Born of a casual conversation, the nonprofit has built and maintains more than 70 miles of trails that give urban dwellers commuting paths, plus the solace of the natural world.
By Jennifer Van Allen for SOURCE – Portland Press Herald
Happy birthday Portland Trails, responsible for giving urban dwellers a real breadth of fresh air in more than 70 miles of green space.
Unfold a map of Portland Trails’ network that stretches from Falmouth to South Portland, and from Westbrook to the East End, and it’s astonishing to consider that it was born from a casual conversation among a few strangers attending a city hall meeting.
In 1989, Portland officials were considering a Shoreway Access Plan for its rivers, streams and waterfronts. During a break, three residents began discussing their own visions for an urban trail network.
“The city was considering a 50-year-plan,” recalled Tom Jewell, co-founder of Portland Trails. “That didn’t sit well with us. We wanted something that we could see happen in our lifetime.”
At the meeting, Jewell got to talking with Dick Spencer and Cathy Stivers. Later, joined by fellow visionary Nathan Smith, the four went on to incorporate into a private nonprofit land trust that would ultimately become Portland Trails.
Over the past 25 years, the organization has built and maintained more than 70 miles of trails that reach within a half-mile of every residence in Portland. Portland Trails works to foster recreation, conservation, active transportation and opportunities to connect communities in green spaces.
With a five-person staff, nearly 1,000 members, legions of volunteers and a raft of 38 board members and trustees, Portland Trails has played an integral role in creating the city’s most iconic recreational areas. In 1997, for instance, the group partnered with the city and the Trust for Public Land to transform an abandoned rail line into the trail now known as the Eastern Promenade. Some 300,000 people use it each year.
In the 102-acre Fore River Sanctuary, which was given by Maine Audubon to Portland Trails in 2007, the group is removing invasive plants; has improved and built boardwalks, bridges and staircases; added kiosks and trail blazes; and made it accessible for mountain bikes.
“The trail network is one of the greatest environmental, park and recreational features of the city,” said Alex Jaegerman, who served 34 years as chief planner for the city of Portland and now sits on Portland Trails’ board. “It’s probably one of the basic assets that when people talk about Portland being ‘the best of’ this or ‘the greatest’ of that.”
Most of the property in Portland Trails is actually owned by the city or private entities, and Portland Trails maintains it through a variety of agreements. Portland Trails negotiates easements with private developers to ensure that existing trails and green spaces remain publicly accessible. It applies for grants, and collaborates with the city, community groups and other nonprofits to bring abstract ideas for green space to life.
“If you have a lot of community involvement like the kind Portland Trails represents, your plans can go from abstract to real,” said Jaegerman, who is now director of planning and development for Yarmouth. “Without implementation, plans just gather dust on shelves.”
A MASSIVE UNDERTAKING
Much of the work Portland Trails does is decidedly unglamorous upkeep, which would be impossible without trail users, stewards and its 2,000 volunteers. The trails require constant ongoing maintenance work that includes everything from cleaning up graffiti to removing invasive species, planting trees and fixing crumbling walkways.
“If we stopped the work that we do, people would notice very quickly,” said Kara Wooldrik, Portland Trails’ executive director. “We’re fortunate to have all those eyes and ears on the ground. Long-term, that’s important to making sure that the trails are the highest quality they can be.”
Those volunteers include people like 61-year-old Wyatt Garfield. Whether he is pouring gravel or clearing fallen branches after an ice storm, he savors his work on the trails. It gets helps him meet his daily sweat quota, and offers the perfect antidote to the 28 years he spent “cooped up indoors” in the retail industry.
“It’s just great to go and be out there in any kind of weather,” Garfield said.
AN EVOLVING MISSION
Over time, Portland Trails’ mission has evolved to include “placemaking” – creating green centers of gravity for the people who live and work in urban areas.
Through its work with the School Ground Greening Coalition – a partnership between individuals, groups and municipal groups launched in 2003 – Portland Trails has helped turn 30 playgrounds into natural settings by building features like gardens, outdoor classrooms and ponds.
“Placemaking” has also involved collaborating with residents, businesses and community groups to reshape and create new spaces in neighborhoods that make them more attractive, walkable and comfortable places.
Recently, Portland Trails has been working in the Bayside and East Bayside neighborhoods, newly trendy neighborhoods for both businesses and housing, to determine what kind of trails and green spaces the people who live and work there most want.
This type of work helps advance a national effort to bring recreational opportunities to elderly, families and schoolchildren – not just runners, cyclists and commuters, said Wolfe Tone, Maine state director of the Trust for Public Land.
“These investments are creating linkages that are opening up new neighborhoods to connect with one another,” Tone said. “It’s a terrific opportunity that we can all work on.”
Portland Trails’ work also reaches into Westbrook, Falmouth and South Portland. Last year, for instance, the group teamed up with land trusts, city officials, and volunteers to restore trails in Falmouth’s Presumpscot River Preserve, and in Westbrook to create a trail that connects Westbrook High School to the city skate park.
The groups also turned a casual recreational stretch on the Fore River Trail from Hobart Street into a smoother commuter route to downtown, events at Thompson’s Point and the Transportation Center. The work included rebuilding a bridge, and widening and firming up the trail.
“We want people to be able to get to most of the places they need to go by bike or foot. So, it’s never made sense to stop at a geopolitical boundary,” Wooldrik said. The ecological piece is also important, she added. “Plants and animals need corridors of wild areas to survive. Otherwise they exist in ‘islands’ of green, and they are much more vulnerable.”
BEYOND THE FEEL-GOOD FACTOR
Mounting research suggests that the work Portland Trails does to create a pedestrian- friendly infrastructure could buoy the local economy.
Research published by the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking in Washington D.C., shows that customers who bike to a store typically buy less in a single visit than people who drive, but they return more often and spend more overall per month.
A sweeping survey of cycling and pedestrian-friendly developments around the world, published last month by the Urban Land Institute, pointed to the major savings in health costs and the boosts to real estate values and retail sales in communities that have invested in green infrastructure that allows residents to be more active.
Though economic impact hasn’t been studied here, local business leaders said that Portland’s green belt helps it woo and retain residents and workers.
“Having green spaces and a trail network are elements that make people want to move here,” said developer Jonathan Culley, owner of Redfern Properties.
Proximity to the Back Cove Trail is a prime selling point of the apartments Culley is building at 89 Anderson St. in East Bayside. The project will feature a bike room with a storage rack and repair equipment.
When Culley built Munjoy Heights townhouses, he worked with Portland Trails to create a pedestrian-friendly, plaza-like area called a “woonerf” with pavers, benches and gardens; the name is Dutch, after a concept that gives walkers, cyclists and drivers equal rights to a road.
Culley’s Redfern properties granted Portland Trails a permanent easement so the public can always use the plaza. It also funded Portland Trail’s work to extend a portion of the Jack Path in order to give residents a comfortable route to the Eastern Promenade.
Bruce Forsley, vice president of sales and marketing for Shipyard Brewing Company, says that having corporate headquarters so close to the Eastern Promenade Trail makes it possible for any of the 115 employees to commute by bike or foot, or get a dose of outdoor exhilaration at lunch. That is one reason why Shipyard began sponsoring the Trails to Ale 10-K, Portland Trails’ biggest fundraiser in 2005.
“It’s important to support the organization and what it provides to the city, and the access it gives our employees to bike and run,” Forsley said. “We want to inspire employees to be healthier and more active. When they are, they’re more productive.”
THE PATH AHEAD
As Portland Trails celebrates its 25th birthday, a major focus is long-term sustainability – gathering the resources required to manage the existing network and to invest in extensions.
“We want to be able to take care of this network forever, and that’s a long time,” said Wooldrik. “It’s not a sexy piece, but it’s hugely important.”
The land trust recently hired an Advancement Manager to pursue bequests, sponsors and donors, and bolster its $300,000 endowment.
Also critical: attracting more members, volunteers and supporters, and dispelling any notion that the organization is funded by tax dollars.
“Some people think it’s a city agency,” said Jewell. “We’re trying to emphasize that it’s a private nonprofit land trust that needs support to help with the mission.”
Many questions and issues faced by the group lack quick solutions or easy answers. How do you help make trail users feel safe? How do you enhance wildlife value and control invasive species?
“We think we have developed a good trail network, and now we want to make it great,” Wooldrik said. “We aren’t looking to add miles of trails to the network. We want to improve what we have by increasing habitat health and make important links in the transportation network.”
Daunting to-do list aside, Jewell is proud of what has evolved from that initial casual conversation and thinks that the appetite for Portland Trails’ work is poised to grow.
“As things continue to become computerized, there will be a longing for solace in the natural world,” Jewell predicted. “The ability to access open space will really help distinguish Portland as a nice place to live and work.”
Jen Van Allen is a freelance writer living in Yarmouth and the co-author of four books on running. She can be contacted at jenvanallen.com.