The William Penn Foundation recently reupped its support for an ambitious effort to complete a 750-mile trail system in Greater Philadelphia. But with 400 miles to go, can a coalition of nonprofits make it a reality?
While the William Penn Foundation has supported trails projects in Philadelphia to the tune of $33 million since 1992, in 2012 it announced a campaign to complete a network of 750 miles of trails, formally naming the project “The Circuit” and giving the effort $10 million. Now William Penn has extended its support for the project by another $8.6 million, recently announced, to keep the operation moving forward.
Since it started, The Circuit campaign has grown to a coalition of 70 determined nonprofits, foundations, and public entities, building a massive network of bike and pedestrian paths that they believe will pay dividends for the city’s vitality.
Projects like this are becoming important elements in efforts to revitalize American cities, as they provide connectivity by foot or bike that in many cases was never there. They connect residents with jobs, parks, and other amenities, and provide more active, cohesive places. Additionally, trails are an appealing amenity to the creative-class types that every city wants to attract these days. And they're also important to efforts to improve public health, another big focus of funders.
But with just over 300 miles done or in development, and more than 400 miles to go, the Philly project is a daunting task. The network is gradually coming together, and the director has said that they want to finish 18 miles per year to finish by 2040. The remaining miles are mostly abandoned railroad lines or industrial sites that are more expensive to rehab, but crucial to the mission, as they will bring underprivileged neighborhoods into the network. You have to wonder if the coalition can pull it off.
William Penn Foundation is a pretty big funder, but the campaign so far hasn’t seen the kind of massive infusion of private wealth for outdoor projects that we’ve seen with the Kinders in Houston, or George Kaiser in Tulsa. It’s received more of a mix of funds, some federal or regional public funds, some private donations. It’s also slow-going, given the logistics of trails all over the region.
But one thing the project does have going for it is the diversity of the coalition. Looking at the list of stakeholders on board, including bike advocates, several environmental groups, and community groups, there is clearly a broad base of support that's good to see with these kinds of projects. It may not have one angel picking up the tab, but the city is clearly behind it.
Another encouraging factor is a component of the latest grant from William Penn Foundation. It intends to keep the ball moving with $1.6 million going to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for public outreach, both letting residents know about the availability of existing trails, and helping with fundraising efforts. That aspect of the campaign will no doubt be crucial, since even with the occasional $10 million from a big funder, it's going to take broad sustained effort to make this great project a reality.
To check out the project (or even to support it) go here.