Op-Ed: Investment in local open space, greenways and trails is critical

In these emotionally and physically trying days of COVID-19 quarantines and social distancing, many people are increasingly turning to iconic parks, trails and green spaces for solace, exercise and restorative access to nature. And that’s great news.

But our current situation is showing us, loudly and clearly, that we need more of them. In just two weeks, so many people have converged on the same popular spots that crowds have tipped past “social distancing” thresholds, and some of these places have been closed or severely limited to access as a result.

The value of open space, within each and every local community in Virginia, is now more evident than ever before. Today, communities are relying on their local parks and greenways to help combat the feeling of isolation, to get exercise and breathe fresh air, and to engage their children in life around them.

But the need for these places will far outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. For even under normal circumstances, every person needs and deserves the health benefits of places to walk and recreate within their own community, places they can get to easily and quickly, regardless of means or mode available.

As we converge on our parks and trails like never before, we must remember that these places don’t happen by accident.

Parks, open space, trails and greenways distributed throughout local communities must be a goal for every county and town and a regular, committed area of local and state capital investment. We must understand how critical these places are to health and wellness, and we must plan and budget for them in each and every comprehensive plan and county capital improvement plan.

Smart land-use policies will plan urban-rural development to include the creation of public access to parks and greenspaces. They are a key to thriving communities where people want to live and can live well. Moms and dads, kids and dogs, friends and family, runners and walkers and bikers alike will always benefit from local public access to trails, parks, and open spaces, close to home.

The Piedmont Environmental Council has for years advocated and actively partnered to create community-based parks, trails and open spaces in the northern Piedmont, including: 

  • Bicycle and pedestrian connectivity in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County;
  • Multi-use trail access between the Town of Gordonsville and James Madison’s Montpelier via the Town to Trail initiative;
  • Interconnected linear parks and trails in Loudoun County via the Emerald Ribbons initiative, ranging from greenway links to Silver Line Metro stations to access to the Potomac Heritage Trail and the Appalachian Trail;
  • A national capital trails network throughout Northern Virginia;
  • The Warrenton Branch Greenway 
  • Rappahannock Landing Park in Remington, with links to trails;
  • Increased public access to the Rapidan River in Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties;
  • Donation of public land for a pocket park near Orange High School in the Town of Orange;
  • The new public access trail in Loudoun County along the Old Carolina Road, in partnership with NOVA Parks at Mt. Zion Church Park;
  • Transfer of land to the Appalachian Trail next to the Sky Meadow State Park and hiking trail at the Piedmont Memorial Overlook;
  • Integrated public access (sidewalks, trails, parks) to development projects like data centers and technology companies to provide new access opportunities for non-traditional commuters;
  • Rural historic districts and scenic road designations highlighting community resources and providing pleasant drives to local parks.

Areas like these areas are needed throughout Virginia. The Piedmont Environmental Council supports state and local funding for parks, open space, trails, greenways and water access. We also deploy our own funding through the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, local bond issues and private donations. We have donated land and invested financially toward national parks and trails that generate tourism revenue for local counties. 

We are grateful to the many other organizations that also advocate for these locally-based places, including the many members of the Virginia United Land Trusts (VaULT) working throughout the Commonwealth. And currently, Congress is considering The Great American Outdoors Act, which would provide federal matching funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to support recreational facilities in local communities across the country.

But local governments need citizens to stand up and make their voices heard, to ensure publicly accessible parks, trails and green spaces are prioritized at the local level. During this time of “social distancing,” please consider reaching out to your local elected officials to advocate with us for the creation, promotion, and protection of local, nearby parks and green spaces that you, your family and neighbors, and all in your community can easily access.

This guest column was written by Piedmont Environmental Council President Chris Miller. It was published in the Virginia Mercury on March 31, 2020.