A local artist is capturing the beauty of unpaved accessible trails and advocating for more of these natural spaces for all.
By Shelby Lee
NORTHAMPTON – When local artist and accessibility advocate Meg Bandarra gets out into nature, the resulting landscapes she paints offer stunning renderings of the region’s beauty. And cutting through some of those landscapes are the thing that makes her work as a painter possible: unpaved universally accessible trails.
“I advocate for trails because I know the difference they make in my life,” Bandarra told The Shoestring. “Getting back into nature after being removed from it because of physical barriers was a really powerful, immersive experience. I felt compelled to capture that feeling of reunification, and to this day the need to capture those beautiful fleeting moments I get to experience while out on a trail is why I paint the landscape.”
A year and four months have passed since City Council members in Northampton voted to appropriate $100,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to the “Rocky Hill Accessible Trail Project.” Bandarra, who has been instrumental in advocating for this project, now seeks to highlight the need for accessible trails like that one with a virtual exhibit of her artwork, titled “Beyond the Pavement,” which is running through May 31.
“When I learned I could use accessible trails to access nature, it changed my life,” Bandarra said in a press release about the show. “I saw improvements in my health and wellness, and felt such a profoundly deep connection to the natural world that I began painting the landscape.”
The exhibit showcases pastel paintings of landscapes from around western Massachusetts and beyond, set in a virtual space to maximize accessibility. Additional artwork and information is available on the Bandarra’s webpage.
The exhibit comes as efforts to develop the Rocky Hill trail have stagnated. In an interview, Bandarra said that the project seems to have gone back to “square one” of the planning stage.
Bandarra, who created a grassroots group called Unpaved Trails for All to advocate for more accessible trails in Massachusetts, said it is “incredibly frustrating” to see little progress being made on this city project. Unpaved Trails for All estimates that the entire state currently has only 7.5 miles of universally accessible unpaved trails, and that 47% of Massachusetts residents could benefit from these trails.
Bandarra said the city planning department’s reasons for the delay have included a need to address parking as well as restoration of a stream on the property.
“It’s so important to have trail users with access needs be part of the planning and design process for an accessible trail,” Bandarra said. “What we say at Unpaved Trails For All as a general advocacy statement is, ‘Stop building trails for us, and start building trails with us.’ That’s because you get a much better trail when you include people who are living with disabling conditions in the process from the beginning.”
Bandarra said that it is her hope that a more inclusive process will take place this time around the Rocky Hill project.
“In the past, I and others have expressed a desire for Northampton’s planning department to hold a public meeting or forum about the trail, and share the plans with the public at very early stages of design,” Bandarra said.
In an email to The Shoestring, Carolyn Misch – the director of the City’s Office of Planning and Sustainability – explained that the project is moving forward in two parts, with state-contracted design work for part one beginning “later this year.”
Part one includes ecological restoration to remove culverts, restore portions of a former golf course, planning for “an accessible loop trail” and creation of a small accessible parking lot. Misch described part two of the project as “a phased roll out of a universally accessible trail.” She said that the city can move ahead on an “out and back” accessible trail – or a point to point trail – as they continue work on part one, but noted that no trail will be accessible until the parking lot is created.
Misch said the Office of Planning and Sustainability has also requested state grant funds to convert a trail at the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area into a universally accessible trail. The office will not know the status of that funding until later this year.
The project is quite difficult to track on the city’s website. It is not mentioned on any Planning Board agendas in 2022 or 2023. At the time of this publication, there are no meeting minutes posted at all for the six planning board meetings that have taken place so far in 2023. The city’s Office of Planning and Sustainability permits and projects webpage does not show any pending permits for the project.
The description on the Dec. 2, 2021 CPA funding financial order describes the project as a “universally accessible trail network at the Pine Grove section of the Rocky Hill Greenway.”
The city’s Accessibility Improvement Projects webpage says “In 2022, the City will be adding a new soft surface accessible trail at the Rocky Hill Greenway on Old Wilson Road.”
A Nov. 2, 2022 Community Preservation Committee minutes document mentions the “Rocky Hill Multi Use Trail” and indicates an additional CPA application is needed to get design work to “the finish line.” The agenda also says construction funding is “already in-hand.” The project does not appear on any Community Preservation Committee agendas so far in 2023. The project appears last as an agenda item for a Nov. 16, 2022 meeting but does not appear in the meeting minutes.
The project is mentioned on page 39 of the Northampton Community Preservation Plan – last updated January 2022 – and says “a trail network, including an ADA-accessible loop, is being created.”
In addition to advocacy efforts to increase universal access to unpaved natural trails in Northampton, Bandarra and Unpaved Trails for All have been able to create state-level momentum with state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who together with colleagues in the state House has filed a bill called “An Act Expanding Access To Trails For People of All Abilities.”
In a statement to The Shoestring, Comerford said that she has, thanks to the advocacy of her constituents, learned that “only a fraction of unpaved trails across Massachusetts State Parks are characterized as universally accessible.”
“I believe the Commonwealth can and must do better to improve equitable access to natural resources,” her statement says. “I am grateful to partner with Representative Ciccolo on legislation that strives to do just that.”
The next step for the bills is to be scheduled for a public hearing in the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, after which the committee would have to vote the bill out favorably by Feb. 7, 2024.
For now, Bandarra hopes her show will raise awareness about accessible unpaved trails as well as bills currently being considered by the Massachusetts Legislature.
“Accessible unpaved trails have always been an important part of my artistic practice, and over the years I’ve become more vocal about the need for more trails, and high-quality accessible outdoor experiences,” Bandarra said. “There are a lot of misunderstandings and stereotypes about what accessible unpaved trails can, or should be. My hope is that the artwork shows that these trails are beautiful, unique, vibrant, important spaces.”
A percentage of sales from Beyond the Pavement will benefit the non-profit organization “All Out Adventures” that promotes and aids in outdoor recreation access for people with disabilities and their family and friends. The organization offers specialized equipment, support staff, and programs to help people of all abilities access and enjoy the outdoors.
More information about the exhibit can be found at megbandarra.com.
Shelby Lee is a short story writer and investigative reporter. They can be reached at email@example.com
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