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The Long Branch Trail, a strollway that follows railbeds through the Innovation Quarter, officially opened in 2018 with much fanfare.

The combination of COVID-19-mandated closures and beautiful spring weather has brought more people than ever out to our local parks, greenways, trails and preserves. As one of the few places open during this public health crisis, parks, trails and greenways offer a safe and healthy respite from the confinement of our homes or stressful jobs. In some areas, data shows a 200% -600% increase in trail and greenway use the past month over last year. In these days of “essential” and “non-essential” designations, greenways, trails and parks are unquestionably proving themselves to be “essential” services, critical to our physical and mental health and well-being.

But apart from recent exceptional circumstances, greenways, parks and trails are always treasured by our communities. When community needs are great, however, it can be challenging to visualize the importance of new investment in greenways, trails or parks until projects are completed, and people come to value and love them.

In 2018, the NC Department of Transportation completed a study of the benefits of four different greenways from representative communities across the state, including Brevard, Charlotte, Durham and the Outer Banks. Their findings, reported as annual benefits, are compelling:

  • Business and Employee Benefits: $19.4 million in total estimated revenue for local businesses along the four studied greenways
  • Retail Sales Tax Benefits: $684,000 in total estimated sales tax revenue made from businesses along the greenways, which goes back to local governments
  • Trail Construction Benefits: $48.7 million in total estimated business revenue from construction of the studied greenways
  • Health, Congestion and Pollution Benefits: $25.7 million in total estimated savings due to more physical activity, less pollution and fewer traffic injuries from use of the four greenways

What does this data show? That investment in greenways has a high rate of return, and that they pay for themselves in relatively short periods of time, despite a seemingly high price tag up front. Here in Winston-Salem, the Long Branch Trail in downtown is integral to the Innovation Quarter’s mission to drive economic growth and build a vibrant community. Private real estate investments along trail corridors generate higher property tax and sales tax revenue for our local governments, not to mention a more vibrant and attractive downtown for all of us, tourists, as well as prospective businesses. The Long Branch Trail is part of a 24-mile connected system of greenways throughout the city.

Our community has exciting plans for more trails and greenways: completing the Business 40/Salem Parkway Path, extending the Brushy Fork Greenway, Salem Creek Greenway to Forsyth Tech, Little Creek Greenway, the Long Branch Trail to 27th Street, the Muddy Creek Greenway and the bold vision of the Piedmont Greenway, connecting Winston-Salem to Greensboro through Kernersville and Triad Park.

Let’s continue to love our greenways, trails and parks, while practicing social distancing of course. But let’s also remember they take intentional efforts to create. Remind our local, state and federal elected officials how vital they are to our personal well-being and the health of our communities, so we can plan future investments that will more than pay for themselves in benefits.

Palmer McIntyre is conservation planner of the Piedmont Land Conservancy.

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