As tulips poke up along the banks of Boathouse Row, song birds return to telephone lines, and Penn students set up aesthetically pleasing picnics along the Schuylkill River, one thing is certain—it’s spring in West Philadelphia. What’s less obvious is that a burgeoning network of trails criss–crossing the city supports these bucolic celebrations of spring. These trails are critical for urban recreation and the health of wildlife, and they rely on public support to accomplish their goals.
Various city and nonprofit organizations are working to expand these vital resources. One of these groups, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, is connecting Philadelphia with a network of walking and biking trails that will one day stretch from Florida to Maine.
The concept of recreational greenways date back to the mid–1800s but lost popularity as public works projects with the rise of the automobile. Roads cut through some of the earliest greenways, and Black and Brown communities were systemically walled off from access to green space. However, an acknowledgement of the ways in which urban planning has deprived communities of color of recreational spaces and transit options, as well as a growing recognition of the ways America’s reliance on automobiles contributes to climate change are forces driving a greenway revival. The 1991 passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which made multi–use trail projects eligible for federal highway funding, sparked a flurry of action regarding greenways. The East Coast Greenway Alliance was founded that same year.
Today, the East Coast Greenway Alliance is still working to realize its goal of a continuous path connecting the 62 million people who live along this 3,000 mile East Coast corridor. The nonprofit works with volunteers, partner organizations, and officials at all levels of government to create a protected path through East Coast states.
For Dennis Markatos–Soriano, the executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the trails they’re fighting for are more than a means of getting from Point A to Point B. The goal is linear parks that connect communities and function as “sanctuaries of sanity,” which people can use to connect with nature and neighborhoods. Markatos–Soriano describes them as “Havens of health for the people that get to experience the community in new ways that you can't experience when you're in a car, going 70 miles an hour.”
Philadelphia plays a key role in the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s vision, with its trails like the Delaware River Trail, Bartram's Garden Trail, and Schuylkill Banks acting as Philly’s sanctuaries of sanity. Despite being surrounded by concrete, busy roads, and highrises, the trails of Philadelphia encompass a rich ecosystem. Stepping onto one of these trails feels like you're being transported miles from the city. The land preserved by the Schuylkill Banks Trail alone, is home to herons, catfish, and even river otters. Trails play a vital role in the health of the east coast as a whole, connecting fragmented habitats for species, and improving air and water quality. Markatos–Soriano also sees trails as a way to deepen the relationship between humans and the environment. Engaging with nature through greenways empowers people to steward nature and tackle the climate crisis.
Trails also have an important economic and social impact on the areas they pass through: They spark economic development as they generate high foot traffic in the areas around them. Property value increases are shown to rise by as much as 15% in areas with trails.
The East Coast Greenway itself joins the North and South, urban and rural. Locals and visitors can engage with communities, whether by taking a detour and exploring the surrounding community or pondering an interpretive sign (hey, some of us love them!). Travel along trails is not restricted to local jaunts, either; one Wells College student recently traveled from Maine to Florida by unicycle along sections the East Coast Greenway.
At the heart of the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s work is community engagement. Markatos–Soriano explains, “It's really important for us to connect with these communities, to have the public input and hearings, and then to hear what is it that people love about their community that we can highlight through our development of the East Coast Greenway.”
In Philadelphia, Daniel Paschall, the Mid–Atlantic Manager for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, works to plan, advocate, educate about activating portions of the trail through Philadelphia and the larger region. In Philly, Paschall works closely with residents and partner organizations such as the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Circuit Trails Coalition. Paschall says that every trail is “really local at its core.” Thus the process of building one requires lots of community input. Take the Cobbs Creek Trail along the Southwest Philadelphia border, a 20–minute bus ride west of Penn’s campus. Paschall provided advice to the Cobbs Creek Neighbors Association on ways to highlight access points to the new trail, which will eventually reach as far as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at the southwest edge of Philadelphia, about two miles from the end of the current trail.
Lower Merion Township recently announced the extension of another trail near Penn. The Cynwyd Heritage Trail, which winds from Philadelphia suburb Bala Cynwyd’s border with Manayunk to the middle of the county, will be extended to West Philadelphia’s City Avenue. This will join it to an existing bike lane that leads to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Fairmount Park, and Center City. The expansion will better connect Bala Cynwyd to the East Coast Greenway’s Schuylkill Banks Trail down the Schuylkill, and seamlessly connect West Philadelphia to Main Street Manayunk.
Molly Bradley (C '25) regularly bikes along the Schuylkill River and is excited about the connection to the wider trail system around Philadelphia. She feels that trails play an important role in making nature accessible and enjoys the time she spends on trails. “Especially being in college, where we're inside all the time. It's pretty easy to forget about how nice it is to be outside … I think being in nature is a core human need,” Molly says.
Whether utilized as a convenient escape from the hubbub of Penn's campus or a means of traveling from state to state, trails make invaluable outdoor experiences possible.