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Equitable Practices in Trail Planning

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

Planning can be a challenge in communities where People of Color have been subject to neglect or top-down planning without community buy-in or leadership. Residents of these communities may further experience “planning fatigue” due to promised projects that never came to fruition or projects that did but are not well maintained, haven’t brought the benefits that were promoted or, worse, have led to gentrification or displacement.

In such cases, great care must be taken to cultivate trust and relationships, and this can only happen through meaningful and ongoing community engagement and empowerment. This involves authentic listening where current and past injustices are acknowledged and confronted.

Community members are in the best position to articulate their own needs. It is therefore critical that trail advocates and planners make a concerted effort to meet people where they are. This means communicating through the community’s preferred information-sharing platforms and discerning the best venues and times for physical and virtual public meetings. Planners must also take care to provide accommodations for those with physical or language barriers—and to compensate people for their time and knowledge.

Trails should not be approached as a standalone issue but discussed within the context of overall community planning, including housing affordability, economic development, access to quality jobs, health care and community safety. Because investment in trails can have wide-reaching impacts beyond transportation or recreation, trail planners are increasingly forging partnerships across sectors—including but not limited to housing, job training, economic development, arts, culture, public health and public safety.

Helpful Tips to Ensure Equitable Outcomes in Planning, Community Building, and Development

The Planning for Equity panel at RTC’s 2018 TrailNation Summit explored new approaches to planning, community building and development to ensure equitable outcomes. Featured panelists included Beth Haskovec, LISC Milwaukee (Local Initiatives Support Corporation); Grace Kyung, Trailnet; Juan Carlos Linares, LUCHA; Tatiana Maida, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers-Community HealthCorps; Vaughn Perry, 11th Street Bridge Park; Sterling Stone, Gearin’ Up Bicycles. Lynda Lopez of Streetsblog served as moderator. Below are five key takeaways from this discussion.

#1: Community engagement is more than relaying information

Rather than looking at community outreach as a box to be checked in the planning process, practitioners should view engagement as a continuous conversation. Planners and advocates need to value the knowledge of neighbors, compensate community members for their time and pair their insight with professional expertise for better outcomes. As Maida concluded, “The vision is not complete until the community has reshaped it.”

#2: Communicate with people in their own language

This doesn’t just refer to the spoken language by a given audience. Planning has lots of jargon that can be confusing for general audiences. In addition, terms like equitable development and inclusion can easily be reduced to mere buzzwords that are “broad rather than specific, and can provide cover for inaction,” to put it in the words of writer Anna Holmes. Effective engagement requires breaking down these terms but also, crucially, doing the work behind them. As Linares stressed, it is critical that planners not assume that their projects are “inclusive” unless they have actually put in the work to make them so.

#3: Don’t be afraid of the hard conversations

Marginalized communities may have had negative experiences with planners that need to be acknowledged and addressed. These conversations are difficult but key to building trust. Grace let the audience know that even when the practitioners get called out in some way, it should be taken as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason to stop trying.

#4: Partnerships are essential

 The need for partnerships was a recurrent theme throughout the discussion. Linares encouraged the audience to build partnerships with groups outside of their own fields. The panel described how partnerships with community organizations gave them an entry point into the community. Perry reminded the audience that it is a two-way street; it is important to show up for partners and for the community to show support even if there’s nothing in it for you.

#5: Community engagement means talking to young people, too

Young people living in a community have their own experiences of a place, including the inequities therein. Sterling relayed how in his work, he had had conversations with Black youth on bikes who had been racially profiled and stopped by the police. He encouraged the audience to include the voices of these young people in their work, saying “I need these kids—who represent what their communities look like—to be here in this room one day … because they will be the future leaders, and they need to be a part of the planning process.” Beth noted how the arts could be used as a tool to reach out to young people, who would be less likely to attend a traditional community meeting.

Examples of Equitable Practices in Trail Planning

Inclusionary Trail Planning Toolkit, Pennsylvania Environmental Council (Pennsylvania)

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Inclusionary Trail Planning Toolkit uses case studies to discuss the barriers to full participation that are faced by disenfranchised groups in the planning of trail projects, and outlines best practices to address those barriers. The report encourages planners and nonprofits to think about who benefits from a trail project, and how. It also provides tools for planning and programming trails inclusively. These tools cover a wide range of topics from community outreach and building partnerships to assessing a neighborhood’s vulnerability to gentrification.

Durham Belt Line Equitable Engagement Plan, City of Durham (Durham, North Carolina)

The city of Durham, North Carolina, also chose to take a wider view of its rail-trail project, the Durham Belt Line Trail, by coming up with an equitable community engagement plan before construction, one that would advance meaningful outreach to those underrepresented residents in the city who would be most directly impacted by the development of the trail. The plan seeks to address residents’ concerns about displacement and the lack of affordable housing.

Equitable Development Plan, 11th Street Bridge Park (Washington, DC)

The 11th Street Bridge Park is emerging as a model of equitable development planning. The bridge connects two vastly different neighborhoods across the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, D.C. While the neighborhoods on the west side of the Anacostia have been recently redeveloped to include luxury apartment buildings and several professional sports stadiums, the historically and predominantly African American neighborhoods east of the river are contending with ongoing segregation, low homeownership, high poverty and unemployment. Recognizing that infrastructure projects like this one have the potential to improve quality of life but could also displace low-income residents, the nonprofit Building Bridges Across Anacostia (BBAR) created this Equitable Development Plan (EDP).

The EDP is meant “to ensure that the park is a driver of inclusive development—development that provides opportunities for all residents regardless of income and demography.” It focuses on ensuring that those who start out living near a large economic development site, like the 11th Street Bridge Park, end up reaping its benefits long after that site has come to fruition. This plan is updated on a regular basis and continues to be informed by extensive and continued community engagement, as well as robust demographic data. The EDP works to preserve the Anacostia neighborhood’s arts, culture and affordable housing, while supporting workforce development and small businesses enterprises. The communities on either side of the bridge also provided recommendations for programming of the park. BBAR partners with government agencies and nonprofits across different sectors to help achieve their equitable development goals.

Discretionary Grants Program, Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (Charlotte, North Carolina)

The Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization plays a pivotal role in evaluating, prioritizing and funding county infrastructure projects through a discretionary and competitive process that covers multiple jurisdictions. When assessing active transportation projects, the agency employs a comprehensive scoring system that evaluates aspects such as connectivity, safety, feasibility, health, the environment and equity. The equity component of their evaluation prioritizes social and health factors, focusing on historically underrepresented communities, low-income households and car-free households. Drawing inspiration from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) in Philadelphia, Charlotte’s model emphasizes health outcomes linked to incomes and education, setting significant thresholds for poverty and educational attainment.

In 2022, out of the 14 active transportation projects that applied for funding, the agency funded seven, comprising 25% of all transportation projects that applied for funding through the discretionary grants program. This commitment to equity and active transportation is further highlighted by the fact that the agency dedicates an entire staff member to this work, ensuring that the process is prioritized and thorough and strictly adheres to the established criteria and metrics.

Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan, City of Detroit General Services Department (Detroit, Michigan)

The Joe Louis Greenway Framework Plan places a significant emphasis on equity, making it a cornerstone of the trail development process. As documented in the plan, residents actively engaged in the greenway’s development underscored that genuine equity means recognizing how race, gender and socioeconomic status influence one’s capacity to derive benefits from such a major infrastructure investment. Consequently, the plan prioritizes crafting policies and programs that extend beyond mere access to the greenway. It delves into areas like housing, job training and small business development, ensuring that all Detroiters can not only access the greenway but also harness the economic advantages it promises. The vision is holistic: To cultivate connected, equitable and engaging spaces throughout Detroit, fostering empowerment, unity and healing. Recognizing both the greenway’s potential and challenges, the plan is rooted in preventing displacement, championing inclusive economic opportunities and bolstering wealth-building initiatives, particularly in historically marginalized communities.


TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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