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An Actual Pathway to Better Health in Albany

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in the HuffPost on June 26, 2017

I’ve been traveling a lot for work this month to speak at meetings and conferences in Boston, New Orleans, and Albany. When I’m away from home, I enjoy getting outside and wandering around, trying to get a sense of the place. What features shape the city? What’s the vibe? What are the neighborhoods like? How do people interact with the city? You can learn a lot just by walking around. Since I live in New York City, walking comes naturally.

On my most recent trip to Albany—a city I’ve visited probably a hundred times or more over the years—I made my way from the center of downtown to the Corning Riverfront Park. It was the first time I’ve been there. This spot, formerly known as the Corning Preserve, is a little out of the way, but it is an entry point to the beautiful Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike trail along the river. The park also hosts community events; when we visited, preparations were underway for a weekly summer music event. Kids were chasing each other around the playground equipment, and walkers, joggers, and cyclists were making their way down the path—part of the Erie Canalway Trail—on that Thursday afternoon. It’s a really nice place.

Why hadn’t I ever been to this place before now, given all the time I’ve spent in Albany? It’s less than a mile from the Capitol building and the hustle and bustle of downtown. But it’s on the other side of highway 787. A pedestrian bridge that spans the highway has connected the park to downtown since 2002, but the park can still feel off the beaten path and hard to find. The general consensus seems to be that the consequences of building of the highway and cutting off Albany’s downtown from the river were not well thought out. Similarly, the use and design of the riverfront space was initially ad hoc, not planned intentionally.

My colleagues and I learned more from a representative of Parks & Trails New York, who gave us a tour of the park. He was refreshingly frank about some of the challenges the park faces, including access and public safety. The pedestrian bridge and a parking lot just off the highway offer reasonably easy access to the main park area, where the playground and the community events are located. But as the walking/biking path continues in the direction of the Erie Canal, there are literally no access points for several miles. That’s a challenge both for getting people on to the trail and for ensuring that people feel safe; it’s pretty isolated once the trail bends away from the highway. You are boxed in, and a perceived or real lack of safety is a substantial barrier to the use of all public spaces.

Our guide also talked about efforts to improve and expand the park and the trail and to attract more residents and tourists to the area. A first step was changing the official name from the Corning Preserve to the Corning Riverfront Park, an effort to convey its vibrancy as an active public space. Our guide described it as a transformation “from a neglected space to a managed place,” a trend we’ve seen in other areas like the Walkway Over the Hudson in New York’s Hudson Valley or the High Line in New York City.

And people are using the park. Parks & Trails New York calculates more than 200,000 visits to the trail annually. Lunch time sees the heaviest traffic for the short part of the trail closest to the footbridge entrance, which suggests that people working in downtown Albany are making their way to the riverfront and walking or biking during the lunch break (about two-thirds of visits are from pedestrians, one-third from cyclists). Longer parts of the trail see more use in the early evening, after usual work hours. The pedestrian bridge and the trail may be doing their job: connecting the people of Albany to the river and offering them a place to breathe, relax, and be physically active.

More good news may be in store for the trail. The proposed Empire State Trail will create a 750-mile multiuse trail—the largest in the country—connecting New York City to the Canadian border and Buffalo to Albany. The plan is to close the gaps between existing paths to develop a truly statewide trail.

It is great to see new investments in the activation of public spaces and a commitment to expanding and improving New York’s trail system. Creating more opportunities for residents and tourists to be outdoors and bicycle, walk, run, or even snowshoe or cross-country ski is always welcome. We should take care to spend these dollars well. The expansions should be planned and executed thoughtfully, with the surrounding communities’ needs in mind and robust public participation in the design process. Ensuring that trails are attractive, safe, connected, and easily accessible to local residents will entice more New Yorkers to use these public spaces and view them as their own.

Follow David Sandman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidsandman1