Ever walk the Manayunk towpath? Or the Manayunk Bridge into Lower Merion? Or the River Trail east to the city or west to Conshohocken? Or Schuylkill Banks, a remarkable trail dubbed America’s best urban trail by no less than USA Today?
Then you’ve been using The Circuit, the relatively new name for one of the region’s most extraordinary environmental stories: the explosive growth of the 750-mile trail network. With half of it completed and in service, The Circuit connects the city to its nine surrounding counties, with long-distance links to New Jersey, the Poconos, D.C. and the Susquehanna River. And a new section of The Circuit makes news almost weekly — Bartram’s Mile is the new section being worked on in the next year or so.
The Circuit enjoyed an ambitious marketing campaign under two slogans — “Proud to Trail” and “100s of Miles of Happy,” both of which you’ve likely seen going by on SEPTA trains and buses. And yes, its branding asks that we refer to it as capital T “The” Circuit. Its website, circuittrails.org, has a great interactive map that allows you to see all of the trails — which ones are done, which are being built and which are being studied.
As a resident of the Northwest, The Circuit is an essential amenity for all of us — can you imagine our region without the Wissahickon and its iconic Forbidden Road, a key piece of The Circuit? The trails have been a crucial factor in planning for the growth and development of Manayunk, as The Circuit sends thousands of runners and bikers through the middle of Manayunk and across the edges of Roxborough. In fact, it make perfect sense that the Manayunk Development Corp., charged with enlivening downtown Manayunk, has been one of The Circuit’s biggest champions — and has even spun off a sister project, Destination Schuylkill River, which hopes to activate how Yunkers use the river. People want to live here because of access to The Circuit, and property values along portions of The Circuit have actually risen faster than nearby properties not along The Circuit. Imagine that.
Because of its rising importance, the Schuylkill Center is hosting a lecture this week on the trail network. How did it start? What did it take to get to this special place? What are the benefits? And most importantly, where is it going next? Perhaps you’re curious.
Set for Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m., the free lecture, presented at the nature center on Hagy’s Mill Road in Upper Roxborough, is given by architect and planner Robert Thomas, a founder and principal of Campbell Thomas. He’s dedicated over 40 years to advocating and planning for parks, trails and greenways, served on the original committee that created the Schuylkill River Trail way back in the 1970s and was involved in drawing the first maps of The Circuit as a regional trail system.
A lifelong cyclist, Bob knows how important these trails are; for decades, he has biked everywhere he goes, never owning a car. As such, he’s worked alongside the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia to advocate for bikes on SEPTA trains.
My Schuylkill Center sits atop The Circuit, our 340-acre property forming a giant rectangle that rests right on the Schuylkill River Trail. As our staff and board go about creating a new master plan for the center, we’re planning on activating the connection between our trail system and the River Trail, as bikers and joggers currently have no idea they are passing the Schuylkill Center’s Circuit entrance. We’ll present our vision for that connection as well on Thursday evening.
The lecture is formally titled the Richard L. James Lecture and is the sixth edition of this event, named for founding Executive Director Dick James, who opened the center in 1965 and grew the organization until his retirement in 1996. Dick was a memorable, actually remarkable, character. He penned a long-running column in this newspaper, “This Week Outdoors,” which was soon syndicated across Pennsylvania, and his acerbic weather commentary on radio station WFLN-FM is still fondly recalled and won him numerous Best of Philadelphia awards. His son Andy, who worked as Dick’s land manager for a long stint during the ’90s into the Aughts, will introduce the lecture, as he does traditionally every year.
The James Lecture allows us to focus on a special area of interest of interest and call attention to new initiatives. Past lecturers include Kenneth Finch, who spoke about the importance of keeping nature play in children’s lives in 2013, which coincided with the announcement of the opening of our Nature Preschool. In 2014, Dr. Michael Suk discussed the health benefits of nature, and in 2016, Sarah Wu of the city’s Office of Sustainability walked a crowded auditorium through how climate change will impact Philadelphia’s future.
Come get plugged into The Circuit.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.