Why Trails Matter: Trails and Greenways Promote Health

Trails and greenways create healthy recreation and transportation opportunities by providing people of all ages with attractive, safe, accessible and low- or no-cost places to cycle, walk, hike, jog or skate.

by American Trails Staff

Trails and greenways are often seen narrowly when it comes to their benefits. People tend to focus on the recreational or environmental aspects of trails and greenways, failing to see the big picture—the total package of benefits that a trail or greenway can provide to communities, including public health, economic, transportation benefits, and even the effect on community pride and identity.

Trails and greenways create healthy recreation and transportation opportunities by providing people of all ages with attractive, safe, accessible, and low- or no-cost places to cycle, walk, hike, jog, or skate. People walk for many purposes, such as for transportation to get to school, work, a store, or the library or for leisure to have fun, socialize with friends or family, walk their dogs, or improve their health. Because walking is multipurpose, it provides many opportunities for people to incorporate physical activity into their busy lives.

Trails help people of all ages incorporate exercise into their daily routines by connecting them with places they want or need to go. Communities that encourage physical activity by making use of linear corridors can see a significant effect on public health and wellness.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, which is the equivalent of 30 minutes a day, five days per week. Findings from the Community Preventive Services Task Force recommend parks, trails, and greenways as infrastructure interventions that increase physical activity. These improvements, however, need to be combined with community engagement to increase awareness, expand programs, and enhance access.

Communities can benefit when they implement strategies that make them more walkable, such as making streets pedestrian-friendly; building houses, shops, and other destinations close together (mixed land use); and increasing access to public transit. The benefits of improved walkability and more people walking regularly can include making communities safer, supporting social cohesion, reducing air pollution, and benefiting local economies.

Promote walking

Walking regularly with friends, family members, and others can motivate other people to walk more. People can build relationships and encourage walking by forming or joining walking groups and by offering to create opportunities for walking, such as a walking program in a local mall or a neighborhood walk-to-school program. People can promote walking and walkability in their neighborhoods and communities by doing the following:

  • Walk with friends, family, and work colleagues.
  • Participate in organized activities, such as joining a walking group or leading a walk-to-school program.
  • Join or help mobilize a cleanup effort to make places where people walk safe and attractive.
  • Participate in community activities to reduce crime and violence.
  • Join advisory boards, nonprofits, and community planning processes to support safe and convenient places to walk.

A variety of resources, including user guides, workbooks, manuals, action guides, and tool kits, can help people who want to improve walking and walkability in their communities. These resources offer guidance related to messaging, participation in local planning efforts that identify best sites for walking paths and sidewalks, promotion of community trail development and its use among youth and adults, implementation or advocacy of programs that close streets to automobile traffic on designated days, and collaboration with the broader community to mobilize groups with shared interests to support walking.

photo credit: Fred Zelt
Enjoying a bike ride on the Stavich Bike Trail; New Castle, PA

Enjoying a bike ride on the Stavich Bike Trail; New Castle, PA

Promote access to parks and trails

Creating or modifying environments to make it easier for people to walk or bike is a strategy that not only helps increase physical activity but can also make communities better places to live. Studies show more people bike and walk in communities where improvements have been made, such as adding safer sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and protected bike lanes. In addition, when people move to neighborhoods that are designed to promote physical activity and active transportation, they tend to spend less time in their cars and more time walking for transportation.

To make more communities walkable and help more people walk enough to reap health benefits, Active People, Health Nation, an initiative led by the CDC, is working with state and community-based organizations to get 27 million Americans more physically active. The initiative aims to create opportunities for active transportation and leisure time physical activity by:

  • Promote social support interventions such as walking groups that strengthen social networks to help people increase their physical activity.
  • Enhancing or creating pedestrian master plans to make walking a safer, more convenient, and more realistic travel option.
  • Adopt Complete Streets policies for safe and convenient access to community destinations.
  • Participate in Safe Routes to Schools programs to create safe, convenient, and fun opportunities for children to bicycle or walk to and from school.

Design communities and streets that support walking

People should be able to walk almost anywhere. Designing communities to encourage pedestrian activity will make it safer and easier for all users, including those with mobility limitations and other disabilities. Supportive design can be implemented in large and small communities in diverse geographic areas.

Modifying the built environment makes it easier for people of all ages and abilities to walk, bike, run, or roll. For example, community design can locate residences within short walking distance of stores and public transportation. Sidewalks or paths between destinations can be designed and maintained to be well-connected, safe, and attractive. Transportation and travel policies that create or enhance pedestrian and bicycle networks or expand public transportation systems can be another approach to encourage active transportation, such as walking or biking. Improving the walkability of communities can also help people who participate in other types of physical activities, such as those who bike or use wheelchairs.

Communities can be designed that support safe and easy places for people to walk. Walkable communities can be created through many community design principles and supportive policies. Community design should encourage developers to build residences, worksites, schools, parks, businesses, shopping districts, public transit systems, and healthcare facilities within walking distance of each other. Community design can also ensure that streets are well-connected, blocks are not too long, and pedestrians can choose from several alternative routes.

Alternative routes can allow pedestrians to avoid heavily trafficked roads that are less safe to cross and are a source of exposure to air pollution. Communities can adopt policies, such as Complete Streets that support the routine design and operation of streets that are safe for all pedestrians regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport.


photo credit: Lane Fike, Schuylkill River Development Corporation
Schuylkill Trail at Schuylkill Banks, PA

Schuylkill Trail at Schuylkill Banks, PA

Communities can also support walking and other outdoor physical activities by implementing and maintaining design features that reduce opportunities for crime and violence and promote a sense of ownership and safety. For example, efforts to clean, plan, and maintain vacant lots have been associated with reductions in violence and crime. In addition, fewer crimes are committed on streets that are appropriately lighted and in clear view of windows.

Community planners and designers, transportation professionals, community stakeholders, public health professionals, and government agencies can design safe, easy, and attractive places to walk by doing the following:

  • Adopt community planning, land use, development, and zoning policies and plans that support walking for people of all ages and abilities.
  • Locate schools, worksites, businesses, parks, recreational facilities, and other places that people regularly use within walking distance of each other.
  • Support crime and violence prevention through environmental design and maintenance.
  • Reduce speed limits and enforce traffic laws in areas where walking is common.
  • Support safe, efficient, and easy-to-use public transit systems and transit-oriented development.

When seen as a whole, the evidence about the far-reaching benefits of trails and greenways is compelling, especially given the minimal public investment involved compared to other undertakings with the same community goals.

More resources

Health Benefits of Trails

Does access to trails really lead to healthier communities? According to research the answer is a resounding yes.

webinar: How Trails Support Healthy Aging for All

Join us for a webinar on how we can all rethink trails as public spaces that are fully accessible and inclusive of older adults.

webinar: The Role of Trails in Healthy Community Design

This webinar offers a number of how-to solutions for creating walk, bike, and fitness-friendly communities with success story examples. He will share how it's not just about trails, but also land use decisions and site designs to create truly active environments.

Prescribe-a-Trail Handbook

All over America, hospitals and regional healthcare systems are beginning to tap into the enormous potential of trails to address local health problems. Trails are now recognized as being vital pieces of public health infrastructure.

webinar: The Path to Mental Health

This webinar will demonstrate ecotherapy ideas for attendees to implement in their own communities, on their own trails, and at different scales, and also show the importance of collaboration for community health.

Health Benefits of Contact with Nature

A Literature Review Prepared By Sara Perrins and Dr. Gregory Bratman of the University of Washington for the Recreation and Conservation Office.

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