‘Creating an energy along the trail’: Montgomery County, partners are working to transform 2 Norristown trailheads

Project partners NV5 and ACLAMO will host family-friendly events for Norristown residents in late spring and summer to showcase ideas generated by the feedback process.

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Schuylkill River Trail on the Haws Avenue trailhead

Members of the NV5 team walk towards the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) on the Haws Avenue trailhead on a site visit in the fall. (Courtesy of NV5)

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A 2020 study on trail access, diversity and awareness informed Montgomery County officials that more needed to be done to increase access to the county’s trails.

“The county really believes that the county’s trail system is a real amenity for our residents. And it’s a big reason why a lot of people choose to live and work in Montgomery County,” said Bill Hartman, trails and open space manager at the Montgomery County Planning Commission. “But we felt that not everybody who lives here is fully aware of the trail system, and how to utilize it.”

One of the sites highlighted in the study was the Norristown portion of the Schuylkill River Trail. Hartman said they found a lot of Norristown residents weren’t using the trail in that area because of lack of access and awareness.

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From there, the county decided to redesign the two trailheads at Haws Avenue and Chain Street, putting out a RFP and bringing engineering firm NV5 and nonprofit partner ACLAMO on board last fall.

Nelly Jimenez-Arevalo, executive director of ACLAMO, said the nonprofit’s role has been to build on their existing relationship with community members and invite feedback and ideas for the trailheads’ redesign.

“We’re including not only the Latino voice, but everybody’s voices,” she said. “So we have to open it to everybody, because we want to make sure that all the community as a whole can have the chance to give us feedback.”

Over 27% of Norristown residents are Latino, according to U.S. Census data. ACLAMO works with Latino communities in the area and has a number of bilingual staffers. The social service agency is playing a key role to connect those residents with the design process, said Rosa Mannion, principal landscape architect at NV5.

“It’s really essential. Design professions are not the most diverse professions,” she said. “It’s really helpful to have people in the community that can kind of be our bridge and talk between the design team and the community. They already have connections, they live and work there. And it’s just really key to reach the people we’re trying to meet.”

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Hartman agreed.

“We don’t want our consultants to plan and design these trails in a vacuum. They need to reflect the will and the interests of the people who live around where these trails are being studied or engineered,” he said. “Because otherwise, they won’t be used, and they won’t meet the needs of the people who live near them.”

ACLAMO team members have conducted  in-person surveys around the trailheads and knocked on doors. They also are sharing an online survey, available in both Spanish and English through the end of April.

The organization is asking Norristown residents what’s preventing them from utilizing the park or using the Schuylkill River Trail, and what changes would inspire them to use it.

Hartman said the key is to distinguish what activities certain groups or communities want to use the trail for.

“Different groups, different demographics, look at trails in different ways,” Hartman said. “And we found that some people like to use the trail for recreation, but other people like to use it more, and we found this was true in areas like Pottstown, in Norristown, the trails were more of a place to socialize, you know, to take a walk with your family or to talk.”

Jimenez-Arevalo said there aren’t many green spaces for Norristown residents, and even for the spaces that do exist, families are sometimes worried about safety concerns, the presence of drugs or needles or lack of adequate lighting.

The question then, she said, is, “What can all of us do to make a better place so parents and children can enjoy those green spaces?”

“Mostly, we have an issue of obesity, diabetes, you know, high-blood pressure. A lot of that is because we also don’t have a lot of green spaces that we can access or that families can feel comfortable,” she said.

NV5 and ACLAMO will host family-friendly events for residents in late spring and summer to showcase ideas generated by the feedback  and incorporate additional recommendations.

Hartman said the design process should wrap up by the end of 2024. The county will then apply for additional grants to fund the project in 2025, with construction slated to begin in 2026. Hartman estimated the construction process itself could last six to nine months.

Design plans for the Trail Junction Center site at DeKalb and Lafayette streets in Norristown are wrapping up soon and construction will begin as early as next year. Hartman said that project, along with the Haws Avenue and Chain Street trailheads project, were both identified by the county’s trail access, diversity and awareness plan, and are part of the same larger goal.

“We look at them as a collective, in that together, they’ll be greater than the sum of their parts, because we’ll be creating an energy along the trail that I think will help catalyze the community to use the Schuylkill River Trail in these facilities and assets more than they are now,” he said.

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