This post was originally developed for inclusion in the Maryland APA Chapter newsletter.
By: Jim Brown, Manager of Trail Development, Rails to Trails Conservancy, ASLA, Associate
In late 2015 the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition, a group of planners and trail advocates working on active transportation were awarded a Plan4Health grant to promote and plan the concept of creating a 35 mile trail network in Baltimore City. Spearheaded by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Bikemore with support from MD APA and Citizens Planning and Housing Association, Inc., the emergent Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition received this innovative capacity building grant to form a coalition around the idea of using urban trails to create opportunities for better public health outcomes through promoting changes in the built environment. The Plan4Health project funds communities across the country working at the intersection of planning and public health. Anchored by American Planning Association chapters and American Public Health Association affiliates, Plan4Health supports creative partnerships to build sustainable, cross-sector coalitions. The Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition was awarded this grant to address health equity and safe transportation infrastructure through building an urban trail network that connects existing trails to disconnected neighborhoods, parks, anchor institutions and amenities.
Opportunities for physical activity, resident mobility, and connectivity in Baltimore are inhibited by a combination of factors, including deindustrialization, auto-centric planning and single-use codes. Mobility and connectivity are hindered by a lack of public transportation options and over 30 percent of residents not having access to a car[i]. Nearly 30 percent of residents also report no physical activity[ii]. These low rates of physical activity are accompanied by high rates of chronic disease, including obesity (31 percent), Type 2 diabetes (12.4 percent), and heart disease (26 percent)[iii]. Additionally, the unemployment rate is 6.1 (April 2017) percent and the ability to reach a place of employment was identified by residents as the biggest barrier to staying employed[iv].
Baltimore boasts three significant urban trails: Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls and Herring Run. Each of these trails is a community asset; however, they are not connected, severely limiting their potential to positively impact area residents. The Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition believes these three existing greenways can serve as the framework to create an interconnected trail and public-space network—building upon groundwork over 100 years ago in Frederick Olmsted Jr.’s Plan for Baltimore. The Coalition has identified four key gaps to focus community engagement and trail development that will create the completed off road shared use trail network. They include an unused railroad line in Highlandtown, the Port Covington region of South Baltimore, the Gwynns Falls Parkway corridor in West Baltimore and the 33rd Street corridor in northeast Baltimore. These geographic locales have guided community engagement and planning to date.
After a project kickoff in November 2015, the coalition began regularly convening and cultivating relationships under the premise that when people have safe places to walk and bike, they are more likely to meet the recommended activity levels than those who don’t[v]. The Coalition also found partner organizations, residents and elected officials became increasingly engaged when the public health aspects of the project where discussed in the framework of a tool for social equity and economic development. To date the Coalition has had multiple community meetings, briefings with elected officials, and diverse neighborhood events designed to engage residents, stakeholders and decisions makers around the idea of building an urban trail network.
The work of the Coalition to date had been guided by 5 goals identified in the Community Action Plan in the Plan4Health grant:
- Build the Capacity of the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition
- Create Demonstration Projects on streetscapes and on-road trails
- Leverage Partnerships with public and private-sector partners
- Cross pollinate the policies, plans and metrics of the partnership
- Develop Communications networks for the effort
Two examples of Plan4Health funded work include grass roots outreach in Greater Mondawmin and partner cultivation along the Middle Branch. In the Greater Mondawmin neighborhoods of West Baltimore, Coalition leadership worked with community leaders, non-profits and the Druid Hill Farmers Market to identify goals of safer access to Druid Hill Park and the Jones Falls Trail for residents. In November 2016, Coalition leadership led an informational tour of South and West Baltimore highlighting how existing and future trails will be an integral part to quickly changing Middle Branch.
Over the last two years through multiple activities such as these, the Coalition has been able to leverage successes and add to the sustainability of the project. Foremost, the coalition now has nearly 50 active partner organizations representing a diverse group of stakeholders and communities across Baltimore. These partners include anchor institutions, such as universities and hospitals; community associations across the city; public agencies at the city, state and federal level; non-profits working on community development, economic equity, and community greening across Baltimore; and members of private sector ranging from local small businesses to developers and major employers.
The work will continue throughout 2017, and will be used in partnership with the City to leverage state and federal funds for trail construction. As part of ongoing partnerships with City agencies, Coalition work has informed pieces of the Green Network Plan being developed by the Baltimore City Planning Department, and Coalition work is helping to implement pieces of the Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. This work is also elevating the shared goals of the City Health Department and Recreation and Parks Department to increase opportunities for healthy lifestyles for residents in Baltimore’s shared public spaces.
The Coalition has learned that there is in fact a need to convene residents and leaders around this important intersection of urban planning and public health. Too often the two are seen as disparate disciplines working in silos. Goals for the upcoming year include increasing partnerships with the public health field, and replicating successful outreach strategies from the Plan4Health grant in Greater Mondawmin and Middle Branch to all areas of Baltimore. For large transformative projects to take place broad-based diverse partnerships are necessary and it is important to effectively and simultaneously maintain open relationships with communities “out in the field” and decision makers “downtown.” The Plan4Health Community Action Plan framework gives Coalition partners the tools to implement those strategies as residents and stakeholders get excited about a city connected by trails.
Learn more and join us at: https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/projects/baltimore-greenway-trails-coalition/
Follow us on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/BaltimoreGreenwayTrailsCoalition
[i] Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance
[ii] Centers for Disease Control
[iii] Centers for Disease Control
[iv] Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance
[v] Places to Walk: Convenience and Regular Physical Activity, American Journal of Public Health (2003)