The New Jersey Health Impact Collaborative recently completed an HIA in conjunction with preparation of a plan to increase use and access of a “rails-to-trails” greenway located in Central New Jersey. The recently opened 3.5 mile paved Middlesex Greenway runs through the towns of Edison, Metuchen, and Woodbridge in central New Jersey. The three towns, along with Middlesex County, owner of the trail property, worked together to develop a plan to increase use and access to the trail. The plan was funded by the Together North Jersey consortium with support from NJ TRANSIT using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars. Health impacts considered by the HIA included physical activity, safety and security, environmental exposures, social cohesion, and impacts on local business and economy.
The HIA offered a series of recommendations to inform the Middlesex County Parks and Recreation Department, including improving access and use for bicycles, considering bicycle and rollerblade rental stations, strategic siting of benches and picnic tables, added signage and connectivity, and improved lighting and fences, among others. The findings and recommendations of the HIA contributed to understanding impacts of the access plan on physical activity, safety, crime, social cohesion, environmental exposures and the local economy.
The HIA helped raise awareness around health and safety issues that can be addressed in future planning for increased use of the Greenway. Community members rallied around the positive health benefits and welcomed recommendations to mitigate potential negative outcomes.
The HIA highlighted how the Middlesex Greenway could facilitate connections between the greenway and local businesses, parks and trails, and walking and bicycle loops. The HIA recommended improved signage along the greenway to enhance emergency preparedness and strategic placement of benches and picnic tables. The HIA also identified an opportunity to promote walking on the trail through collaboration with local physicians, who could prescribe "Greenway prescriptions" to patients. Before the HIA was complete, residents of one of the towns used some of the findings to apply for and receive a grant to improve the Greenway. As a result of the HIA, decision-makers reconsidered the placement of benches along the greenway to accommodate seniors and enhanced connections between the greenway and bicycle loops as part of a regional plan.