RTC's Urban Trails Work a Key Moment in Public Health Shift

Posted 04/09/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Health and Wellness, Trail Use

Photo © M.V. Jantzen

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is continuing its growing involvement in combating some of America's most pressing public health issues.

With convenient access to trails widely regarded as one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to combat obesity and inactivity, these urban pathways are now thought of as not only recreation and transportation infrastructure, but also public health assets. Many doctors now prescribe just 30 minutes of walking or biking a day as a proactive step toward better physical and mental health.

At the 2012 National Health Promotion Summit being held in Washington, D.C., this week, RTC's Director of Trail Development Kelly Pack will be one of the key presenters in an examination of how we create built environments that encourage healthier lifestyles.

Pack is one of the driving forces behind RTC's groundbreaking Urban Pathways Initiative (UPI), which has attracted a great deal of attention in both the urban planning and public health communities for connecting the development of rail-trails in large cities with improving social and economic conditions in underserved neighborhoods and communities of color.

Low-income populations often suffer disproportionately from a lack of physical activity. In urban areas, social and environmental determinants of health--like high crime rates, lack of access to play area and parks, busy streets, and inadequate sidewalks, trails and bike paths--contribute to this inactivity.

Thanks to the support of The Kresge Foundation, UPI is working to reduce health disparities by providing access to trails and promoting community-based activities in these low-income areas. In Washington, D.C., Camden, N.J., Compton, Calif., New Orleans, La., Springfield, Mass., and Cleveland, Ohio, RTC's UPI work has not only encouraged an increase in trail activity, but has also enlivened neighborhoods and generated energy behind community initiatives and events.

"That's one of the great things about this Urban Pathways work--that a simple thing like providing a safe place to walk and ride can produce such a variety of positive impacts," Pack says. "Making it possible for kids to walk to school, for people to ride to work or their local stores, has obvious health benefits. But we are also seeing remarkable social benefits, too. Trails like the Met Branch Trail in D.C., and the Morgana Run Trail in Cleveland, have now become gathering points for the community, with fun runs, public gardens and organized volunteer groups. That vibrancy is harder to measure but is certainly wonderful to see."

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