Why Walk?: A Case for Building Trails

Why Build Trails?

A good question. There are so many other pressing needs in the community. Why build trails? Walking somewhere is only something you do out of necessity when forced by a remote parking space, a malfunctioning vehicle, or when you want to tell your doctor you are 'exercising'.  Sure there’s traffic and smog and noise and asphalt instead of green grass and trees but that’s the price of having cheap and convenient shopping with plenty of parking. The days of walking to a market to buy food, strolling to a restaurant for dinner, visiting friends and neighbors on foot, or indulging in an evening ramble in the fields are hopelessly old fashion. We now live a life at breakneck pace. We are super-efficient and have more ‘stuff’ than ever. Yet many people are still anxious, distracted and adrift. They do not seem to have leisure to enjoy their lives, as productive as they are.

But walking, and trails can help us feel better, physically and mentally. They can improve property values, decrease isolation, improve community ties, and instill an appreciation for the beauty of nature and contemplation. So while they are not often the most conspicuous need of a community, trails are an underappreciated necessity for happiness through improvement in quality of life.

Because quality of life, while precious and sought after, is often intangible and difficult to quantify, it tends to be eclipsed in our minds by the potent concerns of money, fear and apathy. There are many reasonable sounding arguments against developing a trail system throughout our community, such as the cost when there are so many other pressing needs, the anxiety provoked by the presence of strangers out and about in the countryside, and even concern that convenient access to nature will ruin it by attracting more people. These are understandable objections. But by failing to examine what we really need, instead of what we habitually think we want, we are likely to end up victims of those things we fear.

Wouldn’t it be tragic if we became so concerned with saving money and protecting ourselves from strangers that we ended up with dollars, but less happiness? Safety, but isolated and suspicious? Beautiful pictures on the large screen TV, but a wasteland of asphalt and gas stations outside?

To address some common concerns, we can look at how accessible trails impact physical health, property values, community values, and crime.

Physical Health

While it is unclear how much physical exercise impacts weight, there is little question that activity lowers the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis and osteoporosis. Here are a sampling of some recent studies on walking taken from a summary on the Walk Boston and National Resources Defense Council web site.

Men and women age 50–71 who took a brisk walk nearly every day had a 27% reduced death rate compared to non-exercisers. Adding 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, 3 days a week resulted in a 32% reduced death rate. Combining vigorous exercise and walking each week produced a 50% reduced mortality. [Arch Internal Medicine, 2007]

Among the more than 72,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, those who walked 3 or more hours/week reduced their risk of a coronary event by 35% compared with women who did not walk.

Retired men who walked less than 1 mile/day had nearly twice the mortality rates of those who walked more than 2 miles/day. [Harvard University, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, ongoing]

A study of over 3,200 overweight adults found that a good diet and walking 2.5 hours/week reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 58%. Participants aged 60 and older reduced their risk by 71%. [New England Journal of Medicine, 2002]

Exercise affects learning, memory and cognition. College students showed improved performance on recognition memory tasks after exercise. [NYU current research] Risks of death from breast and uterine cancer were reduced 19% in those who walked 1 – 3 hours/week, by 54% for walking 3 – 5 hours/week. [Harvard University Women’s Health Study, 2012]

Sedentary men who began exercising after the age of 45 have a 24% lower death rate than those who remain inactive. On average, sedentary people who became active later in life improved their life expectancy by about 1.6 years. [Harvard Alumni Study, 2000]

Gym membership too expensive? The outside is free.

Economic Development:

“Walkability” is the new requirement for an attractive community. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was all about far flung suburbs without centers, girded by rings of highways and asphalt acres of parking around malls. Imagining residents would want to walk anywhere was silly. Today, that idea is crumbling as younger people increasingly select communities with walkability; that is, easy access to transportation, amenities, shops, work and restaurants. There is a political imperative to become a more walkable county. While older generations are used to relying more on their cars to get everywhere, the upcoming millennials, future business owners and taxpayers all, are buying fewer cars, spending less time on the roads, and looking for more walkable environments to settle in.
The percentage of people age 21-30 driving dropped from 21% of all miles to 14% from 1995 to 2009 [Advertising Age, 2010].

A one-point increase in Walk Score [based on number of destinations within a short distance] is associated with between a $700 and $3000 increase in home values [CEOs for Cities, 2009].

These will be the future voters and taxpayers of the county.

As op-ed columnist for the New York Times David Brooks points out in his book The Social Animal, in the 1990s, developers built vast, exurban housing developments because home buyers wanted big property. But what many people discovered they really wanted were the social connections that are found around other people, so the market has partially responded with pseudo-urban streetscapes with coffee shops, health clubs and hiking trails. We see that now in current and planned developments in Gainesville and Vint Hill.

In the past, a pool or community rec center was considered necessary for home values in a development. Nowadays, access to a park or greenway is high status and increases home value.

A 10 point increase in Walk Score increases commercial property values by 5%-8% [University of Arizona & Indiana University, 2010].

A study of homes near a Massachusetts rail-trail showed that homes near trails sold in 29.3 days while homes away from the trail sold in 50.4 days.
A Colorado study showed the average value of property adjacent to trails was 32% higher than those 3,200 ft. away [Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trail, and Greenway Corridors: a Resource Book, 1990].

A study looking at the Little Miami Scenic Trail in 2008 suggests that each foot closer to a trail increases the sale price of a sample property by $7.05 [The Impact of the Little Miami Scenic Trail on Single Family Property Values, 2008].

A National Association of Homebuilders study from 2004 found that trails are the second most important community amenity that potential homebuyers cite when choosing a new community outranking 16 other options.

A 6/28/2015 article in the Washington Post by Jonathan O’Connell documented the dying office parks in Montgomery County built in the 1980s. He quotes Doug Firsetnber, a Bethesda developer. “One of the biggest challenges is that 1980s, successful classic suburban development may have insurmountable challenges to re-gear and meet current market demand for Metro, mixed-use environment, amenities and walkability.”

As Fauquier continues to grow and change over the next 50 years, we would like to see networks of trails connecting the communities, not just roads. People walking or biking to work, not just driving. Citizens enjoying the countryside instead of developing the heck out of it.


A common concern with residents near a proposed trail is that undesirables will use the path to loiter about casing their home for robbery or assault. Or that gangs will take over the area or teenagers will use it for illicit activities. While it is true that these things can happen in bad neighborhoods, especially in urban areas, a popular trail increases foot traffic for many more desirables than undesirables. Most people on the trail are not murderers, robbers and gang bangers. They are your neighbors, community dog walkers, seniors out for exercise, kids riding their bikes, and friendly outdoor enthusiasts. Even teenagers, that dangerous breed, are more likely to snap a cell phone picture of something suspicious than to invade your property. You likely to be safer and happier with more people around.

There is a high correlation between depression and social isolation. And, as we isolate ourselves more and more behind fences, trespassing signs, barking dogs, and deadbolts, we shut out the rare invader, but also a lot of the world. On the whole, this tends to make us more lonely and vulnerable, not less. It is the vigorous, interactive personality who knows her neighbors, local kids, dog walkers and friends who is watched and protected by the community. No one knows who lives behind high walls and what transpires there is unseen. Privacy is important, but humans are social creatures who live in groups for a reason. We tend to do poorly when alone, although sometimes our fears and infirmities drive us in this direction. Trails are a way to reclaim our friends, our landscape, and our sense of connectedness with our neighbors and community.

People living in walkable neighborhoods trust neighbors more, participate in community projects and volunteer more than in non-walkable areas. [University of New Hampshire, 2010]

In many ways, trails are like parks. Many people enjoy parks and value them nearby. But they can also be a place for loitering, gangs and litter if they are unused and allowed to fall into neglect. This is a higher danger in urban areas, isolated locations, and areas with poor community involvement.

To be sure, trails are not always unabridged positives for everyone. There are legitimate concerns for homeowners abutting trails as far as privacy, illegal use, noise, unleashed pets and litter. There are many studies on the effects of trails and, while most show a positive benefit, some show negative effects or are inconclusive. The wise way forward is to design trails to encourage use, have methods in place to deal with nuisances like those mentioned, and incorporate them in with existing communities in a complimentary way.

In short, the balance of current data indicates that the long history of community common areas, parks, trails, and pedestrian friendly avenues, encourage a sense of community and improve quality of life that has been degraded by over reliance on roads and cars. Fears about loss of parking, cost, and strangers are not groundless, but are obstacles that can be, and are worth, overcoming to build a county that lifts our spirits and those of our children. That is a future worth investing in.