Economic Development and Trails: Is Conservation Missing Opportunities?

Walking paths are common in the city and hiking trails are common in wildernesses. But what about the areas in between?

Walkable communities are not only pleasant for residents; they’re increasingly viewed as drivers for economic development. In Amazon’s highly-publicized search for a location for their second corporate headquarters, they stated that pedestrian and bicycle access was a key characteristic of interest, after access to public transportation.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016 millennials became the largest generation in the US workforce. Millennials tend to prefer walkable neighborhoods, and according to a 2015 Urban Land Institute study 63% state they prefer to live without owning a car. They aren’t alone – the same study noted “how walkable a neighborhood is—including sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks, and so forth—is a top or high priority for half of the public.”

A certain percentage of savvy economic development managers are investing in this trend, promoting their walkable regions to attract new talent – and new businesses – as a core part of their economic development strategy. Brad Neumann of Michigan State Cooperative Extension articulated, “In the New Economy, it is all about creating communities with amenities and high quality of life to retain and attract talent. Talented individuals, who are mobile and can live anywhere, want a walkable, bikeable community to call home.”

This makes sense, especially in the increasingly urbanized eastern coast of the United States, where competition for new talent and businesses is intense. Through my projects with economic development managers in the mid-Atlantic over the past three years, I can report out that it’s becoming common for economic development managers to promote the quality of life– related to trails, access to nature and healthy living – as a way to differentiate themselves. In many cases, improving the regional trail network is a stated goal in their county economic development plan.

Photo © Ben Herndon/Tandem Stills+Motion

Trails Help Make Communities & Surrounding Areas Walkable

Trail network benefits are self-evident for specialized regions such as the Adirondacks. However, the majority of our population on the East Coast of the United States does not live in such specialized areas. Rather, the bulk of us live in transitional areas. Sometimes referred to as peri-urban, these areas have a mix of fairly dense suburbs to rural patches but are clearly distinct from cities and from rural areas. What do trail networks look like in these peri-urban areas, and what benefits do these trails provide?

Trail networks in peri-urban areas are essential for connecting town centers to the rural portions of our counties. Indeed, in many cases, it’s the gaps in connectivity that make it hard to meet human wellbeing goals in these types of projects. There are numerous examples of parks and trail systems ending ¼ or ½ mile from the main street, and with no signs, visitors can’t locate the restaurants where they could have been supporting the local economy.

Connecting to the rural parts of your county is important too – in many cases this can facilitate connections to agriculture, farms and support an agritourism strategy. Thus, only relying on sidewalks and urbanized centers would not be sufficient to truly connect our towns. Trails, in their many forms – rails-to-trails, greenways, and tow path conversions – are needed to bind our main street, housing developments, hotels and commercial areas to the rural portions of the region.

But there is another key reason trails matter – because the natural lands and waters that surround trails can provide additional benefits to people in the form of ecosystem services. Nature can provide health benefits, and not just because of the exercise you get walking/biking on trails – it turns out there is an increasing body of research showing that people feel better when in nature.

Nature can also help absorb floodwaters, reducing flood damage to surrounding homes. Nature can provide pollinator habitat, which in turns supports our crop production for blueberries, apples and dozens of other foods. So, in many cases protecting the natural habitat that surrounds our trails can be a cost-effective investment as it also provides additional benefits to people.

Two women hike past purplehead flowers along the Upper Table Rock trail.
Photo © Ben Herndon/Tandem Stills+Motion

What Does This Mean for Conservation?

First it means redefining what we mean by a conservation project. It’s no longer only wetland reforestation or land acquisition. We should expand our definition of project to include the restoration or protection component, the trail system, the public access improvements, marketing of new visitors to the site and the strategy to promote visitors to patronage local businesses.

Second, it means setting shared goals for conservation and for economic development. As we know, stating a goal at the beginning of a project makes it more likely that we’ll design a project to meet that goal. The goals may be around ecological outcomes – for instance, to increase habitat connectivity or improve water quality. And there may also be a second goal around economic development outcomes – for instance, reducing the rate of out-migration of high school and college graduates from the county, or increasing the revenues for Main Street businesses.

Findings from the Initial Phase of Research

I’ve conducted over 60 interviews in the past few years with economic development managers and other partner organizations in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, where the emphasis of my research revolves around finding the intersection between conservation outcomes and human wellbeing. A few main findings can be summarized as follows:

  • Conservation and economic development partnerships should be solidified early. There are many examples from New Jersey where both the economic development group and conservation group were planning a trail system in the same area and didn’t realize it. These include examples where both groups were planning to acquire the same property for a riverfront nature park and didn’t communicate about this (!) and where both groups were doing market research on their trail users, duplicating efforts. Collaborating early in the process reduces duplicate efforts AND helps you to set shared goals around conservation and economic development.
  • It saves time and resources to build off existing groups and networks. Sure, everyone is busy – but municipal officials seem to be particularly busy. Rather than starting a new team for a shared economic development and conservation trails projects, examples where conservation groups were able to leverage an existing meeting seem to take off faster. In many cases, there may be an existing group like a Chamber of Commerce or a Sustainability Committee who wants to support the project.
  • Collect data – but don’t start with the most expensive option. Collecting data around human behaviors helps design strategies to make it more likely to reach human wellbeing goals. But an expensive multi-year study isn’t always necessary. For example, a few years ago I was working with partners along the Delaware Bay, and people wondered: Are tourists to the Bayshore spending money at our locally owned restaurants? Or are these restaurants too rural and hard to find for visitors? The initial desire was to have me complete a costly economic impact study to calculate the total dollar value of the impact on the economy. However, it turned out that a smaller survey that just answered our basic question “Are tourists to the Bayshore spending money at our locally owned restaurants?” (spoiler – the answer was yes!) was sufficient to inform our economic development strategy.

At the end of the day, people tend to care about the economy. And by linking conservation more explicitly to economic development, it’s a way to keep conservation relevant for the average resident.

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1 comment

  1. Don Burn says:

    Another value of trail networks is the ability to introduce residents to land that should be protected. In my community we started a trail system in 2000, since that time, over 250 acres have been saved. Some of the land was town owned but not protected, and other pieces were privately owned which were then acquired by either the local land trust or the town for protection. The trail network and the publicly lead walks provided a backdoor way to get residents interested in protecting the land.