We believe that a healthy watershed should support clean water as well as widespread and equitable access to that water. Through our grantmaking, we are working to create the long-term conditions that will ensure the Delaware River watershed supports aquatic life and recreation in and on the water. One of the ways we do this is by ensuring that people can equitably access and develop an appreciation of these cleaner waterways. 

One way we are increasing access to the water is by funding multi-use trails that connect to, cross, and directly parallel the region’s waterways in rural, suburban and urban communities. Our trail funding supports advocacy, development, and use of a planned 800-mile interconnected network of trails known regionally as the Circuit Trails, one of the largest networks of its kind in the country. With nearly half of the trail network complete, it’s becoming an important regional asset, serving as reliable and affordable mobility infrastructure for commuters and recreators alike. Because the trails also provide important access to rivers and streams, our assumption is that they can lead people who use them regularly to develop a sense of connection with the water and, ultimately, a desire to protect it.

 

Challenges

Although it’s difficult to imagine the riverside trails we know and love today devoid of activity, people didn’t always want to be by the water in much of the Delaware Basin. Many of the watershed’s rivers and streams once suffered from unmitigated pollution. Urban areas in particular experienced some of the watershed’s worst water pollution, compounded by physical barriers to waterfront access resulting from industry and infrastructure built along riverfronts. Despite the eventual disappearance of these industrial facilities, communities of color that live adjacent to these lands continue to experience the ripple effects of environmental injustices stemming from the pollution they generated. However, thanks to decades of cleanup stemming from smart environmental regulations like the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, our waterways are now much cleaner overall, creating opportunity and momentum for near- and on-water activities including environmental education and recreation.

As improvements to water quality became evident, the Foundation observed mounting demand to build trails in the region, many of them directly along rivers and streams. But while momentum was gaining in the early 2000s, these efforts were often fragmented and lacking coordination among organizations and consequently there were missed opportunities to connect these efforts into a more cohesive vision. Others noticed this pattern too, and together with nonprofits and government entities in the region we seeded the formation of the Circuit Trails Coalition to encourage more synergy and coordination among the organizations working on trail segments with the goal of better connecting them.

Finally, our region faces racial equity challenges related to where trails are funded to be built, who plans and designs them, whether nearby communities are consulted, and who ultimately has access to and uses the trails. In recognition of these challenges, we have taken steps to ensure the Circuit Trails vision achieves its goal of connecting the entire region, regardless of zip code, and that the process is inclusive of the communities impacted.

 

Opportunities

The Circuit Trails Coalition’s work is broadening the mobility of the region. By building, connecting, and working to brand and establish use of the trails within communities, it’s creating new routes for travel, commuting, and recreation. In addition to these important functions, we believe trails create opportunity to instill a sense of environmental awareness by connecting communities in the Delaware River watershed to green spaces, environmental education centers, and increasingly clean rivers and streams.

Of paramount importance within the work of connecting people to the environment through trails is creating equitable water access for communities who have long experienced the burdens of water pollution, physical disconnection from waterfronts by industrial infrastructure and other barriers, more limited access to local parks, and a myriad of other environmental injustices, largely due to a history of racial bias in policy and practice. There is significant opportunity in this region to better connect these communities to their local river or stream, especially as conditions in these streams are improving.

This is most evident in the urban core of the watershed near Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., where, toward the end of the 19th century, significant reaches of the Delaware River and its largest tributaries became busy industrial hubs. For more than a century, these urban waters were heavily impaired by industrial pollution and raw sewage, rendering them unfit for human contact. As the industrial landscape changed, the vacant, contaminated infrastructure left behind continued to prevent communities from accessing the water’s edge. As industry receded from the waterfront, and as the country saw a major environmental turnaround resulting in cleaner waterways, this presented an opportunity to reclaim these spaces for public use and enjoyment.

With more than 350 miles of trails in the planned 800-mile system that run alongside or across rivers, the Circuit Trails have the potential to advance widespread and equitable public access to and engagement with the region’s waterways. 

 

Our Approach

After several years of early network formation and collaboration supported by the Foundation, in 2012 the Circuit Trails was formally named and launched, and a Coalition was created to advance this network that runs throughout Greater Philadelphia and will one day include more than 800 miles of connected, multi-use trails. Many of the existing trails are well-established community assets, like the Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia and the Cooper River Trail in Camden County, New Jersey. Many of the trails also overlap with the East Coast Greenway, a 3000-mile continuous trail that runs north/south through 15 states from Maine to Florida.  

We supported the formation of the Circuit Trails Coalition alongside other early leaders including the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, and Rails to Trails Conservancy. The Coalition now includes more than 65 members including nonprofit organizations and government-affiliated entities working to advance the development of the trail network and elevate it as a significant regional priority and asset through advocacy, planning, development, technical assistance, programming, and communications.

Prior to the environmental turnaround beginning in the 1970s, urban waterfront trails were not a priority because the region had collectively disengaged from urban and degraded rivers. Yet it is in these very places where rivers have shown the most improvement today, and where trails have an immense opportunity to engage the thousands of people who use them each year.

To maximize the opportunity for trails to connect people to nature, our support has expanded to also fund engaging recreational and educational programs on the trails to make them more inviting and welcoming for nearby communities, and to communicate the importance of our waterways. For example, we fund the Alliance for Watershed Education, a group of environmental centers that utilize the trails and rivers as platforms for learning about the environment.

Early Public and Private Support

In 2010, before the Circuit was fully conceptualized, nonprofits including the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership successfully secured $23 million in federal stimulus funding for the nascent trail network.  This was a major achievement for the Circuit, leading the Foundation to support a planning process with those organizations and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

William Penn Foundation Funding for The Circuit

The Circuit Trails are designated as official transportation infrastructure in our region, therefore grants for trail planning, design and construction and are funded through the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), the region’s metropolitan planning organization. The William Penn Foundation has provided $33 million in capital funding for the Circuit Trails through DVRPC since 2010. Additionally, we fund an array of trail- and conservation-focused NGOs, including land trusts and statewide organizations, to support the trails through advocacy, education, outreach, and technical assistance. We also fund the Rails to Trails Conservancy to promote the network through communications and marketing, which has helped to establish a strong identity for the Circuit Trails. Not all members of the Circuit Trails Coalition receive direct funding from the Foundation, however our support of the collective whole is intended to provide added value to every organization involved.

Circuit Trails Coalition Members

The Circuit Trails Coalition members comprise more than 65 nonprofit organizations, foundations, and agencies advocating for the completion of the Circuit Trails. For a list of members and partners, visit circuittrails.org

Important Co-Benefits of Trails

A connected network of trails not only means increased mobility and recreation, but it also gives users the means to connect to premiere destinations across the region like environmental centers, waterfront parks, historic sites, arts and culture, shopping, dining, and more. We also recognize that trails provide important co-benefits, like economic growth, job creation, human health, accessible transportation routes, an improved climate, and more. This 2019 report by the East Coast Greenway Association provides a region-specific summary of co-benefits that trails can provide to communities in the Delaware River watershed.

Progress to Date

A critical achievement in the collective work to advance the Circuit Trails has been the formation of an active, engaged, and cohesive Coalition of dozens of organizations. Together, the Coalition has been able to accelerate the pace of trail building and set shared goals for the completion of the network. Additionally, experienced Coalition partners have successfully advocated for the trails, securing new public funding sources to complement private dollars. Achieving transportation infrastructure designation in 2010 unlocked public funding sources, which continue to benefit the region to the tune of millions of dollars.

Today, the Circuit Trails network includes more than 350 miles of completed trails across the nine-county Delaware Valley region. Included among those hundreds of miles are key connections in the network, like the new accessible ramp on the Camden side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge Walkway that opened in 2019, which significantly increases ease of use and enables greater connection between New Jersey and Pennsylvania for recreational trail users and daily commuters.

Through communications and marketing, the Circuit Trails has established a recognizable brand that continues to grow, where dozens of local trail organizations can speak with a unified voice while each is able to maintain its local, established identity. And throughout the region, well-known trails like the Wissahickon Trail, the Delaware & Raritan Canal Trail, the Schuylkill River Trail and many others contribute to elevating the Circuit Trails brand.

Finally, public support for the Circuit Trails from change-makers and elected officials continues to grow.  In January 2019, Burlington County became the ninth of nine counties and the 100th township, county or municipality that is home to Circuit Trails to adopt a resolution supporting the Circuit Coalition’s goal to complete 500 miles of trails by 2025. This is an interim goal towards the longer-term goal of more than 800 miles by 2040.

Since 2012, the William Penn Foundation has invested more than $60 million in the Circuit Trails and its related projects. Over time, the Coalition has generated momentum around this work that has attracted new support and funding to continue building more trail miles.

Circuit Trails Vision and Progress to Date

The Circuit Trails envisions an interconnected network of more than 800 miles of trails in the nine-county Greater Philadelphia region, where residents can walk out their door and head north, south, east or west and spend all day on the trails.

As of December 2020, 350 miles of the Circuit Trails are complete. More than 200 miles are planned or in the pipeline to be built in the next several years.

What We’re Learning

Though completed trail miles are the most quantifiable indicator of progress on the Circuit Trails, mileage alone doesn’t paint the full picture. The trails are only a valuable community asset if they’re widely used, and if all people can access them equitably. We want trail use to be widespread, trail users to accurately represent nearby communities, and for people to feel a sense of belonging and safety when they’re using the trails. There is work to do to realize these goals; anecdotally, we know that current trail users are predominantly white. We need to expand data collection to better understand what is preventing higher rates of diversity among trail users. For instance, DVRPC collects robust data about the number of trail uses each year through its permanent counter program funded by the Foundation; however, we’re exploring how to take this a step further and measure trail user demographics and to understand barriers preventing use of the trails by people of color.

The Circuit Trails Coalition is invested in these same questions and concerns, and as part of its strategic plan, it established a concerted focus on racial equity and justice through a Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force in 2019. The Task Force works to help individual members as well as the Coalition apply these principles to their work and was inspired in part by the development of an inclusionary trail planning toolkit and training seminars for Circuit Trails Coalition members in 2018-19, funded by the Foundation, focusing on including critical yet underrepresented voices, such as communities of color, in the planning, implementation and programming of trails and open space.

In addition to our learning about just and inclusive trail planning and programming, we are actively exploring learning opportunities to better understand the connection between trail users and the clean waterways they see close-up as they run, bike, and walk.

Progress Timeline

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