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8 Steps to Making Yours an "Outdoor Town"

Almost all of us who spend time in cities and towns have enjoyed a couple hours on a public, urban trail. Listening to the birds chirp, passing by fellow community members and tourists sipping coffee on a Saturday morning, or going for a quick walk during the workday to clear your head; by embedding the outdoors into public identity and built environment, all of these activities can quickly become a part of a place’s lived experience.

Our friends at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) have spent the last few years building out what they label as ‘Outdoor Towns’: areas that are using natural assets to bring people together and revitalize economies. By prioritizing getting people outside in organized, manicured space, government’s can work to improve quality of life, health outcomes, and even tourism.

How can you make your community an outdoor one? We use PEC’s Outdoor Towns Toolkit as a framework to walk you through the 8 crucial steps of this process, from creating a coalition to setting an action plan and tracking metrics. Be on the lookout for key examples and best practices that can be models for your future work!


1. Organize an Action Team

The baseline of any strong public-private initiative is a representative action team. Whether an ad-hoc coalition or more formalized board, there must be leadership composed of community members, business owners, government officials, cultural leaders, etc. In some cases, leadership can even be codified into legislation and the functionality of government, such as the State of Alabama Trails Commission. The board of 12 commissioners and 17 advisors represents “all user groups and citizens within the state of Alabama” and works to “promote, develop, and facilitate a statewide trail system utilizing intergovernmental coordination advocacy, education, and alternative funding sources” with support from The University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development.


2. Identify Partners and Resources

Partners are needed in the field to ensure trails are community-based and led. Development can be for naught if it leaves local residents with a bad taste in their mouth. That is why not only strong community engagement is necessary, but so are solid partnerships throughout the area of focus. Providence, RI’s 2020 Great Streets Plan, which proposes the city’s Urban Trail Network, is a model for building strong partnerships and conveying a vision that leaves everyone satisfied. Planners specifically worked with stakeholders from all of the city’s neighborhoods, laying out a vision for each area and how they can interconnect to build the future of a strong, resilient city.


3. Assess your Community and Create a Vision for the Future

Establishing collective baselines to create a strong vision of the future is a key step in any strategic effort. Everyone must agree on facts and information before thinking big on how to shift paradigms. Perhaps no city has taken on this ideology better than Fourth Economy’s home, Pittsburgh. The Riverfront Loop has slowly been developed over 23 years and counting to encompass 15 miles and 1,055 acres of riverfront trails and parks, spanning 3 separate rivers. Riverlife, the leading nonprofit in the space, was able to create and activate the city’s riverfront by understanding the underutilization of the unused riverfront and setting a strong long-term vision for better leveraging the asset. Now, $132m in investment (with another $246.8m planned) has yielded “nearly $4.2b in total riverfront and adjacent development in downtown Pittsburgh,” according to Riverlife.

4. Set Priorities and Create an Action Plan

Action plans are crucial for seeing through development in a pre-agreed upon, flexible manner. For outdoor towns, building out infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists is the imperative priority. Municipalities such as Flagstaff, AZ have begun taking on this challenge directly. Flagstaff’s recently drafted Active Transportation Master Plan provides a hyper-specific strategy for local walkways, bike paths, and urban trails. By creating a government-led action plan solely for the pedestrians and cyclists who live and pop into the area, the town of 72,000 will be able to directly address outdoor priorities through goals, policies, and collective strategies.


5. Implement your Action Plan

Setting a plan and identifying priorities can seem easy, but anyone with experience at the intersection of public and private projects knows that implementation can often be daunting. Delays can stem from political turnover, failed grant applications, and community pushback. Atlanta’s Beltline has overcome any and all barriers in efficiently implementing their grand plan: a 22-mile loop following a blighted railroad line that encompasses the whole city at its core. Tens of individual trails and parks, public art installations, affordable housing developments, and commercial areas have sprouted up on and around the Beltline since ground broke in 2008 thanks to robust partnerships, engagement, leadership, and political support through municipal funding.


6. Celebrate Success

No project would be complete without an acknowledgement of success during and after phases of implementation. Creating a physical change to the lived environment of a place through new trails and outdoor assets is no small task. As a local resident, I know no community likes to celebrate more than New Orleans, home of the 2.6 mile Lafitte Greenway. Built on the site of a historic transit route that has functioned since 1794, the trail connects the famed French Quarter to suburban Lakeview via the Treme and Mid-City, two of the city's historically Black neighborhoods. Constructed with recovery funds from Hurricane Katrina, it would be hard to find a place that cherishes a newfound urban trail more: pop-up markets, light shows, holiday events, and even the trail’s own annual festival all mark times for the community to come together outside.

7. Track Results

No modern plan is complete without metrics and key performance indicators that define success and the potential for future plans and alterations. Without proof of how an asset has performed, it is hard to justify future funding and resources. That is why Austin, TX has been so intentional about tracking the use rate and performance of its urban trail system. By providing real-time data on pedestrian and cyclist usage for each of the city’s 14 trails, along with total usage and daily averages, the Public Works Department is able to track performance and make data-based arguments for future development.


8. Regroup and Set your Next Priorities

Congrats – You did it! You brought a group together, established a vision, implemented a plan, and ensured it has long-term viability. Time to relax. Or, time to build out more. Houston, TX, took this mentality to heart in the development of its Bayou Greenway Trails. After an initial phase of development paved 77 miles of urban trails along the city’s natural waterways, the Parks Board doubled down in 2012, committing to a total of 150 miles of trails completed with a new $220m public-private investment by 2020. New trails have provided connectivity throughout the city and brought 1.5 million residents within 1.5 miles of a public trail. Despite delays from COVID-19 and other factors, each and every mile is either built, in construction, or fully designed and ready for implementation.


Interested in exploring what an urban trail can do for your community? Fourth Economy boasts a plethora of experiences in leading strategic planning efforts and economic impact studies for the outdoor economy. Learn more about our capabilities here.


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