Trails + Watersheds Get Philadelphia Youth Engaged on the Circuit Trails

Posted 09/24/15 by Katie Harris in Building Trails, Success Stories

2015 Youth Sojourn participants on the Circuit Trails network in Philadelphia | Photo courtesy Cy Maramangalam

People in the Philadelphia region have an incredible asset in their “backyard”: a regional trail network known as the Circuit Trails that, when complete, will connect nine counties. Since 2012, local trail advocates have been working tirelessly to close the gap between the 300 miles already on the ground and the final vision—a 750-mile network of pedestrian and bike trails that provide safe routes to jobs, communities, schools, parks and cultural sites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

2015 Youth Sojourn on the Circuit Trails in Philadelphia | Photo courtesy Cy Maramangalam

Local residents are beginning to appreciate the importance of the regional connections made possible by the Circuit Trails. Arguably no group understands that more than a handful of youth in Philadelphia, a dedicated crew of avid bicyclists, teammates and young minds called the Cadence Youth Cycling All-Stars.

These Philly adolescents have spent many hours riding on the Circuit Trails—for training, recreation and transportation. They know the trails, the connections and the routes. They even know the science behind the rivers and streams along which many of the trails run!

A program of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Cadence Youth Cycling aims to “engage youth through the sport of cycling to help them grow into healthy, responsible, confident adults.” But it’s not just about riding a bike, says Cy Maramangalam, program manager for Cadence Cycling Foundation. “Cadence fosters healthy habits and independence. We show the importance of showing up and being responsible.”

2015 Youth Sojourn watershed lesson on the Circuit Trails in Philadelphia | Photo courtesy Cy Maramangalam

Thanks to generous support from the William Penn Foundation, RTC youth engagement coordinator Tom McKeon was able to spend his summer teaching youth, using the Circuit Trails as his classroom. One of his most engaged “classes” was a core group of All-Stars with whom he rode bicycles with throughout the summer on Circuit Trails in the Philadelphia region. The initiative included a variety of organized rides, as well as educational programming and leadership development opportunities, and culminated in a three-day Youth Sojourn covering 128 miles.

During McKeon’s watershed lessons, the All-Stars collected samples of macro invertebrates, debated the pros and cons of canals in urban and suburban areas and discussed solutions for storm runoff. And the best part? The “lab,” “classroom” and “library” were all trailside.

“Watersheds are important because their health impacts public and ecological health,” explains McKeon. “The diversity of the Circuit Trails makes these projects easy and fun. The Circuit Trails network really is the most effective way of running an outdoor program.”

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2015 Youth Sojourn on the Circuit Trails in Philadelphia | Photo courtesy Cy Maramangalam

Due to the connections they made with the trails, and the leadership skills they developed, the Circuit Trails All-Star team turned into All-Star advocates for both the trail network and the Delaware River watershed, demonstrated in August when a group of Cadence All-Stars met with city elected officials in Philadelphia.

“One of the things that they said to council members was to connect the Circuit [Trails],” says Maramangalam. “They understand the importance [of the Circuit Trails] because they understand how safe it can be and have experienced firsthand how far it can take them. When they see that the trail network is unfinished, it’s a learning point. It’s something that we can fight for.”

The All-Stars also emphasized the importance of dealing with Philadelphia’s combined sewage overflow issues in a responsible manner, a topic they learned about during their trailside watershed education classes.

“I like seeing them owning this new info," says McKeon. "They’re listening, they’re soaking it all in, and they not only understand it but care about it, too.”

He continues, “Over the course of the summer, I’ve seen them develop a sense of responsibility over their trails. There is a sense of ownership. I can’t think of better stewards.”

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