City-planning professionals are hoping to find out what it takes to turn a former waterway and rail line into a neighborhood destination, and how to bring a community to it. Professionals in transportation, public health and urban planning will convene Feb. 25-26 to find out how to engage communities and get them on trails, or more specifically, the Laffitte Corridor, a planned three-mile linear path linking Treme to Lakeview with a bike- and pedestrian-friendly path and urban greenspace.
The greenway is a project of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps transform former rail lines in urban neighborhoods into accessible community spaces, with the goal of making communities more "livable." RTC has completed about 1,500 miles since its founding in 1986, and is looking to develop approximately 15,000 miles of rail-trails throughout the country. The RTC's Urban Pathways Initiative includes the greenway project underway in the Lafitte Corridor. Other cities with Urban Pathways projects include Cleveland, Ohio, Springfield, Mass., Camden, N.J., Jacksonville, Fla., and Compton, Calif.
"New Orleans definitely has a lot of potential in a city for trails, walking and biking," says the RTC's Stephen Miller. "It's compact, it's flat, it's temperate; there are a lot of built in advantages other cities don't have. It'll be exciting to get all the folks from around the country to really see the potential there."
The two-day conference, "Urban Pathways to Liveable Communites," seeks to answer how to rally communities around rail-trails, and determine the best practices for encouraging trail use, "whether that's bicycling, walking, Rollerblading, walking your dog, whatever it may be, to get people physically active, on trails, in low-income urban neighborhoods," Miller says. "The focus is not necessarily on building the trail, the focus is more on encouraging use. What types of community events are most effective to getting folks out on the trail; how do you design a trail so that it becomes an integral part in the community; how can you host community events; can it be a place where people can feel safe, whether it's from traffic or from crime — all those issues we hope to get at."
The conference also aims to find ways to integrate issues of transportation, health and planning. Because representatives can become entrenched in their respective fields, putting them under one roof to coordinate with one another is key to the conference, says Billy Fields, conference coordinator with the University of New Orleans Gulf Coast Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency. "In a nutshell, (the RTC) is trying to figure out what partnerships are necessary for creating liveable communities," he says. "What we're looking at is transportation, public health and urban planning, and pulling those groups together. Each group brings incredible resources together, but we need to coordinate and cooperate to really create healthy, liveable communities."
Day One begins with a panel featuring representatives from pathways projects across the country, each with a different focus in urban development.
"Whether it's economic redevelopment on the South Bronx greenway in New York, or hosting community events along the Morgana Run trail in Cleveland, they're really going to spotlight what it is they do, what they've had experiences with, and what their challenges are," Miller says.
Day One also includes representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Arkansas attorney general Dustin McDaniel, who focus on public health and obesity, and UNO's John Renne, who discusses transit-oriented development. U.S. Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao, who serves on the House Transportation Committee, also will discuss transportation and development. An afternoon workshop session focuses on a planned trail in Richmond, Va., as an example of trail safety — traffic safety at crossings, engaging local police, and designing a trail to be safe at all hours. International Police Mountain Bike Association's Christopher Davila discusses bicycle policing, and Miller says members of the New Orleans Police Department have been invited to learn about policing the Lafitte Corridor effectively once a bike path has been laid out.
Members of the Friends of the Lafitte Corridor and the Urban Conservancy also lead a "walking workshop" along the Lafitte trail. "It's a bit of show and tell about the corridor but also a solicitation from the folks in New Orleans to folks across the country — 'Here's a challenge we're dealing with, have you dealt with something similar,'" Miller says.
The second day focuses on the Lafitte Corridor and opens a forum for national perspectives on the planned New Orleans greenway, and how to open it to the community.
"One of the things we've really found in doing this work around the country is, especially in communities that have been struggling economically, you just can't speak to the green side of greenways," Fields says. "You need to speak to the economic side of the green side of greenways. It's really vital that greenways serve multiple purposes. That's how you really create livable communities. You need to look at them from multiple perspectives. We're going to be dealing with the issues of trail-oriented development and the potential to use the greenway as a revitalization tool."
City parks researcher Peter Harnick, San Jose, Calif., bike planner Eve Zuti, and Jeff Schwartz, director of Broad Community Connections will offer their perspectives. Broad Street bisects the greenway, and Schwartz sees it as an opportunity to spur local businesses along its path.
Fields, a former director of research for RTC, says with national interest in developing a New Orleans greenway, the city has an opportunity to develop as a "green destination."
"It was a joy to be able to go around the country and look at all these projects and see them before they actually come to fruition," he says. "The greenway going three miles through the heart of the city through multiple neighborhoods — I can see how great it's going to be, and we just need to continue to push forward. We have an opportunity to rethink New Orleans in a green way."
Registration for the conference is $90. Visit www.railstotrails.org for details.