Skip to content


California’s Marvin Braude Bike Trail | Photo by Ben Kaufman

RTC’s TrailNation™ Playbook curates case studies, best practices and tools to accelerate trail network development nationwide. Explore each section for lessons learned that can support trail planners, municipalities, states and regions working to advance trail network projects.

Project Vision | Coalition BuildingMapping and Analytics | Gap-Filling Strategy | Investment Strategy | Engagement

TrailNation Playbook Engagement logo by RTC

Engagement is fundamental to trail network planning. It could be considered the glue that holds many of the pieces of the Playbook together—occurring at every stage of the project to build the internal cohesion, political will and public enthusiasm needed to develop trail networks, activate them and realize their potential as hubs of thriving communities. This section of the TrailNation™ Playbook defines engagement and why it matters, shares insights on stakeholder audiences, and teases out the difference between engagement and communications. We also address challenges like navigating opposing views and balancing local and regional interests.

While your passion for trails may fuel your devotion to regional connectivity, the physical paths probably are not the true driving force of your effort. People (including you) dedicate their time to trail building because trails make life better. They contribute to the well-being of people, places and the planet. But how we perceive trails—whether we’re supportive of the idea, concerned about the implications of the infrastructure on our neighborhood, or opposed altogether—is shaped by our lived experience. Bringing those perspectives together and learning from them so they shape the outcome of the project is critical. That’s how we ensure that trail networks are built in ways that serve people and places, reflecting the priorities of the communities they connect.

That’s where community engagement comes in. The practice of community engagement centers on inviting others (ideally everyone) to the conversation and ensuring their voices are both heard and valued. Successful engagement will position you to bring others along with you as you work to fulfill the vision. It should be present at every stage of your project.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community engagement is the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. It can be a powerful vehicle for advancing positive change in a community, while reflecting the priorities and interests of that community. Put simply, community engagement is a process intended to give those who are affected by an issue a say in the decision making around it.

Creating Trail Networks that are Equitable and Inclusive

Trails and greenways have the potential to deliver powerful benefits to communities—providing people of every age, ability and socioeconomic background safe and inexpensive spaces for outdoor physical activity, commuting and recreation. Trails can serve as economic catalysts—opening up opportunities for outdoor tourism and small business development, and they can also provide critical “social infrastructure”—public spaces where people can meet, interact and build relationships. Key to maximizing the impact of trails is ensuring every stakeholder in a community is a part of the development process and will benefit from their use.


“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

—Anais Nin

As you plan for the future of your region, know that community engagement matters. It matters precisely because you are planning for the future of your place. People are likely to be affected when those plans are realized. Everyone who has a personal stake in your area, especially local residents, should have the opportunity to be part of the discussion and influence the outcome.

Practically speaking, building out a regional trail network is hard work. Engaging everybody early in the process and keeping them informed will enable you to address any tough issues sooner rather than later. Early engagement will also allow you to begin broadening your support base.  

The Community Heart & Soul program, a popular resident-driven community planning process, has three core principles: focus on what matters the most, play the long game, and involve everyone. Doing so makes it more likely that your neighbors will feel invested and on board with the vision. Not only will they be on board with the vision, but they will have contributed to its development and will have a personal stake in its success. This is a recipe for a valued and long-lasting trail network.

Building Widespread Enthusiasm for Your Network

West Virginia's North Bend Rail Trail | Photo by TrailLink user gus75
West Virginia’s North Bend Rail Trail | Photo by TrailLink user gus75

The North Bend Rail Trail Story

Some of the most experienced trail advocates would tell you that enthusiasm wanes (or never builds in the first place) if only a few people share in the vision. Instead, a community’s vision for its trails and how to better connect to them ought to be shared by many. A great example of generating a shared vision around trails comes from the North Bend Rail Trail in the mid-1980s. Retired police officer Dick Bias recognized an opportunity in a 61-mile stretch of abandoned rail line—one that had become a liability for local governments. Bias envisioned a different future for the corridor. To bring that vision to life, he formed a core team that initiated dozens of one-on-one conversations with more and more people about the potential of the abandoned rail line as a trail. By taking time to educate and raise awareness about the opportunity, the vision of one had become the vision of many and the rail-trail development was a success. (Adapted from Deciding on Trails: 7 Practices of Healthy Trail Towns)

Surely, you’ve heard the term “having a lot of plates spinning.” More likely, you’ve felt the sensation as you manage competing priorities—a challenge that is expected as you expand from a singular trail vision to the vision of a community or a region connected by trail. Imagine having a bunch of plates suspended in front of you. Each plate represents a different trail segment and the community it serves. The plates are likely spinning at different speeds: some communities are ready and willing to tie into a regional network. Others require deeper engagement, while some may require the vision to be adjusted to reflect their priorities. Your job is to keep all the plates spinning—to maintain regional momentum even as you take the time to address local concerns. For engagement surrounding trail network development to have impact, it’s critical that you are mindful of the whole as well as attentive to the parts.

It’s important not to underestimate the significance of leading a multi-community trail network. Some trail network projects are spread across multiple counties and even cross state lines, yet the priorities of each neighborhood the trail network touches are critical factors that must be considered and addressed—and introduces tension when trying to satisfy local needs while maintaining regional momentum. An effective plan for engagement will help you balance that tension, bringing people along at all levels of awareness and participation and creating a shared understanding and support of a transformative vision.

Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan

Texas' Historic Battlefield Trail, part of the Caracara Trails | Photo by Brandi Horton
Texas’ Historic Battlefield Trail, part of the Caracara Trails | Photo by Brandi Horton

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, the Caracara Trails is a vision for a 428-mile trail network that will link the rich natural, cultural and historical resources the area is known for—creating a unified regional identity for outdoor tourism, promoting healthier lifestyles and generating a new sense of community pride for everyone who lives there.

The vision for the trail network is built upon a comprehensive plan—the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan—that leverages the community’s commitment to local economic development in a county with one of the highest poverty rates in the country—and is designed to tap into the rapidly expanding market for “active tourism” to support job creation and small business activity and encourage tourist spending that injects money into local economies. This ambitious trail network vision is built from a strong foundation of regional and local engagement.


While engagement is one of the most important ingredients to your trail network development—as fundamental as having access to the right of way or funding to build out the infrastructure—a communications plan is the foundation of that effort. It helps you to understand the perceptions surrounding the trail network vision, local context that is critical to building support, the messages that will connect with the people you’re seeking to engage, and effective tactics for helping to grow awareness, build connections, and generate the outcomes you seek. A strong communications plan can help you raise awareness and build public support, but also build political will, influence funding outcomes and help to strengthen and grow the coalition behind the effort.

In short, a communications plan aligns your outreach and engagement priorities with the overall goals of the project—helping the coalition working to develop the trail network to consistently and effectively  educate, raise awareness and build support. It is built around audiences because how people connect with and understand the project vision is fundamental to whether or not they support it. A communications plan defines the audiences most important to the success of the project’s outcomes, what they know already and how that shapes their attitudes around the project and whether or not they will act in support or opposition. By defining your audiences, you can develop messages that will help them to understand and build support for the project vision, and the communications strategies and tactics necessary to move the project forward. Engagement is a key component of any successful communications strategy, defining who is most important to connect with, when, and how.

A Framework for Building Your Plan

While the components of every communications plan are unique, the framework to build that plan is likely consistent. A core set of questions and decisions will help you to address the information you need to develop an approach that supports the goals of your trail network project. This communications planning template created by RTC will help you and your coalition shape a plan to guide your regional efforts. While it’s necessary to have an overarching plan to support the full trail network vision, note that the needs of specific trail segments or communities might be significant, benefiting from standalone communications plans that unpack the interests of key constituencies or challenging political scenarios.

Shaping your communications effort starts with one key question—who do I need to engage? Every successful communications effort begins with understanding the audiences affected by the work—being clear about who has the most to gain, who has the most to lose and who may just be indifferent. It is important to get clear about how changing the knowledge, attitudes or behaviors of specific people can grow momentum for the project vision (or not). It is also important to understand who influences your audiences because sometimes, the messenger really does matter more than the message.

Once you have a clear understanding of your audience and their perspective, and where they are on a continuum of support for trails … I don’t like trails. I like trails, they’re nice to have. I think trail networks are important to communities. I think trail networks are necessary to the well-being of my community. I demand trail networks for my community … then you can map out the approaches to move them along to the place where they demand trail networks for their community. Here are some approaches to help do that.

Making the Case: Demonstrate why trails are worthy of investment. This is likely to include a mix of data and storytelling that is representative of the issues that are most important to the audiences you are trying to engage. In some cases, the most important benefit may be economic impact, while in others it is the opportunity to create safe walking and biking routes for active transportation. You know that trails make a difference in peoples’ lives. Consistently presenting the variety of benefits will allow you to “meet people where they are” (i.e., include what interests them). You don’t want to inadvertently pitch a benefit that isn’t locally valued. Sharing some of those stories—paired with convincing statistics—will help make the case.

Creating Models: Showcasing the impact of trail network projects in your region can help people to understand how a trail network can make a difference for their community. Sometimes that includes sharing stories from other communities. Other times it may mean bringing people from the community out to experience ways that trails are coming together in their backyard—events, tours and other opportunities to connect people with the infrastructure and the way it is creating benefit are important touch points in building support.

Building the Movement: Remember the story of the North Bend Rail Trail and how the visionaries kept bringing more and more people to the table? They were building a movement. When you have a whole cadre of supporters, it is important to keep them engaged and make sure they understand the value of the work you are doing together. Similar to the importance of maintaining trails once they are built, keeping the movement—and the humans behind it—energized is vitally important.

Increasing Demand: Market trails and educating users (about how trails exist and how they can use them). Work in partnership with local communities to inform people of how they can incorporate trails into their daily lives. One way to jumpstart trail use and a trail-supportive culture is to program trails with group activities. Once people have been introduced to trails they are more likely to use them and demand they remain a community priority.

Measuring Progress: Measuring progress and broadcasting successes is an important piece of a communications strategy. Let people know about successes large and small and the impact they have on peoples’ lives. Even the small victories matter as you work toward completing your regional trail network. Celebrate every grant received, every school group brought out onto the trail, and every new mile added to your system.

People sometimes confuse brand development with engagement but developing a brand identity is not a substitute for community engagement. Nor is it a substitute for a communications plan. A brand does help to engage and communicate but is a small part of a larger effort.

Let’s take a closer look at branding (we know you’re interested!). A brand is an identity. A brand connotes value. It is also a promise. Brands make a promise, plain and simple. Every time you tout the benefits of trails you are making a promise. You are suggesting that a trail network is attached to specific outcomes, ones which your network can deliver.

As you shape your messaging to align with audience perceptions and preferences, it is important that you do not change the promise itself. Brands also communicate value. We are sharing how trails bring meaning to peoples’ lives. The brand should consistently communicate this value.

A carefully developed brand is one that takes into consideration audience perceptions and consistently deliveries in satisfaction—results in brand loyalty. Brand loyalty can help move people along the continuum of change, moving people from being naysayers or reluctant bystanders to staunch trail advocates.

Great brands inspire action. They can also convince, educate, and entertain. Using RTC’s brand as an example, we’ve inspired trail users and decision makers across the United States by sharing impact stories (our Trail Moments series that celebrates the everyday practice of using trails, for example), with events like Celebrate Trails Day (trails everywhere can get in on the action), with helpful resources (, social media, brand partner relationships, and the like. There is a rational component to your trail network’s brand. These are the educating and convincing pieces. But so much of brand is emotional. It’s about raising awareness and inspiring action. The “look” (the logo, the fonts, the colors) is part of creating an inspiring brand, but brand as a promise and an identity includes so much more.


It has been said that we don’t see things as they are. Rather we them as we are, meaning our preconceptions alter the way we see the world around us. How you perceive a trail plan (or any other project) can be shaped by where you live, your culture, your life experiences, and personal preferences. As you are engaging your broader community, it is important to remember this is the case for your neighbors as well. When we fail to consider other peoples’ perceptions, we are likely to lose them. Understanding audiences and their perceptions is critical.

Potential audiences might include: 

Another way of thinking about audiences is considering who they are, not just how they use trails. There are several stakeholder groups to keep in mind. Elected officials will be interested in your plans, as will small business owners, property owners, and many others.

How any of these folks initially react to your plans may depend on their own perceptions, life experiences, hopes, and frustrations. Are they raising children they hope to take out onto the trail (or already do)? Is it a harrowing experience for them to run errands or commute to work by bike or by foot? Do they wish it were easier for their children to safely get from place to place? Are they concerned they could be priced out of the neighborhood after active transportation improvements are made? Understanding where people are coming from matters.

Accounting for all audiences who are likely to use your trails or potentially be impacted by them goes a long way. If you are to count on their support in the long run, listening now is key.

We’ve talked about the role that perceptions play. Specifically, perceptions inform people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. With thoughtful engagement, you are in the position to shape people’s knowledge and awareness concerning trails, understand their attitudes toward trails, and learn about their trail use behaviors. In every interaction and every stage, make sure your agenda is designed in a way that allows you to Pause, Listen, and Learn. You and your team are the learners just as much as you are the educators in this exchange.


The most effective engagement occurs in a high trust environment. If trust doesn’t yet exist, engagement can help to build trust and sustain it over time. It typically takes time to build trust, following key principles and practices that are proven to be effective, but most importantly, to lead with authenticity.

Remember that the end goal is having healthy, thriving communities. Taking a trust-building approach will get you there more effectively than treating engagement as a transaction. Taking the time to build trust and continuing to make it a priority will keep you from later needing to reestablish credibility.

Let’s be honest—outreach and engagement can be scary. Not everyone wants to see more trails developed. The easiest thing to do would be keeping those dissenting voices out of the conversation. But doing so will undermine your efforts. Their words of caution could contain local wisdom and insights that results in a stronger, more thoughtful project. Building those connections is critical to the future success of the trail network, which should be built by the community for the community.

Consider how you can understand the underlying concerns of those who are wary of your efforts. Can you alleviate their concerns and address them in your messaging? Can you honor their voices rather than discredit them or drown them out? Might you convert them from adversaries to advocates?


RTC Webinar: Accessible and Inclusive Events and Programming on Multiuse Trails

RTC Webinar: Creating Inclusive & Equitable Trail Development: Case Studies in Detroit and Milwaukee

RTC Webinar: Understanding Barriers to Trail Use

Book: Deciding on Trails: 7 Practices of Healthy Trail Towns

Blog Series and Tools: Strategic Communications Planning

Online Tool: Community Voice and Power Sharing Guidebook