Parks, trails, and sidewalks help weave a community together. Simply put, when we are connected to gathering places, we become better connected to each other. A walkable town or neighborhood allows for a stronger ‘sense of place’ to develop. This notion is behind a collaborative effort led by The Piedmont Environmental Council, residents and local businesses in Gordonsville, Virginia. The energetic group and initiative are called Town to Trail.
At the heart of the endeavor is Verling Park, located in the center of the Madison Barbour Rural Historic District, and just a short walk away from the town’s fairgrounds. Despite it being only two blocks off Main Street, there are no sidewalks leading to the open space. The park is surrounded by quaint family homes on all sides, but it has an outdated playground, a tennis court with severely cracked pavement, and the only public pool in the county, which has been around since the 1950s. Locals say it’s a place where many residents learned how to swim.
PEC’s Orange County field representative, Peter Hujik, explains how the Town to Trail effort began to unfold, “The University of Virginia School of Architecture hosted a planning charrette for the community in the fall of 2016 to flesh out concepts from the Gordonsville Comprehensive Plan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see emphasis put on parks and trails. They specifically proposed working on Verling Park and connecting it to the local fairgrounds.” Peter wanted to ensure the ideas discussed in the charrette would come to fruition, so in the following spring, he started planning how to move forward.
Liz Samra, a Town Council member and resident whose family lives within walking distance to the park, remembers, “Peter, inspired by the Gordonsville visioning, came to us and said, ‘You know, we need to make sure this park happens.’ “In my role on Council, I’ve had an opportunity to attend a number of statewide meetings about financing infrastructure and town planning, and everything reinforces that developing a park in the heart of town is the perfect thing to do.”
Three community meetings were held to garner feedback from residents and discuss ways to improve the public space for everyone. “The Town to Trail goal is to connect, whether you’re walking or exercising or biking,” said Emily Winky, the Vice Mayor of Gordonsville and a passionate advocate for the effort.
Throughout the public feedback meetings, residents expressed their desire for a more functional park that serves the whole community. With that input in mind, PEC retained Land Planning and Design Associates to develop a concept design for a revamped Verling Park. Some elements in the concept design include a complete overhaul of the swimming pool area, a plaza entrance, a circuit of fitness stations and an updated playground. Additionally, enhanced stormwater management was incorporated into the plan, as a stream runs directly through the park.
Until recently, there was a dilapidated house on Linney Street, which created a visual barrier for neighbors on the northeast side of the park. PEC secured funds so the town could purchase the property and incorporate the land into the park. The house was demolished last December, and now Verling Park is an entire block, opening it up visually and physically to all neighbors. The old residential lot is now a green field and blends in with the rest of the land.
“The park project holds the prospect of improving recreational access for the Gordonsville area, including underserved populations,” said Peter. “So many plans sit on shelves and are never implemented. I’m thrilled the town is making this project a priority.” A Partnership Award was given to Gordonsville Mayor Robert Coiner by PEC for his leadership in improving the park and expanding it to a full block. “Parks and trails enhance the overall quality of life in communities by providing convenient recreational options,” said Peter. “Studies show it’s easier to become healthy and stay healthy, in both body and mind, when people have such options where they live.”
Localities throughout the Commonwealth and around the country are using park and trail projects to revitalize communities and foster economic development. For example, hikers along the Montpelier-Grelen trail in Orange County, which PEC helped develop a few years back, have increased sales at the Market at Grelen by almost 10 percent. Together, the town, local citizens and PEC, have made a lot of progress in Gordonsville, but there is still work to be done. “The early stage of expanding and refurbishing the park is already beginning to bring people together,” said Peter. “Once completed, the park will no doubt breathe fresh life into the Gordonsville community.”
PEC Field Representative
Orange and Madison Counties