What exactly is keeping some people—particularly those from communities of color—from hiking, biking and jogging along a three-county section of the Erie Canal?

Is it lack of promotion or access? Safety concerns? Something else?

Common Ground Health aims to answer these questions by bringing together more than 20 partners from state, county and local governments, as well as other organizations in Monroe, Orleans and Wayne counties.

From health planners and public health professionals to transportation planners, municipal planners and community organizers, diverse points of view should help attract more residents and tourists to the trail along the Erie Canal. There’s even regional representation from AARP to ensure the concerns of seniors are taken into account.

“Having multidisciplinary perspectives is going to help us overcome problems that may have been looked at previously in a linear fashion,” says Benjamin Woelk, health and community infrastructure analyst with Common Ground.

“Certainly this is a table that has never been convened before,” he adds. “And when we bring people together who have never sat at the same table, we have an opportunity for new outcomes to occur.”

Those eventual solutions will emerge through a Health Impact Assessment, a planning tool that uses practical, evidence-based decisions to improve health-related policies.

The assessment will cover the Erie Canal Trail in Monroe, Orleans and Wayne counties, which is part of New York’s larger Empire State Trail initiative. Championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and earmarked for $200 million in funding, this statewide project aims to connect 750 miles of pathways from Buffalo to Albany and New York City to the Canadian border, earning distinction as the longest multi-use state trail in the nation by the end of 2020.

Projections show the Empire State Trail could draw about 8.6 million people annually.

This is Common Ground’s fourth HIA, and its findings have the potential to influence policies and practices across the entire Empire State Trail.

Outdoor activity has proven mental health benefits, and a recent study by the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy shows a more literal side to the return on investment, points out Andy Beers, director of the Empire State Trail.

The country's largest trails organization aggregated data about the health cost savings, climate protection, mobility and direct economic value of trails and active transportation, and found that the economic contribution of active transportation infrastructure has the potential to yield more than $138.5 billion each year—a return nearly seven times greater each year than the cumulative investment of $20 billion that has been made in trails and walking and biking projects through federal programs over the past three decades.

The HIA steering committee helps to identify opportunities they see in their communities and prioritize matters to study.

Members of the Empire State Trail Health Impact Assessment steering committee met Oct. 29, 2019.

“We have a lot to learn from our steering committee members,” says Woelk. “From the surveying we’ve done so far, access points to the Erie Canal Trail may not be as frequent through the city of Rochester as they are in places like Fairport or Pittsford.”

Sometimes there are physical barriers. In the 19th Ward community, for example, the trail falls on the south side of the canal instead of the north side where the neighborhood lies, in part due to industrial sites which block access.

HIA steering committee members want to know more about why most trail users tend to be predominantly White, older and more affluent than the demographics of neighboring communities—and what is keeping others away.

“How do we get more diverse users who are underrepresented on the trail?” Beers says. “We need to know what the barriers are.”

Mental health therapist Kecia McCullough, who heads the Rochester chapter of the international cycling club Black Girls Do Bike, says, “If the end game is to find the answers to the barriers, then they need to have somebody at the table to represent that population—and I’m that voice.”

Owner of a bicycle nicknamed “Lady Pearl,” McCullough, a member of the HIA steering committee, appreciates the opportunity to share her “perspective, insight and lived experiences.”

She continues: “We need to have direct access points for city residents from the four quadrants to get onto the path where they feel safe, without having to do a bunch of acrobatics to get there.”

The end goal is to make people across New York State proud of the trail, to help them find a sense of belonging and reap the benefits the trail has to offer.

 “This is a robust project and a compelling opportunity,” Woelk says. “My hope is that the leadership and representation in the room will help lead us to dynamic recommendations to impact health and quality of life for those residents and communities who live near this incredible community asset.”