The Value of Trails

A kid holds a Leafline sign on the Interurban Trail in Shoreline, smiling and wearing a bike helmet.

How can policymakers, trail managers, community members, and advocates communicate the value of the Leafline Trails network and leverage co-benefits? With insights from leading experts during the Leafline Trails Summit in October 2021—including how trails support mental and physical health, transportation for non-drivers, economic development for thriving local and regional economies, climate mitigation and adaptation, and disaster preparedness—we are discovering and rediscovering the value of trails and messages to carry forward in our work.

Public Health & Equity

Dr. Sara Park Perrins, Seattle Children’s Hospital, conducts research focused on children’s health and nature access. Key findings include:

  • Ready access to nature affects both physical and mental health outcomes in childhood.
  • Lack of nature exposure disproportionately impacts historically marginalized communities.
  • Equitable nature contact where children live, play, and learn affects physical health, as well as behavioral, cognitive, and mental health.
  • earby outdoor access and transportation options to get to parks and trails outside the city.

Physical activity associated with trail use results in more than $390 million of health savings annually in Washington State (learn more about Economic, Environmental, & Social Benefits of Recreational Trails through this 2020 Recreation and Conservation Office study).


Kimberly Kinchen is a non-driver who uses trails and transit to get around the region. Kimberly highlighted the importance of trails—as regional connections, separated from busy streets, and with tangible mental and physical health benefits—and barriers that must be addressed. To make trails more accessible and reliable for transportation, we must close gaps in the trails network, include information about transit service to/from trails, provide more reliable transit service across the region, identify policy changes that support transportation function, and when construction or maintenance requires closing a trail, provide safe, easy to navigate trail detours.

In 2021 Disability Mobility Initiative released a white paper with recommendations to correct decades of underinvestment in equitable and truly accessible mobility, including:

  1. Shift resources to prioritize funding accessible pedestrian infrastructure and reliable transit service.
  2. Look to nondrivers as transportation decision makers and experts.
Economic Drivers

Trails create jobs, draw economic activity, create healthcare savings by encouraging physical activity, and provide quantifiable environmental benefits, according to Laura Marshall with ECONorthwest. In 2020 the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office released these findings and more in a report: Economy, Environment and Health Benefit from Trails. Key recommendations for policymakers and communities in Washington state include:

  1. Build more trails.
  2. Develop trails that promote multi-day trips.
  3. Improve trail amenities.
  4. Use trails as a health intervention.
  5. Conduct comprehensive trail planning.
  6. Improve trail data collection.
  7. Develop standard permitting requirements statewide.
Environmental Benefits & Community Applications

Lydia Kenselaar and Mike Rose with Alta Planning and Design shared how projects across the country are applying the latest research. Potential models for our region to realize the co-benefits of trails are outlined below.

  • Trails are part of emergency preparedness in Cathedral City, CA, where CVLink tops a new levee. During floods, the trail stays dry and can be used as a refuge or path to safety. From the Bear Creek Greenway in Ashland, OR to complete streets in Laguna Canyon, CA, work is underway to connect trails as pathways for evacuation from wildfires or tsunami.
  • Historically redlined communities are heat islands today, according to a study of over a dozen major metro areas across the nation by Portland State University. There is often a correlation between redlined communities and lack of tree plantings, overly wide roads, and infrastructure gaps for biking and walking. To develop green spaces that cool neighborhoods, Alta has released a new Urban Cooling Toolkit.
  • Great Springs Trail, a cross-sector effort to address critical water, land, wildlife, and public health challenges facing the Central Texas region. Connections add value to the network, with nearly $56 million in annual benefits projected upon completion of this 100 mile trail.
  • With trail construction and a new Outdoor Dining District, the Springdale Alliance transformed a shuttered downtown into a vibrant place for people. Small businesses reported a banner year, even during COVID-19, showing how trails are key to activating Main Street.
Title: Just three words on the value of trails...

Word cloud (in order of popularity): Health, economic, mental, fun, inclusive, access, transportation, safety, physical , valuable, benefits, health benefits. In smaller text, responses include connection, happiness, people, ecological, play, recreation, emergencies, wellness, outdoors, connectivity, healthy air, human, healthy bodies, beyond.

What are coalition members and partners taking away from this session? Asked to share just three words on the value of trails to carry forward in our work, many session participants emphasized health, economic benefits, access, fun, inclusivity, mental health, safety, and transportation.

The full recording of this October 12, 2021 keynote panel is available below.

One thought on “The Value of Trails

  1. As an avid biker for 40 years, I’d love to see regional standards developed for trails. Standard rules for users and dogs.
    Standard trail sign requirements including congested areas alerts, painted lines and arrows dividing traffic patterns, mileage markers, emergency call boxes w/identification your location, and who to call for maintenance of said trail (city, county, state). Thanks for all you do!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s