• Ross Berlin

Redefining Built Environments with Urban Trails

Urban trails and greenways are key components of modern outdoor development. These trails, often positioned alongside existing assets such as rivers, bayous, parks, and even railroads are meant to improve transit options for pedestrians and cyclists, increase quality of life through public access to the outdoors, and create a stronger quality of place by anchoring residential and commercial development.


Greenways as part of the cityscape were the brainchild of legendary architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of outdoor areas such as Central Park (Manhattan), Prospect Park (Brooklyn), The Biltmore Estate (Asheville), and even the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. He designed the first public greenway in Buffalo, NY in 1858. When it was implemented a decade later, this urban trail became the first of many that now define urban areas across the world.


The Buffalo, NY, Greenway as designed by Robert Law Olmstead. Photo: stepoutbuffalo.com

What is the purpose of these trails today? What inspires their development? How are they funded? What is the potential for economic impact? Let’s delve into these questions and more by examining three modern trails in the US: Pittsburgh’s Riverfront Loop, Atlanta’s Beltline, and New Orleans’ Lafitte Greenway.


The Riverfront Loop in Pittsburgh has transformed a one-time industrial area into a vibrant urban oasis. Photo: riverlifepgh.org

The Basics

Pittsburgh’s Riverfront Loop is a 15-mile trail spanning 1,055 acres and each of the three rivers that meet in Pittsburgh. With development beginning in 2000 and the final phase of ‘completing the loop’ just recently launching in early 2022, this long-term project has served to shift the paradigm of what many saw as an underutilized public asset – riverfront acreage. As Riverlife, the managing nonprofit of this effort, suggests, they’ve worked to “create the very best riverfront experience for Pittsburghers and visitors: beautiful waterfront parks, public trails, greenways and open space, boat docks, recreational amenities and world-class design.”


The Beltline in Atlanta is an excellent example of an urban "rails to trails" project. Photo: georgiastatesignal.com

Atlanta’s Beltline sits alongside 22 miles of circular, formerly active train tracks surrounding the city center. Development began in 2008 after a decade-long process of planning and legislative sessions, where the concept turned from Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel’s Master’s Thesis to urban reality, and is scheduled for completion by 2030. Though the Beltline’s original purpose was making use of blighted infrastructure, the project has taken on a larger public context, anchoring transit, affordable housing, outdoor space, and commercial facilities.


The New Orleans' Lafitte Greenway provides abundant greenspace while helping to manage stormwater and flooding. Photo: High Line Network

New Orleans’ Lafitte Greenway is a 2.6 mile trail built on top of a historic transit route for the city that has been active since 1794. Opened in 2015, the trail connects the French Quarter to more suburban Lakeview via the Treme and Mid-City, two of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods. The post-Hurricane Katrina build out was twofold: transforming a historic asset into something with modern utility and better managing stormwater in local neighborhoods. Grassy areas and innovative concrete allow for the trail to reduce flooding in adjacent areas even during the worst of storms.


Funding & Economic Impact

Urban trails require diverse sources of funding from a myriad of grants to private giving in order to support planning, implementation, and maintenance efforts. Yet, when funding is successfully gathered and infrastructure is built, economic impact for a locality can be astronomical.


Thus far, the Riverfront Loop has been funded by $132m composed of support from family foundations, corporate donations and the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund. To date, the loop has created $4.2b of impact from the riverfront to downtown Pittsburgh, with a $247m injection of capital due to complete the trail in the coming years.


Atlanta’s Beltline is primarily funded by Tax Allocation Districts (TADs), a form of tax-increment financing popular within the city’s economic development authority. The Beltline TAD collects incremental growth in property taxes and uses these funds directly for project infrastructure. Supported further by corporate fundraising from numerous local entities and grants from the local to federal level, the Beltline has created $6.2b of impact through $600m of expenses as of 2019. The Beltline aims to be a $4.8b total spend by 2030, which will dramatically increase this impact.


New Orleans’ Greenway has had by far the lowest price tag, with a $9.1m initial construction expense provided by federal Disaster Community Development Block Grant money and Louisiana Recreational Trails grants after Hurricane Katrina. Up to date figures on the trail’s economic impact are currently unpublished.


An Economic Impact Analysis we conducted of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150 mile mixed-use trail that extends from downtown Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland found that the drove over $121 million in economic impacts in 2019, and supported nearly 1,400 jobs.


Improving Quality of Life & Place

Investments into urban trails boast two primary long-term outcomes. First, they improve quality of life by enhancing biophilia – the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. Urban pathways increase surrounding green space, a commonality seen throughout our three examples.


In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Riverfront Park and Point State Park anchor the Riverfront Loop. Accompanied by concepts for a new Green Boulevard, Pittsburgh has increased their ability to connect residents and tourists with their natural desire to be outside. Atlanta’s Beltline is anchored to historic Piedmont Park and has inspired the development of newer Historic Fourth Ward and Westside Parks. The Greenway passes by Bayou St. John and both City and Louis Armstrong Parks. Almost the entirety of the trail’s adjacent land has been transformed into fields, courts, and playgrounds for youth and families to enjoy as recreation. In building out urban trails, more green space has followed, getting people outside and, based on data, improving mental and physical health outcomes, creativity, and prosperity.


The Old Fourth Ward Park intersects with housing along the Beltline. Photo: atlanta.curbed.com

Urban trails also directly attract new development, whether it’s commercial, residential, or infrastructure based. These developments do not occur in a vacuum and have many other variables that go into their ultimate success or failure, but there is no arguing trails are catalyzing innovative quality of place investments.


Where riverfront acreage was once almost entirely industrial, area residents can now enjoy residential, commercial, and leisurely access to the water. Photo: thecorkfactory.com

The Riverfront Loop has inspired a return to the riverfront for city residents. Developments such as the Heinz and Cork Factory Lofts, Washington’s Landing, and 3 Crossings have aided the ability for locals and tourists alike to work, live, and play on the water. Atlanta’s Beltline is responsible for what is essentially an entirely new urban neighborhood. Poncey-Highland is arguably Atlanta’s densest residential area, with tightly packed mid-rise housing offerings and commercial anchors such as the new Ponce City and Krog St. Markets. The Beltline is seen as the greatest driver of affordable housing development in the city and has concepts for adding new light rail around the city. As one civic leader put it: “Atlanta’s biggest attraction is a concrete path.” Though the Greenway cannot compete with the tourist offerings of The French Quarter and Garden District of New Orleans, it has also catalyzed newfound development: mixed-use affordable housing, the revitalization of a historic housing stock, new breweries and restaurants, and a new bike-share program.


Conclusion

Urban trails provide immense benefits for communities interested in taking on the tasks of growth and development. These trails improve infrastructure, mental and physical health, and can spawn unprecedented levels of density and recreation. From the eyes of an economic or community developer, these are win-win projects; social and economic good can go hand in hand. If you’re eager to learn more about how to bring these lessons directly to your community, I recommend reading my other piece in this month’s Fourth Economy content, 8 Steps to an Urban Trail , and reaching out to our team to hear how we may be of service in your area.

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.