Trails often utilize vacant land that might otherwise be misused or degraded by unauthorized use."

In other words, adding a greenway trail to your community (or using one to connect your community to others) can enhance the environment, the atmosphere of your surroundings, and the health of your constituents. And it may do this on land that's not being used for much of anything at the moment. Read on to learn more about how greenway trails can boost your community and increase usage of the parks and recreation opportunities you already have by helping people get to them in a whole new way.

What Greenway Trails Can Do

Greenway trails can have an assortment of positive impacts and benefits to communities in which they're found. As already noted, "trails are more successful in areas where there are destinations or stopping points along the way to give the community a reason to go somewhere," Howard explained.

These can be recreational or functional reasons. Connecting downtown areas or assorted parks via greenway trails provides a pleasant alternative to driving and will encourage visitors to walk or bike instead, improving both their health and the environment. Runners and cyclists will appreciate the new opportunity to "go many miles and never see the same things," rather than circling the same one- or two-mile loop at a park, said landscape architect Scott Crawford, a senior partner with RDG Planning & Design, based in Iowa. And a trail also increases safety for cyclists and pedestrians. RDG has done several city-, county-, or state-wide trail-planning projects to connect trails in various areas all together. With the master plan in place, "you can bike 30 miles on a trail to the next community without crossing a road, and then go on to the next one," he said.

Practically speaking, trails may provide easier access to schools and grocery stores without a car, Howard reported. "Trails offer a safer and more scenic route than sidewalks that are generally placed close to streets," added Woodson. A pathway lined in grass and vegetation may be particularly welcome in communities that have "limited public natural spaces," he said.

Other trail users are likely to be the four-legged variety, as wildlife appreciate the opportunity to "get somewhere" in a safe, familiar environment as well. "You'll see a broader diversity of wildlife than you would in a single park, which can be isolated," Crawford explained. "Greenways are great for wildlife enthusiasts."

Greenway trails may also go a long way toward improving the health of waterways and natural areas in the community. When a trail follows the path of a stream, its presence prevents development from coming too close. Or, the decision to create a greenway may reclaim previously developed land and return it to a more natural state—over time allowing native plants and wildlife to return, improving drainage in the area and decreasing pollution, Crawford said.

Looking from another angle, a number of studies indicate that greenways and trails increase property values and economic prosperity. The National Association of Homebuilders consistently ranks them as an important amenity, according to Brittain Storck, ASLA, PLA, a senior landscape architect with Alta Planning + Design's Durham, N.C., office. And they can be a tourist draw as well, she noted. "Trails stimulate the local economy by drawing visitors, who spend money while they're in town, which then spurs job growth—at the local, state and regional level, depending on the size of the trail." And even locals may do more shopping at area businesses if they're suddenly accessible via a shaded pathway, not just a trip through traffic-snarled streets.

Further enhancement to the community may come through social and educational opportunities greenway trails present, reported Stan Cowan, a senior principal at MESA, a Dallas-based landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm. Use greenways to create self-guided tours of the historical or cultural offerings in your area. Add historical markers and information about the sites and species highlighted along these pathways through your area. Greenways and the parks or other sites they connect can be opportunities for public festivals, races or other events. These sorts of greenway trails are "seen more as linear parks," Storck said. "Communities buy in to the idea of a greenway as a network in the community, linking local businesses, parks and restaurants. Along the trail you can program outdoor classrooms, interpretive areas and community gardens."

How Greenway Trails Work

Some of the most successful greenway trails these days are created using inactive rail lines, Storck said. "[Rail lines] are very practical and sensible and are already bookended by cities or urban areas," she explained. And they likely have some nice, flat, grassy space around them where a paved or unpaved trail could be installed. The original point of such railroad tracks was transportation from one city to another—or perhaps even to various points within a larger city—so the connectivity is built in. The High Line, a trail created on an old elevated freight line on Manhattan's west side in New York City, is a great example of using old railway lines to create green space and functional trails through a very urban area. (Visit for more information.)

Experts report that another current greenway trend is connecting trails across larger regions to create alternative transportation pathways—so commuters from the suburbs could bike to work, rather than drive or compete with cars on the roads, or so dedicated hikers and campers could visit all the state parks in an area without needing the highway to get there. Iowa is just finishing up a project like this, Crawford reported. (Visit for more information on Iowa's extensive system of trails.) For projects that cover a larger area, consider your "ability to capitalize on utility transmission corridors," he suggested. The grassy, open areas beneath overhead lines already do a great job of cutting a clear, relatively straight path from one municipality to the next.

And, as mentioned previously, the area alongside a stream or river also makes a great path for a greenway trail. "The most proactive approach to developing a greenway is to have a city, county or state agency acquire land along drainage ways, creeks and streams," Crawford said. Because it's easily flooded, this land has limited development potential anyway, so it makes sense to purchase it (perhaps with federal or state grant money) and preserve it for public use and wildlife conservation. If your community is already well-established and developed, the process of acquiring land may be a bit more challenging. But, it's still worth the effort. Perhaps you can re-acquire previously developed land and work to clean it up and return it to a more natural state.

You may also need to coordinate with private landowners or with an assortment of local governments as you work to map out your greenway and gain access to the land you need. (More on this below.) But, if you consult with your community along the way, you may just get some help with this part of the job. In many cases, nonprofit groups—like Chicago Wilderness ( along the southern tip of Lake Michigan—"work with municipalities, park districts and recreation departments to help identify potential land holdings to purchase and protect for increasing length and size of greenway corridors," Howard said. The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) has been fostering a regional veloweb (a series of connected cycling trails) that links 16 counties and 117 cities in North Texas, Cowan reported.

Steps to Get Started

If this kind of trail connectivity seems like a good fit for your community or region, consider the following suggestions carefully. Greenway projects offer wonderful benefits, but they definitely take planning and coordination to succeed.

1. Survey your area and identify possibilities and challenges.

RDG's Crawford suggested beginning with a "natural resource inventory" of your community. Do you have creeks and streams? Old railway lines? Utility corridors? Where are they located? Who owns this land? Are there undeveloped areas nearby that could be purchased and preserved for greenway use? What trails and recreation amenities already exist? How could they be connected?

After this initial assessment, Alta's Storck recommends a feasibility study, which involves generating public input, contacting adjacent property owners to gauge their interest, and looking at needed permits (which can take time to acquire), easements and a preliminary estimate of costs. Looking closely at the topography of the land is also useful, noted MESA's Cowan. Some landscapes will be less amenable to ADA-accessible trails than others, and others may require so much enhancement that the project becomes quite expensive. Will lighting and restrooms or water stations be placed along the trail? How will the trail's neighbors feel about this?

Greenway trails are intended to enhance and protect the environment, so check for protected wetlands and other habitats of endangered species that may be affected by your proposed project, suggested Hitchcock Design's Howard. Choose the trail's path and the methods you'll use to create it carefully "to minimize the disturbance in the more sensitive areas."

2. Get the community involved.

Although you'll talk to some members of the community in the earliest consideration phase, if your preliminary research yields positive results, it's time to take your plans public in a major way. Support from those in your town or region is always essential, but particularly for a greenway trail, which may wind its way through a variety of properties and jurisdictions. "Projects can be derailed if advocacy groups fail to engage property owners," Storck noted.

This is the time to take planning to the next level and build momentum with grassroots organizations like "friends of" groups, your local or regional planning department, and perhaps even corporate sponsors, Storck added. "It's about raising awareness and educating the community about the benefits and tradeoffs." If your trail may cross city or county lines, consider creating an independent nonprofit association to organize and manage the project, suggested Crawford.

3. Find funding

As consensus builds and the project catches momentum, survey your funding options. In most cases, constructing a trail is less expensive (and requires less staff and maintenance to operate) than a traditional park. And, because of the varied benefits greenway trails offer, you may find you have lots of opportunities to secure the money you need. But where your funds come from can have an impact on your final product.

  • Because they can provide transportation opportunities, many greenway trail projects are eligible for state and federal transportation improvement funds, Howard noted.
  • Many cities have dedicated sales tax-based initiatives for funding trail development, reported OTC's Woodson.
  • Lots of grants are available for projects with environmental benefits, such as improving water quality, enhancing wildlife habitats or regenerating an ecosystem, reported Crawford. Money may be allocated for purchasing land, creating a permanent easement or building the trail.

However, if you decide to take state or federal money, or if you're awarded a grant from a particular foundation, the funds will likely come with specific requirements for how the project is completed. "We have a client that doesn't take federal funding because of the regulation that comes with it," Storck said. "Some communities want more freedom and more amenities. Federal funding and designs are very practical and transportation-oriented. You can tell who funded a project based on the finished product sometimes." Public/private partnerships between multiple governments, corporations and grassroots organizations often are a great way to piece together everything a project may need, these experts report.

4. Get professional help.

Once you begin moving toward the design and build portions of the project, be sure you consult with professionals (if you haven't already). "An outside firm can assist with the community input process and prepare a master plan with attainable goals, objectives, budget and timeline," Howard said. Landscape architects can also help identify grants and other funding options.

But even if you've managed those tasks on your own, designing a trail can be rather technical, especially if you need to meet specific guidelines, such as the ADA's accessibility guidelines or your state highway and transportation department's regulations about surfaces and turning radii. Professional designers can help you determine the best surface and grading for your trail based on its intended users, be they horses, bicycles or babies in strollers, as well as ensuring adequate drainage throughout and a smooth, pleasing means of navigating the obstacles your trail will inevitably encounter. "Working within design parameters is a major challenge in metropolitan greenways, making it even more important to have a good trail design with a flowing and dynamic alignment," Woodson noted.

Of course, these professionals will be invaluable as the project is under construction, but they can also help you plan for your trail's future success. After so many public and private entities have collaborated on the project and given money for its various aspects, the budget may be a bit of a tangle. Be sure it's clear who will be overseeing the trail once it's open to the public, suggested Cowan, and leave some money in the coffers for maintenance. Whether that's removing silt after a summer storm floods part of the trail or repaving/laying new asphalt in a worn area, these costs can add up, Crawford noted.

From beginning to end, a successful greenway trail requires lots of planning and coordination, but the reward for your efforts will be extensive. You'll not only enrich your community, but potentially the region and even state beyond. "The more that we provide quality pedestrian connectors [such as greenway trails], the more people seem to be using them," said OTC's Woodson. "I sense an eagerness for this kind of experience and access."

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