Green Trails, Greenways, and an Ecosystem of Trails
The Omaha metropolitan area has a fast-growing population and a solid cycling culture. The region boasts of 335 miles of paved trails, 44 miles of natural surface trail, and a bikeshare system, earning the city the title of bronze level Bicycling Friendly Community in 2015 from the League of American Bicyclists. And the citizens of Omaha are hungry for more.
According to Nebraska’s State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), hiking and biking trails are the most utilized facilities in Omaha parks. The SCORP also found that 70 percent of residents in the metropolitan Omaha region want to see more bike trails in the area.
However, bike infrastructure has historically been concentrated in the western parts of Omaha, leaving residents, mostly Black and Latino, in the North and South neighborhoods of Omaha with restricted access to mountain bike trails. Youth in the area who do not have access to transportation do not benefit from those trails at all.
You cannot feel ownership towards a place where you don’t feel welcome
IMBA Chapter Trails Have Our Respect (THOR) has been building and maintaining natural surface trails in Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa since 1996. Equity is one of THOR’s values, and the organization is working to increase trails and bike infrastructure to ease entry into mountain biking.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion in the outdoors are multi-layered issues, and it can feel daunting to even begin tackling them. THOR knew these issues existed in Omaha but did not feel like they had the answers. So they are turning to the community to ask questions, listen, and learn.
THOR started its Trail Equity Program to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion on trails. According to THOR President Jason Brummels, the Trail Equity Program is the organization’s way of reaching out and listening to People of Color who do not have access to trails and are often not considered when planning and constructing bike infrastructure.
“There needs to be outreach to these communities. They need to be included in conversations about what exists in their communities and how we can help get them outside and live that active lifestyle. I think after this year we’re going to have a much better idea of how to reframe our strategies,” said Jason.
Abraham Mora is THOR’s first Trail Equity Ambassador and a Team Manager at the Latino Center of the Midlands. He hopes the program will get more People of Color comfortable with mountain biking and in turn increase participation in trail stewardship. Afterall, you cannot care for or feel ownership towards a place where you do not feel welcome.
“I've seen some individuals of color on our local trails, but I’ve also noticed how they’re not engaged and they’re not actively helping during trail building days. Maybe they don’t receive that information. So I think making them feel welcome, destroying some of the barriers to mountain biking, can empower them and create a better community. If we do a good job demonstrating that anybody can use those trails, they’ll feel comfortable and they’ll want to participate in trail building. They will want to take some ownership of the trails they ride,” said Abraham.
Representation matters and choosing the right Trail Equity Ambassadors is critical in effectively engaging communities of color.
“Abraham grew up in the South Omaha neighborhood and he’s already very embedded in the community. He does youth programming in the Latino Center of the Midlands and he’s involved in biking and outdoor recreation. He was an obvious answer, he was just the right person to do it,” Jason said.
He added, “If I go to that neighborhood, I’m just going to be seen as a middle aged white guy, and I’m not going to get the same responses, the same feedback, the same engagement. You don’t want white guys from the burbs flying in to rescue your community. Communities can bring themselves up, cater to their own needs. The Trail Equity Ambassador is there to make connections, identify the people who want to be trail champions and program leaders. I may never be able to get real feedback because I don’t have a deep understanding of the community to ask the right questions and certainly not the fluency in the language to get there either.”
A question for the community
One of the most recent projects under the Trail Equity Program is a pump track in Upland Park, a heavily used neighborhood park in South Omaha. Through the support and generosity of Bike Walk Nebraska, The Sherwood Foundation, and numerous other partners, the Upland Park Pump Track officially opened on May 14. Families gathered for the opening, kids learned basic bike skills, and some folks gave the pump track a go.
THOR hopes this new bike infrastructure gets more people outside and becomes a venue for future bike education programs. Abraham and Jason also see the pump track as a question to the community.
“I think it is a good opportunity for everybody who put together this project to gauge the community, to see how much interest there is in this pump track and just see what happens,” said Abraham.
“The pump track is like a question mark. What happens after that is all about learning and supporting the South Omaha community. There is not a definitive outcome that has been predetermined by folks such as myself. I think getting the answers is going to be an interesting story,” said Jason.