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Promoting health and trails in Michigan

Suburban trailways master plan helps counter unhealthy lifestyle trends with opportunities for walking, running, and riding.
From the New Years 2007 American Trails Magazine

By John J. Crumm, AICP and Gerard P. Santoro, AICP

Map of MichiganMacomb County, Michigan is in the midst of showing how a well thought-out trail system plan can help counter some of the negative trends in society. How can we provide more recreation opportunities when budget restrictions limit the purchase of traditional large-acreage parks? How can counties create recreation opportunities in a state that has vested land use decisions at the local jurisdiction? How do you get people active in suburban communities that are designed for the automobile with little regard for pedestrian flow? Is there a way to curb our reliance on fast food diets and reduce the number of obese people?

Photo of river valley

The Clinton River greenway corridor

Macomb County is one of seven counties that comprise the Detroit Metropolitan area. The county's 27 local municipal governments include three of the 10 largest communities in Michigan and four of the fastest growth communities.

With significant growth pressures and reduced natural areas, there is a general consensus in this region that there are many untapped recreational resources in Macomb County. An increase in sedentary lifestyle has caused the overall health of our citizens to decline and results in increased health care costs.

Like Michigan, Macomb is in the midst of battling the epidemic of obesity. Currently Michigan ranks 8th in the nation of states having the most obese and overweight residents and Macomb is ranked right up there.

Macomb County Planning was left to develop a method for increasing the number of recreational alternatives and begin an educational campaign to get residents up on their feet and out of their homes. Along with the positive impacts of improved health, the new trail system has offered a new way for citizens to get to know the community they live in and their neighbors.

How the Countywide Trailway System Began

"The newly developed trails may do more to encourage active use among more residents than traditional large acreage parks."


Prior to 1998 there was no coordinated effort to construct trails. The result was that segments of trail were being built in various communities but no agency was in charge of looking for linkages. This all changed when Canadian National Railroad announced the sale of 23.5 miles of railroad corridor in Macomb County. Spurred on by a local friends group, the County became involved and negotiated a price and renamed the corridor "The Macomb Orchard Trail."

A commission was formed to construct and maintain the trail. The first action of the commission was to develop a master plan that emphasized the former agricultural production of the area and the railroad that was used to bring fresh fruit and cash crop products to the various markets in the Lower Great Lakes Region. The excitement of residents and governmental leaders led to great press coverage and ultimately increased the number of citizens interested in the completion of the trail.

photo of bikes on paved trail

Riding the path at Metro Beach

Within four years Macomb County had secured enough funding to pay for the design and construction of the entire trail. Developers and adjacent store owners began to see the advantage of marketing to trail enthusiasts. Coffee shops and restaurants saw a dramatic increase of business and other businesses used architectural features of the trail's heritage to blend into the area.

Housing developers realized that people would pay more to live next to this popular trail and so requests came for trail hook ups to proposed and existing neighborhoods. One developer went so far as to name his new development "Trailside Commons."

Construction is projected to be completed in summer of 2007, and staff then turn their focus on developing innovative financing methods for maintenance. As more developers and business owners adjacent to the trail request access, staff saw the need to create proper access requirements and to review site plans based on a fee schedule. The site plan review fee ranges from $650 to $800 and the yearly license fee is based on the number of square feet affected and adjusted by a factor that increases rates for those uses that have a higher impact to the corridor (i.e. above ground requests cost more than a request to place items underground that are soil bored and don't disturb the finished grade).

Photo of meadow and stream

View of meadows from a trestle on the trail

While this has generated some income, the program will never generate enough funds to pay for all of the maintenance costs. Staff research has determined that maintenance costs per year will run from $75,000 to $85,000 and the best way to generate this type of money is to create a maintenance endowment fund of approximately one million dollars.

Many of the local municipalities within the county realized the benefit of this agricultural heritage trail and the excitement generated from this project, allowing the Macomb Planning and Economic Development Department to obtain a grant from the State of Michigan to develop an expanded countywide master trailways plan. The plan's purpose is to serve as a guide for a unified and coordinated vision for non-motorized transportation between communities and the region.

The plan began with each individual community's trails plan and then looked at connections to adjacent communities and neighboring counties. Trail routes were categorized into regional, county and local trails. Macomb County government has agreed to be the leader in the development of the regional trails. It was the first in-depth countywide trail plan in the State of Michigan, and as such, was recognized by the American Planning Association Michigan Chapter as the Outstanding Plan for 2004.

photo of paved trail in woods

Strolling on the trail

Future Hopes

Besides its 130 parks, Macomb County is blessed with a 31-mile coastline along Lake St. Clair, which is part of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway system. With a navigable river delta and over 44 marinas, this shoreline is a major destination for boaters and anglers in southeast Michigan. The Clinton River and its three major branches provide natural greenways linked throughout the county.

To better identify these recreation and natural resources, the county has developed computer mapping datasets that include natural areas, historic villages, farm markets, and agricultural heritage sites. This effort has contributed to the development of a "Greenways Vision."

The "Greenways Vision" consists of the identifying "hubs" where significant natural areas remain, and then using natural stream corridors and the network of pathways to link these areas to each other. Benefits include recreation as well as preservation of natural landscapes and enhancement of habitat for wildlife. The model that was created for Macomb County helped promote the region-wide program initiated by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

Photo of barn by trail

Getting ready for the trail opening

This regional study, being conducted by the GreenWays Initiative (a program associated with the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan) will assist all local and regional governments in setting priorities for developing trail and greenway linkages throughout this region, across the State of Michigan, and then connecting to neighboring states, as well as to the Trans-Canadian Trail in Ontario.


A well thought out suburban trailways system can help counter unhealthy habits and trends. Although recent budget restrictions may hold back some development, an organized master plan for trails allows local governments to be more competitive for state, federal, and non-profit funds. The newly developed trails may do more to encourage active use among more residents than traditional large acreage parks. Being able to access cultural, historical, institutional, and natural places makes residents and visitors more engaged in valuing and caring for their communities.

For more information on the Macomb County Trailways Master Plan and the Macomb Orchard Trail visit of

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