At the Heart of It: Trails and Public Spaces
We are pleased to present this new blog series by RTC President Ryan Chao—who will provide monthly insights on the role of trails in connecting the nation, and creating healthy, thriving communities across America. Enjoy!
I’m just finishing my third month as president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), and each day, I show up to work filled with gratitude to be part of such a special organization and important movement. One of the great privileges of my job is the opportunity to visit beautiful trails across the country and meet their inspiring supporters and leaders. I’m starting this monthly blog to share with you those connections and some of the reflections they inspire.
My family and I have a passion for travel. One of our favorite things to do is to visit other countries and experience new people and cultures. Just behind seeking out new and interesting foods, our top thing to do is find the heart of each town or city and take in life as the locals do. And most of often, these centers of civic life are public squares and plazas.
In more and more places across America, trails are the heart of healthy, thriving communities. This is why we believe every community deserves the indispensable civic assets that are trails.
I’ll never forget being in Plaza Grande in Merida, Mexico, and watching as couples strolled through, hand in hand, sharing conversation as the heat of the evening dissipated. And I’ll always fondly remember sitting alongside other families one morning in Piazza del Campo in Sienna, Italy, as my children ran around with other kids and had the time of their lives. These places are the heart of their communities, invoking a sense of connectedness for every resident—and every visitor. And we love these experiences.
While we’re always excited to get back home, I have to admit that our return trips are often filled with a twinge of regret, borne from the desire to connect with people and places here in the same ways that we do overseas. We as Americans long for these opportunities. But it sometimes seems we have, or perhaps take, less opportunity to gather and connect in outdoor public spaces—whether because many of our cities and towns have been developed around automobiles, or just because of the fast-paced nature of modern American life.
But that’s changing.
As Americans continue to demand more and more open space and trails, these vital assets are creating new and powerful connections, and are becoming the hearts of their communities.
I would never consider myself a seasoned world traveler, but I do have the privilege to be an active trails traveler. I’ve seen, at the Richmond Greenway in California, couples holding hands and sharing quality moments in the green space along the corridor as the sun sets on the San Francisco Bay, just as they do in Merida. In Milwaukee, I’ve witnessed children from the Urban Ecology Center running and playing tag on the Oak Leaf Trail next door, just as they do in Sienna. And at my home trail, the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, nearly every person my daughters and I pass on our Sunday rides smiles, waves and extends greetings in a way that just doesn’t happen anywhere else in our area. Each of these communities has the same love, ownership and connectedness to their trails—their public plazas.
In a 2014 article, Jay Walljasper, editor of On the Commons, described trails as America’s new town squares. I couldn’t agree more. In more and more places across America, trails are the heart of healthy, thriving communities. This is why we believe every community deserves the indispensable civic assets that are trails. It’s why we’re so grateful to have partners like Toody Maher and her team at Pogo Park, who have brought magical play spaces to the Richmond Greenway and transformed numerous lives by reclaiming public space.
First opened in 2007, the Richmond Greenway has transformed what had been an abandoned rail corridor for 25 years into a model urban trail. The trail, part of the Bay Area Trails Collaborative, an RTC TrailNation™ project that aims to complete a 2,700-mile regional trail network in the San Francisco Bay Area, is now the heart of the community, providing 32 acres of vibrant open space filled with public art, play spaces, vivid flower beds and even a public vegetable garden run by the nonprofit Urban Tilth.
At the center of this center is Harbour-8 Park, a project of Pogo Park that stretches along the greenway from Harbour Boulevard to Eighth Street. Here, children engage in high-quality play opportunities that spur social/emotional development, and local residents can access training and jobs to plan, design, build and maintain improvements in their community. Pogo Park serves as a model for reinvigorating public spaces and engaging residents as leaders.
RTC believes strongly in the power of public-private partnerships and the value of investing in programs that can bring trails to every state in the country. It’s why we’re so excited to support the work of Bob Walker of Montana Trails and a whole coalition of trail advocates to pass Montana’s first dedicated funding program for trails, the Made in Montana Trails and Recreation Grant Program (S.B. 24), which Gov. Steve Bullock just signed this week! The program will provide $1 million in funding for new trails in the state, including the Great American Rail-Trail. This major policy win would not be possible without dedicated elected officials, civic leaders and advocates from across the state, as well as many members of RTC. It just shows the true progress that can be made when we come together.
Trails don’t just connect points A to B, they connect people and communities. Our friends in California and Montana are only two examples of dedicated advocates putting their hearts into putting trails at the centers of their communities. In modern America, we need the connections trails provide more than ever. It’s why we heart trails.
See you on the trail!