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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
Round Rock, Texas:
Brushy Creek Corridor
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
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
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
Maureen Hannanis a Virginia-based freelance writer and
former staff editor withParks & Recreation (email@example.com).