Accessibility and inclusivity were two of the main priorities that Donna Fabry, a senior open space planner for the Montgomery County Planning Commission, hoped to convey with proposed changes to trail points in major suburban municipalities across the region.
During a Norristown Municipal Council virtual work session on June 16, Fabry said that the Montgomery County Trail Access, Diversity and Awareness Plan, which was funded with assistance from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, focused on the portions of the Schuylkill River Trail in Norristown and Pottstown, as well as the Pennypack Trail, which spans from Abington Township to Bryn Athyn.
“These areas were selected based on a tool that DVRPC identified to help with equity analysis,” she said.
Fabry said in her presentation that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission obtained the information from 2013-2017 from the U.S. Census American Community Survey. The following categories were examined: youth, older adults, female, low income, racial minority, ethnic minority, foreign-born, limited English proficiency, disability.
“[The] census data higher than average populations are at potential disadvantage [and] need to be considered in regards to civil rights [and] environmental justice issues,” she said.
Fabry said the following categories were present in Norristown: racial and ethnic minorities primarily associated in the African American and Latino communities, youth, foreign born residents, those with limited English proficiency, and people with disabilities.
“We found similar indicators in the Pottstown area, and then in Pennypack [Trail], the indicators skewed more toward seniors,” Fabry said during the June 16 work session.
In order to get a better understanding of community needs, Fabry said that her staff conducted “interviews with stakeholders” across different areas.
Fabry presented her findings on May 11 to the Pottstown Borough Council. Riverfront Park and Industrial Highway were two main points of interest.
In Norristown, interviewees identified several possible issues associated with the trails including the “perception of safety” and general “unfamiliarity with the trail” in terms of locations, hours of availability and connections. Fabry added that respondents were also concerned with “children having access to bicycles [and] safe places” to store them.
“We got a lot of good feedback in terms of how the different communities engage if they’re thinking of the trail and how they look at recreation.
Fabry stressed the importance of “including [the] community in [the] decision-making process,” she said she’s looking to implement the following ideas:
- Increase public and private partnerships
- Improve marketing of trail through print, digital and multi-lingual verisons
- Educate people on how to use the trail and overall health benefits by working with schools and youth organizations
- Improve signage and connectivity with improvements to the corridor, gateway and trailheads
- Increase programming and improve accessibility of existing programming with walking and biking tours, outdoor activities and public art projects
Fabry added that including “consistent signage,” “mile markers” and additional “wayfinding signage to access points” could also be beneficial to trail users.
While “awareness [is] not [an] issue” on the Pennypack Trail, Fabry said she’s trying to find “connections from neighborhoods to the trail itself. She added that she’d like to institute “more local access [points] across Huntingdon Pike.”
Fabry expects to present these details and recommendations to Abington Township’s Board of Commissioners at a later date.
When breaking down some of the reference points in the study, Fabry made a point to issue recommendations for the included areas in Montgomery County.
For Pottstown, that meant having officials “support recommendations for related infrastructure plans” such as the Keim Street Gateway and the Bike Montco Plan, she said.
As safety remains a top priority across the county, Fabry advised borough officials to “maintain facilities, improve sightlines between [the] trail and surrounding area” as well as “add or increase patrols.”
Fabry also said she’d like to see increased programming and improved accessibility through tours, races, bike programs, and planned walks. In order to get more people outside, Fabry emphasized the need to “improve marketing of [the] trail through promotions, “designating a community liaison, making local maps, and streamlining the permit process.
While there’s no immediate timeline set in place to implement the recommendations set for trail improvements in Pottstown, Borough Manager Justin Keller said to stay tuned as he expects it could happen “at some point in the near future.”
“We are happy to support the county’s efforts for finishing the remaining connections on the Schuylkill [River] Trail, and their efforts to promote use of this public resource to more diverse populations,” Keller said in a statement on Thursday.
About 20 miles south of Pottstown, Fabry examined several access points when offering guidance to improve areas on the Schuylkill River trail’s portion located in the county seat of Norristown. Installing signage and public art installations were her main pieces of advice.
With respect to the Haws Avenue entrance point, Fabry said adding crosswalks could benefit the section near Riverfront Park.
“If you’re unfamiliar with the trail, [you] wouldn't necessarily walk down the sidewalk here to see what it is or even where it could connect you to,” she said.
Fabry added that she’d like to establish a “formal trail access” point for the Chain Street entrance. The county’s planning commission has also been in talks with the Norristown Police Department in order to “understand the issue of accessibility with emergency vehicles.”
As for the Lafayette Street corridor, Fabry praised the newly constructed area complete with a “large green space” that offers multiple possibilities including space for a pavilion, games and public events.
“We just wanted to help connect this to the community and make it seem more welcoming,” she said.
Councilwoman Rebecca Smith thanked Farby for the ideas that would improve a portion of the path located within municipal limits. However, there was one point she needed to underscore.
“Lots of other communities have beautiful trail points, and it didn’t take a diversity study to get there,” she said. “So I hope that this feature in Norristown can be considered as part of the beautiful trail system and not needing extra beautification only when we’re focused on diversity.”
“I absolutely agree with that wholeheartedly, yes,” Farby replied.
Councilman Hakim Jones also acknowledged the increased trail use as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic limited participation in other group activities such as soccer and basketball.
“We’re glad that you guys are continuing to invest,” Jones said. “I do know some folks do get hesitant when they get closer to Norristown as far as their hitch points, and their stop points, so hopefully, we’ll become more encouraging to get residents access.”
As partnerships at the local level continue to flourish between the county and various municipalities, Fabry appeared optimistic about the ongoing trail improvement project.
“These are all ways to activate the space and help encourage people to come out and use the trail, and hopefully they will find it an amenity for their community not only something that is used by outsiders passing through,” Fabry said.