Four ways cities can make great urban trails: Lessons from the Beltline

Cities across the country – big and small – are investing in linear parks and urban trails. Communities are prioritizing these important and substantial investments for a variety of important reasons: they effectively connect public assets – like parks and libraries – with diverse neighborhoods; activate underused spaces (think New York City’s High Line crafted from a former rail line); and spur economic development in nearby areas.

But designing, promoting and funding linear parks can be challenging, often spanning miles of multiple municipalities, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, with support from complicated funding models. 

Photo by Lilly WeinbergSo, what happens when three unique cities get together to talk about their signature linear parks and trails? A whole lot of learning. Knight Foundation funded an information exchange between two Knight cities, Lexington, Ky. and Miami, and Atlanta to do just that . Last month, a team from The Friends of The Underline (a 10-mile linear path in Miami-Dade) and Townbranch Commons (a 3-mile linear trail and park in downtown Lexington) met in Atlanta to have a deep-dive exchange about their future projects with the city’s Beltline team. As many know, Atlanta’s Beltline is a multi-billion dollar, 22-mile light rail and bike/pedestrian trail that has transformed the communities it passes through. While most community members love their Beltline, not everyone is thrilled. We wanted to hear it all: the good, bad and indifferent. And while we came from very different communities with unique projects, we had four shared takeaways:

  1. Prioritize Maintenance: Atlanta’s Beltline, like many public spaces across the country, has not figured out a sustainable revenue model for maintenance. If you build a world-class public asset, it is going to be used a lot. The wear and tear costs money to repair. Maintenance isn’t sexy and is often not a priority for funders. But it is critical for long-term success. And while the Beltline has been extraordinarily successful at raising funds with what are called Tax Allocation Districts, these funds can’t go towards maintenance, like many other special taxing districts do. We discussed alternative methods like the formation of a business improvement district, the monetization of fiber networks and the leasing of land. We left with an urgency to figure this out.
  2. Make Bold Commitments but Remain Nimble: The Beltline had very ambitious goals to create affordable housing and a commitment to spend equal amounts along the entire trail. These goals backfired, for various reasons.  The affordable housing goal became quickly unattainable, while the spending allocations did not appropriately correlate with how people were using it. (The east side is used almost 10 times more than the west side). And while ambitious goals are often a good thing, there should be wiggle room to adapt with usage changes or market forces.
  3. Design and Observe for User Experience: A design review committee that is flexible and reacts to people’s observations is critical.  We experienced the Beltline first hand. It was lovely, but one thing was clear: the different users conflicted with one another. The bikers, often commuters, were sharing the same path with joggers, walkers and families with strollers. Add in electric scooters, which can go up to 15 m.p.h., and the experience gets downright scary. We also observed many joggers on the grass, which packed the soil to a degree harder than the concrete. If possible, create separate, designated lanes and think about the right material for each user.
  4. Create Strong Signage: The Beltline is working on 
    Photo by Lilly Weinberg
    improving its wayfinding and signage. This is simple but important: strong wayfinding is critical for users to find the linear trail and signage is important for the activation of spaces along the path, from restaurants and retail to parks to splashpads. The signs should be clear and helpful. We noticed a lot of signs starting with “no” or a rule. Research shows that a simple switch to more eye-opening, entertaining, positive signs boosted neighborhood pride and feelings toward the City about their park space.

We were also left wondering how technology can be better leveraged for all of the above.  We each committed to investigating this.

Thank you, Beltline team, for your openness.  You are the pioneer and a veteran in linear park design and execution. We learned an equal amount from your successes and challenges. Onwards and upwards for both The Underline and The Townbranch Commons and Park – there’s work to do be done!

Lilly Weinberg is the director, community foundations, at Knight Foundation, where she manages Knight’s $140 million investment in 18 small to midsize Knight communities.