Beyond the Trail

A recent Planetizen interview on the relationship between park space and active living got me thinking about what spaces inspire physical activity and what spaces discourage it.

In my old apartment complex, the indoor fitness centers were jammed while the nearby riverside walking trails were desolate, despite nearly perfect year-round weather.  Why? The trails were perceived as unsafe because they were completely isolated from view.

I'm somewhat perplexed by the trend in trail building:  rail trails, urban greenways, trails through state parks, trails through the woods and backcountry.  These may be ideal for bicyclists or for weekend hikes with friends.  But they are not practical places for solo walkers and joggers.

Greenways, trails and ill-defined open spaces often don't work as envisioned because planners fail to consider safety as a paramount issue, especially for women.  Even if crime statistics declare an area safe, it's really the perceived safety that counts.  I am simply not going to step onto a secluded trail (unless, perhaps, it has constant foot traffic). 

The wilderness-like parks seem to be increasingly emphasized at the expense of smaller community parks that provide the right facilities for outdoor exercise. One element overlooked by park planners is the community track or paved walking loop.   In the eastern US, many high school tracks are open to the public; they tend to be safe and well-used.  Out West, school tracks are unfortunately locked and reserved for student use only.   Where school tracks are not an option, walking loops within parks are a good alternative.  These can be placed around baseball diamonds, soccer fields, playgrounds and picnic areas. 

Because park safety depends largely on visibility, walking loops should be within the sightline of other park users as well as passersby.  Ideally, the park would offer a diversity of activities that attract visitors.   It would also be large enough for physical activity but not so expansive that people feel lost.

I'm curious to hear from Planetizen readers about local parks that encourage active living.  What about trails and greenways?  Which seem to be heavily used for recreation and/or transportation?  What makes them work?  



1) Rail Trail in CT (adwriter/Flickr)

2) Jackson Square, New Orleans (KenSBrown/Flickr)

Diana DeRubertis is an environmental writer focusing on the urban planning field.



Beyond the trail

This article is very pertinent and timely to me. Where I live in Utah there is a well maintained trail that follows a river for several miles. Some stretches of it are isolated, but the trail still gets a large amount of use. I am not sure what makes it feel safe, except that there is a considerable amount of foot and bike traffic providing the eyes on the street feeling. One great thing about the trail is that it connects many of the parks in the city. So people enjoying the outdoors at a park will go for a little stroll., thus increasing foot traffic. Also, there is a great deal of variety in the scenery, alternating between running along the river, through residential neighborhoods, and even along busy streets. The length of the trail makes it accessible to most neighborhoods of the city, and it has easy entrances that make it feel more connected to the city around it. Also because of the shade trees around the trail it offers a respite from the hot summer days. The reason this article seems timely is that 3 days ago a girl was brutally attacked on an adjoining trail, in broad daylight, very near both the trail and a dense residential area. This tragedy makes me question the safety of such areas. It seems that there is a big difference between perceived safety and actual safety. I am a big proponent of this kind of trail and hope that there is a way to make them more safe. But I fear that some of the concerns over safety are justified.

Beyond the Trail

Near where I live in Bergen County in the northeastern portion of New Jersey there are two parks - one a local park and another a County park - which have asphalt paths encircling ponds. These ponds serve as detention/retention basins for storwater runoff. In both instances, the pond and path are located adjacent to and visible from well-traveled roads. The local park pond and path is also adjacent the park's playground. Both paths are well-used by walkers. The local park's internal access and circulation road traverses the perimeter of the park and is used by walkers desiring a longer route, as well as joggers. The road is very visible from the parking lot and other areas of the park.

Back on the trail

You bring up a good point, but I'd like to see it backed up with some concrete data. Without it, this essay may be used to prop up the strawman used to slow or block many trails: fear of crime.

Overall, trails have a good safety record. One (admittedly dated) study* concluded, "compared to many other public and private places, rail trails have an excellent public safety record." Do trails tend to be inherently safe, or do vulnerable trail users avoid trails with percieved security problems? Without sound statistical evidence, we shouldn't make assumptions.

One answer to your question is funding. Many trails are funded with transportation dollars. While the facilities you prefer may have better perceived safety, they rarely go anywhere.


Housing developments with integrated trails

I believe you are from San Diego County (having referenced it in previous posts). In that case you should check out San Elijo Hills. It is a good example of a new housing development incorporating jogging trails as an integral part of the residential fabric. Trails are woven around the housing. When my wife and I rented there, my mother in law shared an article from the NYTimes mentioning the popularity of running trails gaining on golf courses as a neighborhood amenity in western regions. What is difficult, is to retrofit existing neighborhoods with these kind of trails. Ironically, because of the perception that they are a safety risk for the residents, allowing access to their property.

Here is the article, I guess its a little of the topic, but i just took 5 minutes to find it so here you go:

User groups and trails.

This has been gone over many times. Many know what groups want self-directed activity, which want group and/or programmed activity, and so on.



Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Addresses Trail Safety

Diana, thanks for expressing your concerns about trail safety. I've written a post on our site that addresses what trail managers and supporters can do to ensure that all trails are safe spaces.

Stephen Miller
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Thanks for your post


I'm aware that rail trails have a good safety record. Still, it's hard to get away from the "eyes on the street" concept as it relates to perceived safety, actual safety and the overall success of any given trail or park.

It would be interesting to look at which trails are the most heavily used and why. Which are the safest and why? Use probably correlates well with safety (though if a trail is virtually empty year round there will be less opportunity for crime...). The trails in my previous neighborhood also had design issues that contributed to perceived safety problems. But visibility remains key.

Great track, and nice view!

Great track, and nice view! When does it open and is it open 7 days a week? This is nice, this is really good for jogging in the morning.

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