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Cinderella Comes of Age: Trails in Private Developments

Developers find that trails bring financial advantages, health benefits to residents, environmental protection, and attractiveness to buyers.

By Roger Bell
Vice-Chair, American Trails and President, Bellfree Contractors

"Trails were unwelcome stepchildren, tolerated but not warmly embraced."

Why should residential developers consider including trails in new projects? This article will explore some darn good reasons for this important new trend— including financial advantages to developers, health benefits to residents, environmental protection, and growing public demand.

Faced with significant cutbacks in traditional sources of public funding for trails, such as the Forest Service, private resources will be increasingly important, and so we all need to understand this phenomenon and to optimize the opportunity it offers to improve our communities.

photo: Trails are seen as part of the essential amenities of new home developments
Trailside banner advertising condos along Denver's Cherry Creek Trail

Those of us who build trails need to learn ways to connect with developers to help them realize the benefits of expert design and construction practices. This has become a primary focus of my business, and I see it expanding exponentially. Trails truly have arrived in public consciousness!

THE NEGLECTED STEPCHILD

Until recently, however, my experience has been that trails, when built at all in new home developments, only came about as a result of being conditioned by cities and counties, perhaps from pressure by local user groups, rather than due to choice or real perceived value. They were not seen as having much importance to the projects and even the public entities sometimes did not truly recognize the potential values they might provide.

In fact, trails were perceived as potentially dampening sales, because of privacy concerns, or because they might invite misuse or even crime by non-residents. As a result, trails were built with reluctance, and usually without much thought about aesthetics or sustainability. Just get it done in the least expensive way, often by hiring a landscaper or excavator operator to push some dirt around, usually in the least desirable place, such as on steep slopes between houses or on ridge tops where homes could not be built.

Trails were unwelcome stepchildren, tolerated but not warmly embraced— unkempt, ragged, hidden away, fenced off from respectable members of the community.

Commonly, trails were developed more formally as street-side bike lanes or on access roads which could double as trails. Hardscaped trails became part of the needed and important transportation infrastructure, but not really seen as part of or needed for open space access.

Consequentially, natural surface trails were poorly conceived and tended to fall quickly into disuse and disrepair. Softscaped trails were generally disliked by residents and, being less used, they tended to become unsightly nuisances rather than real amenities. This was especially true if maintenance was part of a homeowner association levy.

photo: New Millennium Homes in the Santa Monica Mountains

Trail users are the target of these housing ads along Denver's Cherry Creek Trail

CINDERELLA COMES OF AGE

Gradually I've seen a change in this picture. I think this owes to increased public interest and expectation, spurred by awareness that open spaces are rapidly disappearing in urban environments and that close-in trails are ways to quickly connect to nature and to recreational opportunity. Active lifestyle sports and unstructured recreational activities are some of the fastest growing sectors of the recreational market.

These factors have led to building more trails which has perhaps fueled our collective appetites, reflected in the rails to trails phenomenon and the trail related SAFTEA programs administered by the Federal Highwayway Administration (FHWA), including the Recreational Trails Program and the Transportation Enhancements Program. But in many other ways, despite this critical mass of expectation and new public funding sources, public land trails managed by the Forest Service and other agencies have seen drastic cutbacks.

This heightens the importance of privately funded trails to meet the need. Along with this is a recognition that, if such trails were build with more care, with attention to the importance of keeping grades down and reducing erosion so they held up and were aesthetically attractive, thus inviting respectful use, then they truly could be advantageous to projects and highly appreciated by users.

Another recognition is the importance of good planning so the trail system is integrated from the start, made part of the infrastructure, rather than as an afterthought or add-on. This also makes it possible for the home buyer to be fully aware of the plan and not discover after purchase that a trail will traverse near his backyard— i.e. better matching of those who like trails and their availability.

Interestingly, studies of homeowner attitudes about the importance of adjacent trails indicates that initial skepticism is often replaced by strong endorsement as residents begin to use them. Those studies also indicate that, contrary to some of the fears that tend to accompany what might be called the gated community or NIMBY ("not in my backyard") mentality, trails are actually factors in reducing crime. Neighbors look out for each other and have new opportunities to develop a sense of community, and they discover that visitors are generally very respectful of their privacy concerns. The vast majority of trail users, people who get out to exercise and enjoy nature, are good citizens who would, in anything, help to prevent misuse and intrusion.

Commercial interests are learning to court trail users by offering services and facilities and even changing entryway design to ease access for trail users. Hotels in Mission Bay in San Diego, for example, oriented themselves toward a backdoor trail that was added, reflecting this awareness of its importance to their guests.

Over the past 10 years or so, it has dawned on both sellers and buyers— and studies verify this— that having a nature trail nearby contributes to an increase in property values. They have come to be seen as real amenities to projects. Thus, sellers are likely to highlight trail access in advertisements and to take extra pains to insure they are well built and safe, and buyers are seeking out developments that make quick access to such trails and open space a priority.

In some cases whole communities have made trail systems a required aspect of infrastructure so that developers expect to include that dimension if located within such cities and towns. Connectability is essential so that each new trail does become part of a system serving more than just the development within which it occurs.

Natural surface trails, stepchildren of the past, have been embraced and formally adopted, shined up, appreciated for their unique character. A true Cinderella story, if you will! They have been made essential parts of the family. Given that attention, they are thriving, thank you, and giving back real value!

A fascinating article in a recent Orange County Register in California touts the value of trails in new housing developments and open space areas near residential projects. Building upon some research about preferences of new home buyers, the article claims that their decision to buy was significantly influenced by the availability of places to walk for exercise and to get quickly into outdoor spaces close to nature. Trails even topped golf courses, parks, exercise rooms, pools, and other community amenities in one important survey by the National Association of Homebuilders. (To view the article, go to www.ocregister.com/ocregister/homepage/abox/article_1379546.php)

Martin & Associates, a Costa Mesa development and strategic consulting company, is in the early stages of planning a residential project in Springville, CA,. Development partner Randy Martin sent me a visioning paper he wrote pitching the value of building a network of trails. He cites medical research on the health and longevity benefits from walking and hiking, consumer research by American Lives showing a strong baby boomer preference for walk and play areas nearby their living spaces, social and generational interaction opportunities provided by trails, etc.

Randy was quoted in the above article from Orange County, noting that well designed trails got people in the habit of walking and socializing with other walkers. For baby boomers they helped overcome the stigma of new developments being only for older people.

He wants his project to "show stakeholders that we are serious about making trails a reality." And rather than relying upon the use of a land trust to enforce easements, he would prefer that they contractually promise to preserve open space and access to nature as future development occurs in the area.

HEALTH AND FITNESS

There are even more compelling arguments for the addition of trails in residential areas. Since 1993, obesity rates in America have climbed more than 60 percent. Since 1980, these rates have doubled among adults and tripled among adolescents. (PricewaterhouseCoopers: Recreation's role in Combating Obesity; 2004). Jane Brody argues that "Study after study has shown that suburban residents walk less, bike less and are less physically fit than city dwellers (Planning Healthier Suburbs, Where Cars Sit Idle and People Get Moving).

To address the obesity issue, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned an independent task force of experts to determine effective measures for reducing the nation's obesity epidemic. The Task Force on Community Preventive Services reported that "creating or enhancing places for physical activity, including walking trails, was effective in getting people to exercise more" (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2002).

In 2003 alone, taxpayers footed the bill for $75 billion worth of obesity-related illnesses. (Economic Benefits of Trails; American Hiking Society Fact Sheet). In 2006, U.S. Steel announced that the cost of health care for its employees had exceeded the cost of raw materials to manufacture steel. Unim Provident Insurance Company estimated that healthcare costs per employee were approximately $9,000 per employee in 2003.

With soaring health care costs fueled by an inactive and obese population, trails have become a "concrete" opportunity for individual fitness and recreation close to home. Appealing to individuals from all backgrounds and socioeconomic strata, using trails costs no more than the price of a pair of athletic shoes. Having neighborhood access to trails significantly increases the opportunity for physical fitness and weight reduction. One study found that building trails is cost beneficial from a public health perspective: for bike/pedestrian trails in Lincoln, Nebraska, every $1 investment in trails for physical activity was calculated to result in $2.94 in direct medical benefit (Cost-Benefit Analysis of Physical Activity Using Bike/Pedestrian Trails by Guijing Wang, PhD, et al; Journal: Health Promotion Practice; April 2005).

Much of this health-based information was provided by Terry Eastin from Arkansas, Executive Director of the Mississippi River Trail.  Terry has also been a driving force in bringing into being a "Medical Mile" trail in the heart of downtown Little Rock. That multi-million dollar trail, featuring displays from various health management organizations, reflects an amazing partnership of political and medical interests in the state to provide visual images and information about health to residents and visitors. 

Arkansas had been listed as the second worst state in the nation in terms of obesity and poor health and this project was recognized as offering a route toward reversing that unfortunate situation. The state's former Governor, Mike Huckabee, made headlines by developing a personal exercise program (using the Arkansas River Trail) enabling him to lose over 100 pounds of excess weight. This project added significant attention to that message.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

While developers are catching on to the aesthetic, environmental, and economic importance of community trail systems, the nation's insurance and healthcare industries have come forward in full support of these efforts. As these residential trail systems are built, municipalities will be charged with linking them to commercial areas thus creating opportunities for reducing America's dependence upon fossil fuels and staving-off an obesity crises that is undermining the economic stability of American commercial enterprises.

In short, a strong case can be made that trails are a small but vitally important factor in reducing global warming. A housing development in Beaumont, California has actually been challenged on the basis that its design concept will contribute to global warming. Along with encouraging use of solar panels, changing to better light bulbs, and selling more fuel efficient cars to get people to work from their new suburban homes, how about developers incorporating trails within the project to provide bikeable and walkable recreational access without need for cars. By encouraging more walking and bicycling, both for recreation and for getting to commercial areas or work, trails will help enhance energy efficiency, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions!

I suspect, from a marketing standpoint, this would be a good argument for developers to use in getting their projects approved and accepted by environmental advocates.

OUR PART

In concluding this article, which has looked at the subject of trails in new developments from a variety of perspectives, I want to mention the part American Trails will play. It is our goal as a nationwide trails organization to bring more people in the development business, and in the trail world generally, to a practical realization of just how important trails are in our communities. 

What we have done in a preliminary way, which needs further refinement, has included the following:

  • Producing several articles and web postings.

  • Exploring how to bring more developers and community agents into our network of knowledgeable trail advocates, even getting major sponsorship from developers and real estate interests and making this topic a significant focus of our Symposium;

  • Co-sponsoring with several of its Board members an all day workshop for the development community in the Orlando Florida area near Disneyland and exploring the possibility of offering similar programs elsewhere;

  • Considering creating something like a best practices certificate for developers and communities that emphasize trails and do a good job planning and integrating trail networks— like a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

We think these can positively facilitate this important movement and provide visible means of recognizing how quality trail systems significantly help communities and private developments become truly livable. 

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