Climate change has had a significant impact on our environment—affecting various aspects of human life, including outdoor recreational activities. Multiuse trails and greenways are essential components of our outdoor recreation infrastructure, providing a range of benefits including exercise opportunities, transportation and access to natural spaces. The impacts of climate change are affecting the quality and accessibility of these spaces, and it is essential to take action to make these trails and greenways more resilient.
Climate change is a contributor to the more frequent and intense weather events the country has been experiencing—such as storms, floods and droughts—which can negatively impact our trails and greenways. Extreme weather can cause erosion, washouts, landslides and flooding, making these trails and greenways unusable. In addition, rising temperatures and drier seasons can lead to increased wildfires that can damage trails and greenways and create unsafe air-quality conditions. These effects, while widespread, can disproportionately impact communities already disadvantaged in other ways.
Trails as Part of Community Resilience
In addition to their benefits for health, transportation and recreation, trails can be an integral part of how a community builds resilience. One way that trails can excel in increasing their own resilience and creating resilient communities is through stormwater management. Whether from rain, storms, hurricanes, snow or floods, too much water can be very dangerous for communities, causing expensive damage and deaths. Using trails and greenways, natural water control methods can be reintroduced—providing a layer of protection for surrounding communities and significantly reducing the amount of damage done by extreme weather events.
One community that has incorporated trails in its effort to control water runoff is Dubuque, Iowa. The daylighting of the buried Bee Branch Creek allowed for better water drainage and the reduced risk of flash flooding. The use of native vegetation increased water quality and biodiversity while also supporting better drainage and the protection of the surrounding community. A multiuse trail lines the creek, ensuring residents of Dubuque can enjoy the natural landscape.
Trails have also shown promise in aiding with protection from other climate-related disasters—including wildfires, which have increased dramatically in recent years in some parts of the country. Trails could be used along with fire protective planning to act as firebreaks. Upon encountering a strip of land where there is nothing combustible, the fire must depend on winds and ash to spread, reducing the chance it can spread further.
Trails can also help mitigate the heat island effect in cities—where temperatures can soar above a healthy limit—through the planting of vegetation along the corridors.
Shared-use paths and other trails are key pieces of transportation infrastructure that can also provide recreational opportunities and, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, improve health and well-being during a public health emergency. Additionally, trails can serve as critical infrastructure during an emergency when other transportation facilities are inaccessible, and can support activities such as evacuation and search and rescue. However, trails are often vulnerable to impacts from climate change and extreme weather due to their location. Through a literature review and interviews with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and other national trail organizations, this white paper explores existing research, highlights project examples, and identifies research gaps for trails in connection to climate resilience, emergency response and public health emergencies.
Planning and Building Resilient Trails
It is to adopt a comprehensive planning approach that includes consideration of climate change impacts. This approach entails: assessing the vulnerability of trails and greenways to climate-change-related disasters, identifying areas that are at risk of damage, and developing adaptation strategies to reduce these risks. Severe storms, coastal or riverine flooding, landslides, extreme heat and wildfires may be among the risk factors for your trail. Resources such as the FEMA Flood Maps and NOAA Risk Maps are good ways to get a look at what to expect.
Planning with resilience in mind requires collaboration across different agencies and groups at the local level and beyond. Potential municipal-department partners include: planning, parks and recreation, public works, transportation, emergency management, floodplain management, etc. Some cities have an office of sustainability that houses initiatives related to resilience.
Engaging with the community is another critical strategy to making trails and greenways more resilient. Community members can provide important input on the use of these trails and identify areas where maintenance or repairs may be needed. Additionally, educating the public on the impacts of climate change on these spaces and the importance of reducing their environmental impact can help generate support for resilience efforts.
In California, Mariposa County’s Recreation and Resilience Master Plan (2021) is a 20-year vision that aligns the county’s investments in parks, trails and open space with their objectives for climate-change adaptation. The plan uses data to assess the county’s vulnerabilities to shocks and stressors like wildfires and flooding, then orients the design and management of the area’s recreation infrastructure to reduce these risks. The plan holds up trails as having the potential to reduce wildfire risk by acting as fuel breaks, The plan was also informed by previous planning efforts, including bike-ped, economic development and wildfire-management plans, as well as extensive community input.
Design and Construction
Another strategy to make trails and greenways more resilient is to use sustainable construction and maintenance practices that prioritize environmental protection. This may include using permeable surfaces that allow water to filter into the ground as opposed to running off and contributing to erosion and flooding. Trail structures such as bridges and retaining walls should also be built to withstand extreme weather events and minimize the potential for damage. Designs should be adapted to the environments in which the trail are located; for example, designs for a trail in a floodplain must be mindful that it will be underwater at different periods.
Houston’s Bayou Greenways is a network of parks and trails that have been designed to withstand the impacts of flooding so that other areas will be less affected. After Hurricane Harvey dropped 27 million gallons of water onto Houston, Buffalo Bayou Park's trails were open to the public just a couple days later. The rest of the park acted as a temporary flood reservoir, enabling the excess water to slowly drain away and reducing the stress on the rest of the flood infrastructure. The greenway trails are concrete rather than asphalt, as the former material withstands the effects of flooding better, while native vegetation programs help with stormwater drainage.
Incorporating green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and bioswales, along trails and greenways can help mitigate the impact of weather events by absorbing and filtering stormwater. Read the Impact of Trails on Regional Resilience section (Chapter 2, p. 12) of the FHWA’s Trails and Resilience white paper to see how communities have included green infrastructure in their trail’s designs.
Maintenance and Management
In addition to building resilience, routine maintenance needs to be increased to mitigate the damage that trails may suffer from climate-related events. Regular maintenance can ensure that wear and tear does not add up quickly and that, in the event of a disaster, the natural systems can work to their utmost ability. Clearing paths, unclogging drainage pipes and repaving broken surfaces are just some ways to ensure trails remain resilient in the long term.
The Almeda Fire in 2020 razed 3,200 acres, including 10 miles of the Bear Creek Greenway in Jackson County, Oregon. Following the fire, the county embarked on an aggressive effort to control the spread of flammable invasive blackberry and poison hemlock that bordered the trail. Going beyond routine vegetation management, this fuel management effort was done to reduce the amount of flammable material available to subsequent fires, and to help with suppression.
When money is tight, the use of volunteers to maintain trails has seen great success, as many people are willing to aid in the protection of the natural spaces they enjoy. The Cedar Valley Lakes Trail in Iowa is a great example of how a community has come together to support their local trails—with more than $70,000 raised in 2021 for a trail damaged by flooding. After fires, floods or other disasters, community engagement can allow for quick trail rebuilding.
Also essential is the need to record actual routine-maintenance costs. These numbers will help make the case for resilience funding from local, state, federal and philanthropic sources. Especially important—but too often forgotten and undervalued—is the need to record the hours provided by volunteers. RTC has been leading the call for more maintenance documentation and standards in the last decade and has developed a simple tool to capture routine maintenance tasks and costs. You can read more on the Maintenance Basics page of this toolbox.
At the federal level, there are many sources of funding for planning, constructing and maintaining trails. Aside from the surface transportation programs, communities can also leverage non-transportation sources, such as those for emergency response and recovery, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS), and Economic Development Administration (EDA). It may also be wise to integrate trails as part of broader projects around transportation, flood mitigation, waterway or habitat restoration, community development, tourism, etc., to help achieve their environmental goals.
Often, understanding how your trail can support resilience efforts can help you prioritize funding asks. For its Bee Branch Creek project, the City of Dubuque, mentioned earlier, leveraged a diversity of sources, including state, federal and private sources. The city appealed to Iowa’s Flood Mitigation Program, which uses an incremental sales tax to fulfill a significant portion of their funding needs. They were also able to get $31 million through a national competition, the HUD National Disaster Resilience Competition. Through their public support campaign, the city invited the general public and entities in the private sector to contribute money to support amenities including hike/bike trails, bridges and gazebos.
The Greenway of Greater Grand Forks was constructed with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and as such, they were able to use federal flood-control money for 50% of the cost and locally match the other 50%. Additionally, by using numerous other federal and state grants, private sponsors and community donations, they were able to cut down on the local financial burden. This trail continues to have year-round success within the community and allocated funding for maintenance has helped ensure its long-lasting resilience.
New Jersey’s Elizabeth River Trail was created with support from an EPA Brownfields Grant and the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program—enabling the transformation of the long-inaccessible waterway into the thriving community-centered greenway it has now become. With this organizational help, they were also able to use funding from New Jersey’s 2006 Transportation Act and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Green Acres Program to construct the actual trail. For more information on the project, read the EPA’s Brownfields Success Story on the project.
The leveraging of several different funding sources from both state and federal levels can make a significant difference to the speed at which a project is funded. Local trail organizations and land trusts are also good resources for consultation, as they can share funding tips and advice and help channel funding efforts. Check out RTC’s policy resources to learn more about the federal, state and local funding opportunities for trails and active transportation, related to climate and beyond.
You can also find additional case studies on building resilient trails, and using trails and greenways as part of community resilience, at the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit website as well as the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Stormwater Case Studies.