This is a guest post by Dennis Markatos-Soriano, Executive Director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance.

The COVID-19 public health emergency has brought major change for all of us as we try to navigate our need to be social and maintain peace of mind while a global pandemic spreads throughout our country. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and we have all become separated from each other like never before. The antidote for so many Americans has been a newfound love of the outdoors and our nation’s many incredible parks, greenways, and open spaces.

Greenways, trails, and parks have given people a safe way to exercise and spend time with friends and family. The developing Maine-to-Florida, 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway has seen record use as a result. Some sections have tripled their visitors since last year, and projections put 2020 bike rides, runs, and walks at over 50 million this year, surpassing New York City’s Central Park to become the most visited park in America.

Safe Outdoor Space

As more people use the Greenway, the need for municipal and volunteer management of waste and recycling along the Greenway grows. We believe in Rubicon’s mission to end waste, in all of its forms, which is why we have local groups who steward some sections such as the Community Trail Watch crew in Durham, North Carolina. Volunteers and supporters are needed to help the Greenway continue to bring joy and relief to everyone from kids learning how to bike for the first time to their grandparents getting safe outdoor space to be with loved ones. In the years ahead, we are looking to establish more of a partnership with local waste management leaders to keep the Greenway special and attractive to all.

Volunteers keep the East Coast Greenway clean and green in Durham, North Carolina.

Over 1,000 miles of the Greenway have been built over the past quarter-century for this project spearheaded by the visionary volunteers and staff at a nonprofit organization called the East Coast Greenway Alliance. Founded by New York greenway planner Karen Votava and other local leaders from Boston and Washington DC in 1991, they had a dream of a linear park stretching from Canada to Key West, Florida. They saw the potential for equitable public space to help millions of people live healthy and sustainable lives throughout the Eastern Seaboard. By transforming the way people get to work, school, and other destinations in the 450 communities the Greenway connects, they pitched this path to a higher quality of life, stronger economic development, and lower emissions from transportation, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas pollution. This interconnected safe space for biking and walking can unleash our region’s potential, from the nation’s biggest urban centers like New York City and Philadelphia to rural regions in Downeast Maine and the low country of Georgia.

Surpassing I-405

The dream is becoming a reality thanks to the partnership of philanthropy and forward-thinking government leaders. While 50 million annual visits is a great milestone, my sights are set on 140 million so that we surpass the busiest road in America, I-405 around Los Angeles. That will be a great symbol of the kind of sea change we can make to a better future for people and the nature we depend on for clean water, clean air, and a stable climate.

The Schuylkill River Trail segment of the Greenway is one of the most popular destinations in Philadelphia, a respite from the indoors and computer screens in this COVID-19 era.

We can get it done this decade as long as we seize the opportunity in front of us. To power economic recovery in 2021, our nation needs to make visionary federal infrastructure investments.

Expanding highways doesn’t do it. There has never been a more critical moment for our nation to invest in equitable public space that fosters a healthy and resilient future. Greenway infrastructure investment has the highest return for our economy in terms of jobs (50 percent more per dollar than highways) and for our community in terms of health, community-building, and emissions reduction. Recent studies show a more than ten-fold return on investment along the East Coast Greenway.

Federal leaders recently passed an important step forward in the Great American Outdoors Act to maintain our parks and acquire key land for preservation and public enjoyment. Now we need to put people to work through $10 billion in infrastructure investment for safe active transportation that connects all 50 states across America from our biggest cities to our smallest towns, from our cultural heritage corridors to our wild national parks. The resulting people-centered transportation network has the potential to generate $100 billion in return for all to enjoy, spurring economic recovery by bolstering the growing $1 trillion outdoor recreation economy and lowering costs for those in need.

Such visionary Greenway Stimulus investment would get us out of this crisis in a way that transforms our country to a future marked by health, a strong and more equitable economy, and a cleaner environment. The public wants it. The public needs it. And we have the power to make it happen.

Dennis Markatos-Soriano is Executive Director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, having led development of the Maine-to-Florida East Coast Greenway for more than a decade of growth.