Bill DeSantis greeted the more than 200 attendees at the fifth New England Bike-Walk Summit last week by offering a little perspective. DeSantis, a principal and corporate director of bicycle transportation at VHB, remembered attending planning sessions for the East Coast Greenway in the 1990s and thinking the project would never take off. Instead, the Greenway’s growth over the last few decades has been an “unbelievable” journey, he said. DeSantis has also watched as the Greenway’s biennial New England Bike-Walk Summit — an event that he similarly thought would never get off the ground — has matured into a professional conference that invites still more diverse partners to advance greenways and trails in the region.
Herb Nolan closed the Summit later that afternoon on the same note. Nolan, deputy director of the Solomon Foundation, said that conversations about creating safe places to walk and bike have been going on for decades and will continue to go on, but “we are at a tipping point.” Nolan remembers waking up one morning a few months ago to hear the news that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has awarded $1.5 million to design the Northern Strand Community Trail. The 10-mile greenway links five communities north of Boston, and the state’s funding award resulted from years of advocacy and lobbying by many partners.
The New England Summit, held for the first time in Boston, opened on a particularly encouraging note. Stephanie Pollack, Secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, welcomed attendees to her state, telling them that this is “a great time for trails in Massachusetts.” Pollack introduced our opening plenary, a panel of six women representing a range of organizations — public health, bicycle advocacy, neighborhood coalitions. The panelists shared how they planned the first Boston Neighborhood Forum (a second forum is coming up in June) and other initiatives to build bike equity in Boston. The women talked about capacity building, resident-driven approaches, and clinics to encourage bike riding in underserved neighborhoods. Vivian Ortiz of Mattapan shared her own story of learning to ride a bike in 2014. Since then, she has become an advocate for creating safe walking, biking, and public transportation infrastructure in all neighborhoods. She is a Livable Streets Alliance board member and involved in many neighborhood and community‑based organizations "I got comfortable riding on the street,” Ortiz said, “because I had a community around me."
The importance of bringing more and diverse voices — such as the Thursday panelists — to the greenway and trails movement was one of the messages that East Coast Greenway Alliance Executive Director Dennis Markatos-Soriano affirmed in his welcoming address at the Summit. Like DeSantis, Markatos-Soriano celebrated the Greenway’s tremendous progress, but he noted four challenges facing the East Coast Greenway and trails in general: fiscal weakness, for states and nationally; the growing wealth divide in the U.S.; climate change; and the obesity epidemic. He also identified opportunities, among them the growing shift to renewable energy, stronger recent investments in greenways from private philanthropists, and the potential for making progress through new and stronger partnerships.
“Let’s develop genuine, trusting relationships and collaborative strategies that play to our complementary strengths,” Markatos-Soriano urged attendees. “Collectively, we can raise our projects and our cause above the attention economy’s constant noise to become a priority that attracts more resources. In a period marked by division, it’s more critical than ever that we come together and stick up for each other. We can build better bike-ped systems when we take the time to bring the full array of voices to the table.”
Presenters gave more than four dozen workshops throughout the day at the UMass-Boston campus center. Topics ranged from greenway and trail design and community engagement to bicycle tourism, transportation equity, funding strategies, advocacy, arts & culture, and youth engagement. Presentations will be posted soon at www.greenway.org/nebikewalk.
Many thanks to our event sponsors, presenters, volunteers, and attendees. Summit sponsors included the Lawrence & Lillian Solomon Foundation, The Helen & William Mazer Foundation, VHB, HNTB, Stantec, Toole Design Group, Iteris, LimeBike, McMahon Associates, Ocean State Signal, Pare Corporation, Timberhomes Vermont, Farmington Valley Trails Council, APTAMA, Pace, Read Custom Soils, and Ofo.
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