Four Practical Tips to Advance Safe Routes to Parks in Your Community

Four Practical Tips to Advance Safe Routes to Parks in Your Community

In fall 2023, four communities in Pennsylvania wrapped up participation in our Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities program. We’re incredibly proud of the work accomplished by each community as they made significant strides to thoughtfully engage community members and work with partners to make biking and walking to their local parks safer and more convenient.  We asked if they could impart practical advice to any community interested in advancing Safe Routes to Parks. Here are some of the key takeaways and lessons learned from their projects.

1. Use Safe Routes to Parks as a way to build enthusiasm for active transportation generally in a community of any size.

Parks are multipurpose, intergenerational community spaces. Because of their community value and broad appeal, the message of Safe Routes to Parks has the potential to resonate widely with so community members and partners who care deeply about them.  Advocates in Bellefonte, PA reiterated that the framing of Safe Routes to Parks ignited a groundswell of support for park access in a way they had never anticipated. Traditional messages of the importance of biking and walking seemed to fall short for this rural town in central Pennsylvania. Yet, as they reached out to neighbors and local business owners and organized community partners including outdoor and fishing enthusiasts and railroad buffs for their Safe Routes to Parks project, it became clear that everyone cared deeply about these natural assets that had been the mainstay of the town’s founding. The support was palpable during a two-day Safe Routes to Parks workshop where over 60 community members gathered and worked together to develop a Safe Routes to Parks plan that embodied the unique characteristics and history of their town.  This growing base of support could now become a coalition to sustain and advance safer connections to their parks.

Figure 1 – The Bellefonte Historic Preservation Foundation hosted an open street event to engage residents and families to reimagine safer connections to their local parks. One organizer heard a 7-year old exclaim, “This is the first time I’ve ever biked on this street! I wish it could be like this every day.”  (credit: J. Illig Photography)

2. Partner, partner, partner! Find your partners early on, connect with them often, and remember that partnerships can look many different ways.

The foundation of a successful Safe Routes to Parks project boils down to partners - individuals or entities who can support the work in some way. Partnerships can be critical to maximize resources and expand capacity beyond a single person or group. Having a base of diverse partners also ensures more equitable projects, by including new perspectives and collaborating with community members.  In Shenandoah, PA, partnerships became key to planning for park access in this former mining town and rural community with shifting demographics. During a walk audit, partner organizations observed and spoke with youth, young families, and Spanish-language speakers. This walkabout illuminated the importance of expanding their partnerships to continue to engage these groups using and accessing their local parks. The coalition mapped out additional organizations to involve and a strategy to reach out to new partners. In their outreach, they underscored that it took more time than a single email to engage partners, and the value of growing partnerships through in-person meetings, meeting partners where they are, and finding ways to mutually support one another became key. Out of this outreach grew unusual partnerships from the town clerk, who was bilingual and could ensure that Spanish-speaking community members were aware of engagement opportunities to the school superintendent, who not only became a partner but a main ally in supporting community engagement and outreach.

Figure 2 – Partners including the town’s parks committee and school district come together to host an evening ice cream social event in their local park and engage bilingual families and youth in Shenandoah. They are surprised to learn that a lot of youth bike around the neighborhood in the evening.  (Photo credit: Schuylkill County's VISION)

3. Don’t start by assuming what the solutions may be. Work with communities to understand the problems first, and identify and prioritize solutions together.

The most impactful Safe Routes to Parks projects are rooted in community members' perceptions and lived experiences. One community learned this well, as they knew a recurring concern in their neighborhood was public safety. In Erie, PA, the Bayfront East Task Force (BEST) worked with community members to better understand concerns about park access. While they had some ideas of the issues, barriers to walking and biking were further underscored through community walk audits. While several issues came up like traffic speeds, sidewalk maintenance, and litter, public safety continued to come up as well. Unsure of what solutions to prioritize, BEST decided to consult with community members offering a range of possible solutions. To their surprise, what evolved was a community-informed solution to prioritize lighting as a way to improve nighttime safety. With that in mind, BEST took to the streets and conducted a night-time audit of every street in the neighborhood. They documented where there were no street lamps, street lamps that needed to be replaced, and street lamps blocked by tree overgrowth. What their survey revealed was that several areas required hedge trimming, a relatively simple solution to ensure that existing lighting could provide adequate illumination. They also developed a well-informed list of lighting needs to submit to their city partners who fortuitously were able to include in their application for Transportation Alternatives Program funds.