Public art can help elevate a rail-trail from practical infrastructure to a space cherished by the community. Art establishes the trail as a community asset and encourages public engagement and stewardship.
Art on a rail-trail can serve a variety of purposes. It can illustrate both the identity of the trail itself and the identity of the communities through which it winds. It can stimulate the mind and the senses, allow for rest or contemplation or encourage participation. Public art can cultivate vision and inspire change in the surrounding community.
Trail identity can be established with a variety of artistic and functional pieces. Continuity and repetition in benches, drinking fountains and signage serve to “brand” the trail and provide a rhythm to the journey. Artistic ramps and railings, sculptures or winding work on the pathway mimic and reveal the flowing movement of the trail. Transitions like street crossings, turns or landscape changes can be illustrated with trail markers.
Rail corridors themselves can say a lot about the community’s identity, as the identity of an area often stems from its industrial history. Historical art can take the form of murals or sculptures, or make use of old railroad vestiges like machinery, ties or signage. Sculptor Jeff Sanders secured more than 100 painted cast bronze oranges for the Ventura River Trail in his sculpture “Orange Trace.” The oranges were made to look as if they had just spilled from the train that historically shipped produce in the area.
Most art is visually or mentally stimulating, but some art is intended to animate other senses as well. The Fairfield Heritage Trail in Lancaster, Ohio, includes a sensory trail with herb pots, bird feeders, a tactile bark display and outdoor musical instruments. Changing seasons on a rail-trail make it a great backdrop for the changeable sensory elements found in a garden. The Alchemical Garden on Newburyport’s Clipper City Rail Trail includes edible plants, fruits and berries, as well as two couches made from living grass, encouraging participants to pause and rest in their surroundings.
Participatory Art and Events
When channeled appropriately, graffiti art can be beautiful and relevant to a neighborhood’s personality. Programs in Washington, D.C., and Detroit have simultaneously engaged local youth, discouraged vandalism and beautified the corridor by commissioning local graffiti artists to work in spaces set aside for their art.
Rail-trails are also great venues for artistic events. These gatherings help form partnerships among art, conservation and community groups, and they introduce new visitors to the rail-trail. Artistic events can also cultivate a common vision and inspire change. Citizens of Memphis, Tenn., turned badly degraded Broad Avenue, which connects to a local rail-trail, into a temporary complete street for a weekend. The event included temporary crosswalks and bike lanes, as well as businesses and restaurants setting up shop in abandoned buildings. The project was attended by an estimated 13,000 people, which contributed to the recent revitalization of the area and brought new users to the adjacent rail-trail.