Switchback Trail

Transform an Unused Railroad Corridor into a Lively Trail

Many towns have abandoned former railroad corridors that now are unused and unwelcoming parcels of land in a community.   These corridors are great opportunities to create a destination and transform that corridor into vibrant public places.  Ideal for many uses, such as walking, bicycling, inline skating, cross-country skiing, and equestrian and wheelchair use, rail-trails are extremely popular for both transportation and recreation.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines to transform them into vibrant public places.

I realized that this is exactly what happened in my hometown, Jim Thorpe, PA, when the Switchback Railroad was turned into the Switchback Trail.  The Trail is now used by residents and tourists alike to hike, bike and ski.  In fact, I’ve done all three of those things on the trail whether it was Summer, Spring, Winter or Fall.

Switchback Trail

Switchback Trail, Jim Thorpe, PA

As a REALTOR® Association, you may want to jump on the bandwagon by joining others in your community to participate in a Rails-to-Trails project.   And NAR is here to help.  You can use our Placemaking Micro-grant to target a site along the trail and making it a little “oasis” to meet, sit and relax.  See a Creating a Place Within a Place.

The Upper Valley Board of REALTORS® (NH) is doing just that.  They are partnering with others to help build the Mascoma River Greenway (MRG).   The MRG will be a 4 mile multi-use pathway and core transportation corridor for bikes and pedestrians connecting neighborhoods with workplaces, schools, open spaces, shopping areas, restaurants, a medical center and transit stops.

Mascoma River Greenway, Lebanon, NH

Mascoma River Greenway, Lebanon, NH

The Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® (MI) is also engaging in a rails-to-trails project but adding a unique touch.   The Leelanau Trail is 17 miles long and connects Traverse City to Suttons Bay.   The Association will be helping to fund a wayfinding kiosk created from an old English phone booth.   And a local gardening club will plant flowers in wine barrels.    So trails don’t have to be the same old thing!

Leelanau Trail

Leelanau Trail, Traverse City, MI

You may wonder why a REALTOR® association would get involved with a project like this.   One reason is that trails have also been found to increase property value with recent home buyers ranking proximity to a trail second in importance out of 18 possible neighborhood amenities when shopping for a new home (Rails to Trails Conservancy).

If a trail project isn’t already underway in your community, and you are up for an adventure, you may want to initiate a project.  This will include identifying a site, developing a plan, securing financing and building the trail.   And it may be a bumpy ride.

Josh Deth first became acquainted with the Bloomingdale railroad tracks, on the North Side of Chicago, on his bicycle. He used to ride along the abandoned tracks that tower above Bloomingdale Avenue, which he described as “a dead man’s space”. The railroad was not taking care of them and he wondered what the space could be.

What the abandoned tracks could be, it turns out, was an elevated park that stretched for nearly three miles above 37 streets and across four neighborhoods.

Deth and a group of cohorts formed the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail to show support for the development of a trail.   Following an initial informal meeting at a bar in Wicker Park, the organization spread its vision through organized trail cleanups, a children’s coloring contest, and public lectures about the trail.    Four years and countless meetings after the first gathering of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, the Trust for Public Land acquired vacant lots for the Chicago Park District to serve as trail access points. A year later, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning awarded CDOT federal transportation funding for design and engineering work.  Step-by-step, Deth and the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail are working with their community, citywide civic groups, and public officials to make the vision a reality.  And soon the Bloomingdale Trail and Park will become a multi-use linear park running through several vibrant communities along Bloomingdale Avenue, adjacent to numerous private properties, and crosses over major arterials, an historic boulevard, bus and bicycle routes, and the CTA Blue Line.

Bloomingdale Trail and Park, Chicago, IL

Bloomingdale Trail and Park, Chicago, IL

A similar project took place in Detroit where and abandoned rail corridor became the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a 1.35-mile intown recreational path developed through a public, nonprofit, and private partnership that offers a pedestrian link between the Detroit Riverfront, Eastern Market, and many residential neighborhoods.

Dequindre Cut Greenway, Detroit, MI

Dequindre Cut Greenway, Detroit, MI

The Dequindre Cut Greenway project gives some valuable tips to anyone thinking of developing a rail-to-trail in their community.

  1. Rethink Opportunity. An abandoned rail corridor might not be your first choice for the next great public space in your city; however, several new greenways including the Dequindre Cut, New York City’s High Line, and Atlanta’s BeltLine, are making a strong case for it. A former rail line can actually provide the perfect footprint for pedestrian traffic and light rail. Working at this scale has both opportunities and challenges. Consider what immediate issues would need to be addressed, and envision what a greenway would look like.
  2. Converge Ideas Over Coffee. The Dequindre Cut was first a lofty dream shared between a few key individuals including a planner, Detroit enthusiast, funder, and environmental leader. They often met over several cups of coffee at a local coffee shop to brainstorm the greenway. These informal sessions quickly grew, and as the idea became more popular, the team gathered more formal meetings attracting additional partners and support from the city.
  3. Contact the Property Owner. Find out who owns the space. Many “abandoned” rail lines are still active or privately owned. In the case of Dequindre Cut, the city actually owned the first property, which made the process a bit easier; however, with the expansion of the greenway, a partnership agreement has been forged with additional property owners.
  4. Determine Feasibility. The Rails to Trails organization led a feasibility study for the Cut. It was incredibly important to have a thorough inventory and analysis of the current conditions in the project area. They also reviewed and coordinated other projects and recent studies of relevance during this planning effort.
  5. Make a Formal Plan. Gather partners at a table and begin to articulate an implementation strategy. Consider identifying all of the possible new greenways in the district, create concepts that show potential designs, estimate project costs, list top10 priorities, and determine management. This phase will take a significant amount of time. Working with a skilled design team who shares your vision is imperative. Understand that you want to bake the cookies right the first time, so get all of your ingredients in order and measure carefully.
  6. Talk to Neighbors. You might not hear the feedback that you want to initially. The public was shocked over plans for the Dequindre Cut. They raised concerns over outrageous expenses, infrastructure challenges, and safety. The 25-foot-belowgrade greenway seemed to be foreboding. Consider outreach to alleviate concerns and gain important feedback. A community task force can help articulate the shared vision and gain support from the public. Door-to-door surveys and interactive workshops helped engage neighbors, designers, and general city enthusiasts in the project.
  7. Consider Sustainability. Detroit did not have a structure for managing public spaces, and someone had to be responsible for daily maintenance and security at the greenway. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy currently maintains the space, and maintenance funding is provided by a project endowment.
  8. Dig in and Watch It Grow. After you finalize the master plans, enjoy the groundbreaking.  It is an exciting time. Don’t be surprised if people follow the paving trucks and make visiting the construction zone an event. Document the process and continue to share your story onsite and through social media.
  9. Animate the Space. The Dequindre Cut is an unusual space, but people have embraced it. The greenway often hosts graffiti weekends, art festivals, dog walk groups, and family picnics. If you give artists a canvas, most likely you will get cool and colorful work to enhance the space. Get creative and invite diverse users to come up with exciting programming.
  10. Begin Next Phase. You aren’t done yet. If you have taken the time to plan for an expansion, consider next steps and gain additional partnerships. You will face similar challenges, but it will be much easier to move forward based on your experience. The Dequindre Cut’s expansion will include urban farming, gardens, a picnic market, and more. Leverage your previous success to build something that has multiple uses and attracts even more users.

You might also want to take a look at RTC’s Trail-Building Toolbox for comprehensive details on how to begin the process of, and manage, a rail-trail project.

Is there a rail-to-trail in your community?  If not, maybe the time is right to build one.