The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has branched out from its initial mission to work on Springfield (Mass.) Walks, a program to "make it easier, safer, and more enjoyable to walk in the Springfield area."
The program, still in its early stages, aims to create an interpretive walking trail and a linear park throughout four neighborhoods in the Mason Square area of downtown Springfield.
The interpretive trail would be something along the lines of the Freedom Trail - one where you don't need a brochure to find your way, but can simply follow an existing trail. Planners envision using sculpture and other art from local artists to point out important sites, instead of simply conventional markers; and seeking input from the neighborhood as to features they'd like to highlight. There will also be health information, highlighting such things as distance walked on the trail and what benefits that brings.
Why was Springfield chosen? It had one of the state's highest rates of cardiovascular disease, three possible rail corridors (one existed already as a trail project needing work), an existing and active Springfield Health Coalition including about 80 organizations (around 20 active regularly, from local organizations to the American Heart Association), a lot of walking groups and church organizations interested in physical activity, and a low-income minority community that could greatly benefit from such an addition to the community, Betsy Goodrich from the Rails toTrails Conservancy told an afternoon session of the Moving Forward 2005 conference going on now.
Challenges include getting many different people and groups involved in helping with needed tasks, when no one has this as their primary projects; crime and safety concerns; and financial challenges in the city (there were cutbacks in the planning department, for example).
After holding community meetings to get input and support, project planners are now in the process of mapping the interpretive trail. Next steps include generating more community support and then meeting with the city to get backing for specifics, as well as creating proposals for the arts portion of the project. Then, work will be needed for design, land acquisition and construction for the trails.
Organizers held an event in March, and got supporters to help publicize it in the media and community, and are now working on postcards to promote a vision of what is planned.
"When you create a program like this, partnerships are extremely important. The more partners, the better," she said. "It's easier it is to get funding and support." Partners here include the National Park Service, Springfield Health Coalition, the city, Mass. Dept of Public Health, neighborhood groups, and Trust for Public Land.