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Happy Trails

2012-12-01, Feature, by Maureen Hannan

A national restaurant chain invests in local trails.According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, 71 percent of Americans would like to bicycle more, 89 percent want to see transportation infrastructure reduce energy use, and 53 percent favor increasing public dollars spent on trails, bike paths, and greenways. Indeed, the proliferation of new local trail initiatives throughout the country supports those survey findings. Planning, creating, and connecting trail infrastructure is an expensive undertaking, however, and local capital improvement dollars often do not stretch far enough to pay for amenities like seating areas, signage, and landscaping.

In an innovative blend of national corporate philanthropy and investment in local communities, the Darden Foundation, the charitable arm of the Darden Restaurant Group, helped launch the Great American Trails grants program earlier this year. In partnership with NRPA and with the cooperation of individual LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants, $15,000 grants were awarded to eight communities for trail refurbishments and enhancements. The grants afforded each recipient the freedom to determine which trail upgrades were most needed—and, as a result, the outcomes of the grant awards are as individual as the regions they benefited.

Just as important as the trail enhancements, however, were the new partnerships forged within each community between parks and local business. While each LongHorn restaurant participated in its local Great American Trails project in a different way, each reported that the grant program—undergirded by Darden’s corporate commitment to trails and open spaces—spurred a new level of community involvement and awareness of local parks.

Boston, Massachusetts: Nira Rock
Opening Up an Urban Wilderness

In the midst of Boston’s bustling, diverse Jamaica Plain neighborhood sits a former quarry site known as Nira Rock. Though Jamaica Plain contains several Olmsted “Emerald Necklace” parks, Nira Rock is unlike any of those manicured green spaces. With its 40-foot puddingstone outcropping and steep slopes, it is a craggy, untamed place. Surrounding the sheer rock face are shrubby woodlands, a hilly meadow, and an orchard.

Nira Rock is an urban wild.

Boston has long recognized the importance of not only protecting such spaces, but also of planning for and preserving them in ways much different than caring for traditional urban parkland. The city’s Urban Wilds Initiative gives the parks department the main responsibility for overseeing the acquisition and conservation of natural areas. And Nira Rock, a trail-accessed parcel of land the city acquired, was, as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino states, “a perfect fit” for the Great American Trails grant. The existing trail linked Nira Rock to the bordering Arcola Street via a steep, granite-and-puddingstone stairway through an entrance that desperately needed improvements for public safety and accessibility.

The city received the Darden grant at about the same time a local couple selected the site for their own philanthropic initiative. Newlyweds Nathaniel and Melanie Stinnett, who asked wedding guests to contribute to a fund to benefit Nira Rock rather than purchase wedding gifts, ended up donating more than $20,000.

Paul Sutton, who manages Boston’s Urban Wilds Initiative, says one of the most rewarding aspects of natural area and trails projects is how far such donations can go in opening up a natural area to the public.

“With the grants, we were able to put in a whole new trailhead, a trail link so it is a complete circuit through the entire site now,” Sutton says. “It is a good case study for what you can do with this amount of money…to make [an urban wild] accessible, attractive, and more usable for an urban public that really is sometimes detached from these kinds of areas.” The grant money not only improved trail infrastructure and the entrance staircase, it also allowed for the installation of native plants and landscaping and a handicapped-accessible seating area.

The outcome, Sutton adds, is a natural playground where rock climbing and exploration take center stage. It is, because of its natural beauty and variegated terrain, a site augmented and made more accessible at a relatively low cost.

The two-acre wild is, in fact, the only public, natural area available to this densely populated neighborhood with few yards. And it sits in a central spot, abutting a hospital, school, playground, and community garden. Management at the local LongHorn Steakhouse provided catering and decorations for the grand opening of the Arcola Street entrance, and they plan to continue the partnership by helping with future events and cleanups.

With the renovated trail in place and the site improved, the parks department expects to see heavy year-round use from local families, rock climbers, school groups, and nature lovers of all ages. Future park programs will include an array of interactive programs at the site combining nature with science and the arts.

Orange County, Florida: Dr. P. Phillips Park
A Trail Through a Natural Treasure

The vestiges of an ancient archipelago stretch north-south along the Florida peninsula. Millions of years ago, when sea levels rose and inundated the landscape, a chain of small, sandy islands remained above sea level, each developing its own distinctive, evergreen-forested habitat. Today, those high-and-dry Florida hilltops—known as sand pine scrubs—boast native species found nowhere else in the world. The few remaining undeveloped sand pine scrub ecosystems are now protected habitats and nature preserves.

One of those protected areas, within Dr. P. Phillips Community Park in Orange County, Florida, is bounded by a once-neglected trail loop. A Great American Trails grant restored that 0.6-mile path through sand pine scrubs, and as a result offered the public a new awareness of a natural gem many had not known was there.

Alicia Baxter, program manager for Orange County Parks and Recreation, says the LongHorn Steakhouse Loop trail improvements helped thousands of local residents enjoy and appreciate the nearby environmental treasure, while also boosting the fitness impact of the trail. The trail, she explains, is located in an active park. One portion of the park was left undeveloped because of the special terrain and the plants and animals that live there—and the grant allowed the parks department to make all of the trail improvements they had hoped for.

Prior to the renovation, Baxter relates, the trail offered neither amenities nor interpretive signage. As a result, most visitors ignored the sand pine scrubs on their way into the active portion of the park.

The Darden grant allowed Orange County to refurbish the unique trail with white sugar sand, increasing the cardiovascular demands of walking while also enhancing the aesthetics and natural feel of the trail. The funds also provided for amenities such as new benches, a lake overlook, and interpretive signs to designate trees, plants, animals, and birds native to the habitat.

The active portion of Dr. Phillips Park hosts numerous youth and other sports leagues, and the site is adjacent to a school. As a result, the park has always drawn and united the surrounding community—a densely populated area southwest of Orlando. And since the renovation, Baxter says, visitors coming for ball games and practices have an inviting place to head to for walks, lake views, and trailside education in the natural history of the region.

“Even while we were still putting in the amenities,” Baxter comments, “there were so, so many residents who came out and were just so thankful for the opportunity for the neighborhood.”

Since the Darden Restaurant Group is headquartered in Orange County and the park is sandwiched between two new LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants, the trail renovation and opening served as a community rallying point for local Darden employees.

Baxter says LongHorn cooperated with the parks and recreation department to plan the grand opening event, and they provided all the food. The success of the project has also spurred LongHorn’s restaurant management into exploring opportunities to volunteer in other Orange County parks.

Round Rock, Texas: Brushy Creek Corridor
Arrowheads, Rugged Rocks, and Closer Neighbors

“People love walking or running up and down the Brushy Creek Corridor,” Round Rock [Texas] Parks and Recreation Director Rick Atkins states. “You’re always sure to find an Indian arrowhead or something distinctive just by kicking the dirt and walking around and getting close to the water.” Due to improvements funded by a Great American Trails grant award, residents can explore the archaeological treasure trove of that corridor—and get to know their neighbors—more safely and knowledgeably.

Round Rock is a place rich in history, natural landmarks, and local pride. The region’s creeks marked the settlements of ancient Native Americans, and the city’s founding is rooted in the historic Chisholm Trail of cattle-drive fame. Yet, despite the importance of trails to the community, Round Rock’s trails have lacked connectivity and adequate signage. So, the city committed to working, one trail section at a time, toward a connected five-to-six-mile loop. The 1.5-mile section targeted for the Great American Trails project offered the perfect opportunity to establish signage that the parks and recreation department would continue throughout the completed trail system.

The 20 trail markers funded by the grant, set at quarter-mile intervals, provide both directional and interpretive guidance for trail users, and, if a hiker is injured, the markers make it easy to provide a reference point when calling for help.

Additionally, the stone trail entrance columns with comprehensive trail maps—along with directional and educational signage at trailheads—offer not only directional guidance but insights into local landmarks and the history of the Brushy Creek area. The rounded rock formation for which the city was named, for example, served as a gathering place for the region’s earliest settlers and is clearly visible from the trail today.

“The history is very rich, and our community knows it,” Atkins remarks. “And we want to offer them information about that heritage.”

The park director adds that the local LongHorn Steakhouse employees participated actively in the project, joining in planning discussions and turning out for a workday to install 40 concrete markers.

Atkins describes the work with the LongHorn volunteers as an example of cheerful cooperation. The restaurant employees, he says, offered their time and labor with a spirit of excitement about improving the community. And their enthusiasm proved contagious for the park and recreation workers.

LongHorn Steakhouse Managing Partner Chuck Gilbert says the markers he and 18 employees installed were only the beginning of the local restaurant’s commitment to the Round Rock trails project. He says they plan to add to the signage, marking trail entrance points. And, he adds, he and his staff have committed to continue volunteering their time and labor to trail maintenance workdays.

While the trail improvements enhance access to local history and natural wonders, they also counteract the fragmenting effects of residential subdivisions. As Atkins comments, “Our communities basically go from neighborhood to neighborhood; trails give you the ability to bridge gaps and unite five or six neighborhoods within a small amount of space.”

“Trails,” he concludes, “take a large city and make it smaller.”

Maureen Hannanis a Virginia-based freelance writer and former staff editor withParks & Recreation (  


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