This month, the last section of Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail was completed in Trenton running along Jefferson Avenue. The pathway also connects with the Downriver Greenways system. The project is a signature endeavor of the Healthy Trenton initiative, representing a collaboration between municipal parks and recreation departments, local residents, and health advocates, making Trenton a “Trail Town.”
Ruth Sebaly, project manager for Healthy Trenton who leads a group of walkers on the trail three evenings each week, has noticed an increase in walkers and cyclists on the unfinished trail this summer. "I see groups on the trail, dog walkers, a lot more bicyclists. I don’t know what the magic answer is that’s drawing them."
The draw may lie in the very nature of a "trail town," notes public health economist Megan Lawson, Ph.D., who has measured the health benefit of trails for Headwaters Economics.
“Trails often encourage inactive people to become active and modestly increase the activity levels of already-active residents,” according to Dr. Lawson."Increased physical activity is greatest among people at greatest risk of inactivity, including people with low income, low education attainment, and the elderly.” What seems to work is providing safe, structured space, and friendly people.
"Increased physical activity (on trails) is greatest among people at greatest risk of inactivity, including people with low income, low education attainment, and the elderly," Dr. Lawson says, citing the U.S. Surgeon General recommendations that physical activity is one of the most effective actions people can take to improve their health.
"To get people out there they have to feel safe," adds Sebaly. Trails are designed to be wide enough "so you don't have those physical obstructions, making people more likely to use them than being on the street, worried about traffic."
Trails are regulated through the Michigan Comprehensive Trail Plan, established in 2010. Cities throughout the state are establishing designated safe, exercise-friendly courses, or trails, that promote communal exercise space that has been found to encourage moderately fit people to get up off their couches and walk, run, bicycle -- or, in the case of Trenton, kayak. The Trenton project includes a water trail along the Detroit River.
The Trenton’s trail, which runs along Jefferson Avenue through Elizabeth Park to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, includes a portion of the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail, offering a multi-modal exercise route.
Anita Twardesky, a member of Healthy Trenton and community outreach manager for Riverside Kayak in Wyandotte, has also noticed that moderately fit people have taken to kayaking along the trail. "A water trail has the same health benefit as a bike trail... Kayaking creates an opportunity for your heart rate to go up. It also offers an alternative for aerobic exercise to going to the gym. It connects you with nature," she says.
"Moderately fit people can do it. I can give you examples of people who have tried to make their physical health better (through kayaking). Whether they become athletic, world-class kayakers, probably not, but they've lost a lot of weight, they've done aerobic exercise so they would be ready. They tried to improve their health so they can enjoy the outdoor activity."
While the Healthy Trenton coalition has helped broaden the support for the trail, it’s an initiative rooted in the master plan of the City of Trenton. The city actually has health written into the plan.
"One of our primary goals is to improve the health and wellness of our community," says Joann Gonyea, director of the Trenton Parks and Recreation Department.
Joann Gonyea, director of the Trenton Parks and Recreation Department. Photo by David Lewinski
"The ways we do that is through our programming, through our facilities, through the community network, through our parks; having good resources for our community to take advantage of and marketing them."
Trenton received a federal grant five years ago to create the trail, which is a stretch of about a mile along Jefferson Avenue, from Grosse Ile Parkway to the International Wildlife Refuge. The project involved multiple partners, including DTE Energy, Wayne County, the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
While Gonyea believes in the adage, “if you build it they will come,” she knows that it still has to be promoted strategically, and the key to that is acceptance by the community. The trail is designed for people with all levels of ability, from marathon runners to casual walkers. The latter population will be targeted in marketing and community engagement efforts. Gonyea references the walking program that Healthy Trenton has adopted in Elizabeth Park, which has an indoor component at Trenton High School in the winter, as a way of familiarizing area residents to the trail site.
"Those are the people who are not your marathon runners and avid cyclists. Those are people who haven't walked in a while, who are going to become more active. What's key is socialization; providing opportunities for people to feel more comfortable being able to meet other people in a non-threatening situation. All of those components are really important."
In essence, it’s about getting people outside, Gonyea says. "That, in itself, is a healthy atmosphere."
The City of Trenton plans a formal dedication of the trail in spring 2019. For details, contact Joann Gonyea at 734-675-7300
This article is part of the Culture of Health series about programs that foster a healthy, equitable culture in Wayne County. It is made possible with funding from Wayne County. Read more of the series here.