The Great Outdoors Plays Critical Role in America

hiking© pcess609 / Canva
Op-Ed by Stuart Clarke, Watershed Protection Program Director, William Penn Foundation

Established by President Clinton in 1998, and continued under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, this celebration of Great Outdoors Month in June recognizes the critical role that nature plays as a foundation for the social, economic, and health benefits to which we all aspire as Americans. Especially in times of change, challenge, and uncertainty, our parks, forests, streams, and wildlife refuges can be unrivaled sources of solace, inspiration, and rejuvenation. This could hardly be more important than it is right now, as we all confront an unprecedented panoply of economic, political, ecological and public health perils. As we struggle to maintain unity and focus in the face of COVID, gun violence, economic instability, climate change, and political disruption, we need to take full advantage of all of our community’s natural resources and assets.

As we celebrate the Great Outdoors here in the Philadelphia region, a particular point of pride – and source of strength – is the Circuit Trails network. The Circuit Trails is an essential community asset that connects hundreds of miles of multi-use trails across five counties in Pennsylvania and four in New Jersey. This system of connected trails provides protected green space upon which the region’s residents can come together to walk, bike, rest, and play. The trails have seen increased use during the pandemic, a clear demonstration of their importance for helping to sustain physical, mental, and emotional health in times of stress.

Natural community assets like the Circuit Trails don’t only provide refuge from big challenges like COVID; they can also be part of strategies to confront a challenge like climate change. By expanding opportunities for vehicle-free travel, for work or play, connected trail systems can play a meaningful role in helping to reduce a region’s greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of short trips in the United States are within a 20-minute walk or bike ride, yet they are usually taken by car. Expansive, well connected trail systems make it safer and more convenient for people to walk or bike where they want and need to go.

So how can we make certain that we are taking full advantage of this priceless regional asset? One way is to ensure that it receives its fair share of investment from our region’s federal transportation funds. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) is the agency that manages the Pennsylvania Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which prioritizes federal transportation infrastructure spending for projects in DVRPC’s region, including the Circuit Trails network. Getting a project included in the TIP is a critical step in securing federal investment that can accelerate trail network development. The DVRPC is accepting public comments for the 2023-2026 TIP now through June 28, so we have the opportunity right now, as a city and region, to ensure trail projects make it onto the TIP to be eligible for crucial funding.

The Circuit Trails Coalition has a short-term goal of completing 500 miles of trail by 2025, and the plans for trail development show that it’s possible to reach that goal — with investment. Right now, dozens of Circuit Trails projects are ready for that support, but four in particular should be priorities because they’ll bring increased trail access to under-resourced communities. By moving these projects — 2.53 miles of the Liberty Bell Trail from Fairview Avenue to Veterans Park in Bucks County; 8.6 miles of the Chester Valley Trail Extension to Downingtown in Chester County; 1.88 miles of the East Coast Greenway in the City of Chester along SR 291 in Delaware County; and 2.2 miles of the Germantown Pike Crossing along the Cross County Trail in Montgomery County — onto the TIP, it’s possible to improve safe walking and biking routes for people who live in these neighborhoods, expand their transportation options, create important access to water and the outdoors, and provide places to play.

The William Penn Foundation has for many years supported development of the Circuit Trails as a means of alternative, active transportation and to provide access for trail users to the region’s increasingly clean waterways, since 75% of Circuit Trails run alongside rivers and streams. Recently, the Foundation reaffirmed its support with nearly $6 million in additional support for the Circuit Trails. However, it will only be through a combination of public and private dollars that the Circuit Trails network can grow and develop to fully realize its value as a critical natural asset for our region. The DVRPC TIP is a major key to unlocking federal funding to help make 500 miles a reality by 2025.

There are significant costs involved with trail planning, land acquisition, construction, and management to build out the Circuit Trails mile by mile, but the benefits of completed trails and a connected trail network level the playing field for communities and bring incremental economic and human benefits to the region. I hope you will join this effort and contact DVRPC today with your support for moving these Circuit Trails projects to the 2023-2026 TIP. An easy-to-use resource for participating can be found here.

Thanks for visiting! Looking for some Chester County pride? We got you covered! Shop our MyChesCo store and show your love for Chester County, Pennsylvania. We got shirts, hats, and more – all with a unique ChesCo flair. Plus, proceeds from each purchase helps support our mission of bringing reliable information and resources to the people of Chester County.