Exploring Paths to Vibrant Downtowns

Have you ever been walking, hiking or biking on a trail and wondered where the nearest coffee shop, restaurant or restroom might be?  Have you ever walked down a main street and wondered if there was an easy way to get into the woods or on the water for a bit of exercise or a few minutes of peace and quiet? 

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you are not alone! Insights learned from over 80 community-visioning processes conducted by UNH Cooperative Extension in New Hampshire over the past 20 years suggests that over half of all towns indicated that they're not leveraging their trails and natural amenities to foster vibrant communities. In response, many communities have formed volunteer trail committees, and are making efforts to map and publicize their trails.

This past summer, the Community and Economic Development (CED) and Natural Resources teams collaborated on ways to better link downtowns and natural resources. To start, they co-hosted an intern to map trails for Trail Finder, a free, interactive mapping site designed to help Vermont and New Hampshire residents and visitors find hiking, snowshoeing, mountain biking and cross-country skiing trails across the region.

The intern also began assessing how connected downtowns and trails are in certain communities. To do so, the teams used ArcGIS Collector, an innovative mobile mapping technology, to map amenities in local downtowns, such as casual restaurants, coffee shops, bike shops, restrooms and pharmacies, and the distance from the trailhead to the downtown. Dover, Rochester, Durham, Newmarket, Brentwood and Sandown were among some of the assessed communities.

The teams’ ultimate goal is to identify programs and resources that can help New Hampshire communities better connect their downtowns with surrounding trails and natural amenities. Although there does not appear to be a single program in the region designed explicitly for this, there are likely aspects of multiple programs from New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont and other regions that could help communities capitalize on fostering vibrant downtowns through trails.

Over the next year, the CED team will continue to explore the benefits and challenges of connecting downtowns and trails, including both "greenways" —wooded trails and paved paths — and "blueways" — rivers and waterfronts that travel through downtowns. Thanks to a recently-funded grant from the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, the team will begin working with Extension colleagues at UConn, UVM, Kentucky, and Washington State to explore how existing programs and resources can be tailored so that Extension organizations in the Northeast can use trails and natural capital to create vibrant downtowns. 

In particular, the team will explore what conditions, including physical, community, and leadership conditions, are needed to maximize the benefits of trails by connecting them with downtown economic development work in rural communities. We are grateful for the support from NERCRD and the opportunity to explore these new pathways to vibrant downtowns.