Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most important and prevalent issues currently facing our society. Rising sea levels, temperature, and greenhouse gases are some of the more abstract and long-term issues that come to mind when talking about climate change, but present-day effects are here and are affecting our homes and communities. 100-year floods are happening yearly, wildfires ravage our lands, storms and hurricanes are getting stronger and more damaging, and our warm months are getting warmer while our cold months get colder. Climate change is here, and to be resilient means we must learn to prevent it while also preparing for the changes it will bring.
“The English translation of ‘resiliency’ means ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, the ability to spring back to shape, and the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after something bad has happened.’ Urban resilience is defined as ‘the capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy and security of a given urban area.’” (World Trails Network)
Trails can be an integral part of a community's resilience, whether it is preventing greenhouse gases from being released by reducing vehicle miles driven or creating a flood-resistant greenway, there are many ways trails can and already have been a part of resilient communities.
With half of all trips in the US being within a 20-minute bike ride or less, and a quarter being a 20-minute walk or less, the opportunity for biking to replace a significant portion of trips is not unimaginable. Mode shift, or changing the transportation mode, is a powerful way to rapidly decrease emissions and with a highly connected network of trails, a mode shift towards biking and walking is almost seamless. With transportation being the USA’s most polluting sector, and with each mile driven being equivalent to 1 pound of CO2 released, our 2019 Active Transportation Report found that a modest shift towards biking could reduce CO2 emissions by 27 million tons!
One way that trails can excel in being both resilient and creating a resilient community is through water management. Whether it is from rain, storms, hurricanes, snow, or floods, too much water can be very dangerous for communities and can cause expensive damages and even death. Using trails and greenways, natural water control methods can be reintroduced, and it can significantly reduce the amount of damage done to the surrounding community. Harris County, home of Houston, Texas, is no stranger to flooding and has utilized trails and greenways to help mitigate the effects on its citizens. Its greenways have been designed to flood and with native vegetation programs to help stormwater drainage, these areas are meant to be impacted by the flood so that other areas aren’t. After Hurricane Harvey dropped 27 million gallons of water onto Houston, Buffalo Bayou Park's trails were open to the public after just a couple of days. The rest of the park acted as a temporary flood reservoir, allowing the water to slowly drain away and reducing the stress on the rest of the flood infrastructure. Another community that has used trails in its effort to control water is Dubuque, Iowa. The daylighting of the Bee Branch Creek allowed for better drainage of the water which reduced the risk of flash flooding. The use of native vegetation increased water quality, increased biodiversity, and allowed for better drainage and protection of the community. A multi-use trail lines the creek, making sure the citizens of Dubuque can enjoy the natural landscape that the new creek is offering. Trails have had the most impact on the water management of communities, and as the risk of climate change grows, their importance will continue to be highlighted across the country, where 13 million people across the country live within a 100-year flood zone. For more examples, the Trails and Water Management document is a great resource.
Trails have also seen promise in aiding with the protection from other climate fueled disasters. Wildfires have increased dramatically in recent years, and trails could serve to act as a fire break. The By providing a strip of land where there is nothing flammable, the fire must depend on winds and ash to spread, lowering the chance that it continues once it reaches a trail. Methow Trail’s executive director James DeSalvo is quoted saying, “It’s like a moat. There are limitations. The fire burned over a lot of our moats, but if you have enough of them and you maintain them well, how great would it be to see a neighborhood, community, town and valley encircled by trails and roads.” (seattletimes.com)
Trails in cities can also be areas where more vegetation is being planted, allowing for a less dramatic urban heat island effect in cities, where temperatures can soar above a healthy limit. Though they are not a silver bullet solution - this current climate disaster doesn’t have any - a large, multi-pronged approach is needed and trails can play an important role. Multi-use trails and greenways have been and will continue to be incredibly needed in this battle against climate change.
Planning and Building Resilient Trails
Much like the equity and the economics of a trail, climate resiliency should be planned throughout every stage of the trail building process and for the lifespan of the trail.
Once the land for the trail is acquired, one of the first and most important steps is to figure out who to partner with to help build the trail, build its surrounding features, and which agencies should be engaged from the beginning to focus on resilience. This quote from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division encapsulates the correct funding approach for a resilient trail:
“When planning, consider different local departments and how they can work together, for example the departments of Planning & Development, Parks & Recreation, Public Works/Engineering, Stormwater, Transportation, Water Management, Floodplain Management, and Emergency Management may yield great results.” (Georgia EPD Greenspace Flood Guidebook)
Along with the community, partnering with less local governmental organizations, like the US Army Corps Engineers (USACE) and FEMA, can allow for more expertise to be had, especially when planning out how it can be resilient to the community. This can also aid with making sure that there is funding and regular maintenance throughout the lifespan of the project. Working with bigger organizations and other communities can also make sure that your trail connects to others and has a big impact on the communities it is serving. Often, understanding how your trail can help increase resiliency can narrow down which organizations to look towards. The Bee Branch Creek mentioned earlier, 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 significant funding through a national competition, the HUD National Disaster Resilience Competition. The Greater Grand Forks Greenway was constructed with the help of the USACE and as such, they were able to use federal flood control money for 50% of the cost and locally match the other 50%. Along with 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. The Elizabeth River Greenway used a partnership between the EPA’s Brownfields Grant and the NPS’s RTCA Program to help transform the Elizabeth River into the thriving community-centered greenway that it has now become. With this organizational help, they were also able to leverage funding from New Jersey’s 2006 Transportation Act and the NJDEP Green Acres Program to construct the actual trail. The leveraging of several different funding sources from both state and federal levels, along with guidance from these organizations “will afford the public another way to get around the city, and it will educate, entertain and engage the public by providing a sense of place along an urban waterway.” (Brownfields Success Story) Local trail organizations and land trusts are also good resources as they can share their funding tips and increase the potential for trail funding.
Planning for resilience is important because it is the best way to make sure that the trail starts off on the right foot. Figuring out what changes may be coming to your town or community and what the trail will have to deal with can make it easier to make sure that it can withstand whatever gets thrown at it. Knowing what disasters already affect your area can be a great place to start, as they will likely get worse with climate change. Resources like the FEMA Flood Maps and the NCDC Disaster Maps are great ways to get a look at what to expect. Most importantly, working with the community to understand their needs and their worries can add valuable insight and information to the trail project. Use these resources to help with the planning process and continue to ask, how will this play out in the changing climate and how can it help?
To make sure that the trail can be resilient throughout its lifetime means that the design and construction are extremely important. Restoring the natural function of the environment around the trail, whether that is a floodplain or a forest, will make sure this trail is planned for the resiliency of the community. Trails that are designed to flood, highlighted by the Chattahoochee Riverwalk in Columbus, Georgia, is one of the major ways trails have recently been designed for resiliency. By planning for the floods instead of working against them, the trail can help protect the community and can return the trails to the public sooner. For the resiliency of the path, recent improvements in green infrastructure can allow for massive aid in both reducing the trail costs and increasing its resiliency. RTC’s Green Infrastructure Toolbox page can offer a much more in-depth view.
Maintenance and Management
Regular maintenance is something that should be planned and budgeted for. Even if the wear and tear does not seem like a lot, regular maintenance can make sure that it 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 fixing the trail as it breaks are just some ways that regular maintenance will make sure that if a large disaster does happen, the trail can function at 100% and can minimize the amount of damage it takes. However, maintenance itself is not enough, the Westside Creeks in San Antonio have shown that incorrect maintenance practices can be harmful to the overall success of the trail. The old maintenance plan allowed invasive species to thrive and erosion to worsen, but the updated trail plan not only set aside money for the yearly cost of maintenance and explained how the SARA will pay for 100% of it, it also updated practices to make sure that the maintenance was not doing more harm than good. The main change in their maintenance practice was a decrease in mowing to promote native plant growth, displaying how even simple and cost-effective measures can make a big difference. If money is tight, the use of volunteers to maintain trails has seen great success, as many in the community are willing to aid in the protection of the natural space that they get so much from. The Cedar Valley Lakes Trail in Iowa is a great example of a community coming together to help trails, with over $70,000 raised for a trail damaged by floods. After fires, floods, or other disasters, community engagement can allow for quick trail rebuilding and its importance cannot be underestimated. For more practical information, this trail maintenance manual is a great example of an in-depth maintenance plan.