6 Lessons Learned from the International Trails Symposium

May 16, 2019

By: Alta Planning + Design

Last month, Alta Planning + Design staff from around North America gathered in Syracuse, New York to attend the 2019 International Trails Symposium. Here’s what they learned.

1. Trails are a tool for justice

One of the most memorable sessions at the conference was the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion discussion, led by Charles Thomas from Pasadena-based Outward Bound Adventures (OBA). For nearly 50 years, Charles and the OBA have brought youth from inner-city Los Angeles neighborhoods out onto trails in state and national parks throughout California. He explained that the experience has been eye-opening for both the participants — many of whom have rarely been out of their neighborhoods, let alone the city — and for other trail users who have never seen large groups of African-American and Latinx youth hiking and camping in wilderness areas. Mr. Thomas encouraged conference participants — nearly all of whom were white — to train themselves to be JEDI warriors and keep in mind the JEDI principles when planning or advocating for trails: Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Being a JEDI warrior will impact trailhead planning, promotional materials, trail-education programs, and even transportation options to access parks near urban areas.

2. Trails are part of an active transportation network

Trails are an active transportation asset for communities, providing a low stress route for people to get around, but too often, we think of trails and trail planning in isolation. By planning a complete and connected network to the trail, the trail is being further leveraged as a community asset. Connecting the trail to people and their destinations can shift trailheads from being a place people drive to on the weekends, to being a part of someone’s daily ride to work. This approach is not just for urban communities, but also possible in small town and rural communities, especially to connect with important community destinations such as Main Street or schools.

3. Opportunities for land conservation

There is a huge opportunity, as trail planners and designers, to partner with land trusts. A consistent theme at the symposium, and with our partners in New York, is that land trusts and land conservation organizations are recognizing the power of trails to promote their land conservation goals. By opening lands for public use and connecting more people to regional landscapes the consensus for conservation grows.

4. Equity and trails

Planning with communities for transportation planning instead of for communities is a key to success. Learning from and listening to the community on what they would like to see when planning a trail system has a bigger impact. An example in Washington, DC illustrates this — a community was hesitant about a separated trail, but supported enhanced sidewalks with larger setbacks from the roadway and more vegetation.

5. Close to Home Trails

Americans are increasingly seeking locations that have close-to-home trails (both paved and natural surface), while also requesting that city planners and parks departments improve and expand existing trails. “Make people’s doorstep that trailhead” is a phrase we heard multiple times during the conference, and is an important reminder.

6. Anything is possible

When people think of trails, the visions that come to mind are just as diverse as the trails already in existence and available to the masses. With over 600 attendees, the ITS was well attended by a variety of individuals. To witness that many people in one room all talking about how to fund, design, maintain, and experience trails, it felt like between all of us, anything is possible. Trails are seen by some as not a necessity to transportation, but rather a nicety that is bestowed on certain demographics and locations. This symposium proved that trails are for everyone and are not relegated to recreational use only. While what may be recreational for one individual may be a commuter route of another. To be part of a movement of this size gave a sense of pride in the work that we do and the continued enthusiasm to bring these type of facilities to every human, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what they believe in.


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