By Debbie Adams
The Roanoke Valley Greenways has launched a new website, much more user friendly and interactive than before.
Greenway Coordinator Liz Belcher explains what led to development of the new website: “All of our previous websites have been designed and built by volunteers. As the greenway system has grown, we have found it harder to keep that maintained. Also, website designs have gotten more sophisticated, which meant ours looked more dated.”
In December 2019 the Greenway Commission received a $30,000 grant from the AEP Foundation to “power the development of a sleek, modern website that will feature robust interactive maps.”
According to the commission, “This redesign of www.greenways.org is intended to attract new users to regional greenways and help longtime users discover new greenways and trailheads. The project requires significant funding to update maps and replace an existing site that has become outdated. The new site will share important information about the greenway network like route characteristics and changes, nearby amenities and volunteer opportunities.”
“Our greenways are a tremendous asset to our community,” said Larry Jackson, Appalachian Power external affairs director. “We’re grateful to have this opportunity to partner with the Roanoke Valley Greenways to make more people aware of our community’s network of greenways and trails.”
“In anticipation of the big check, we issued an RFP last fall and got 27 responses from all over the country and even from India,” said Belcher. “After interviewing candidates, we selected William Alexander, who is local. He was particularly committed to greenways, to giving us a good design, and to doing whatever it would take.”
Alexander lives in Roanoke. He is a graphic designer, web designer, WordPress Developer, college professor at Virginia Western Community College, and operates the private Roanoke Adobe Training service.
“From a professional perspective, I knew that working with the greenways would be a huge win for me,” said Alexander. “The greenways and Liz Belcher are so well respected and loved in our region, and they have contributed so effectively to the quality of life in our community, that any opportunity to be involved with the Roanoke Valley Greenway was not something to take lightly. I’ve long believed that the greenways have raised the Roanoke region’s profile as an outdoor-focused area, and improved our appeal from an economic development perspective, and I feel lucky to have been able to work with them. This was also a large project that involved some interesting technical and creative challenges, so it was just fun!”
Alexander was selected in late November 2019 and started on the project in December.
“This project took longer than I expected it to,” Alexander noted. “COVID was partially to blame for that, but what really took extra time was the process of refining all of the details that the trail pages needed to communicate, and the different types of trails and trail systems that we needed to feature,” he said.
“We initially began with a road-mapping process where we discussed the site with a variety of different stakeholders to make sure that we understood what users and municipalities wanted the site to provide. We then worked through a few phases of design and revisions, to develop a visual look for the website that met expectations. Design was followed by development, both of the website code, as well as the content and content structure that would characterize the site. Then much refinement of the site over time followed, until we were ready to launch,” Alexander continued.
“The highlight of the site for me has been the exposure it has given me to the trails that are in our area. By working through the site, and viewing every trail page in detail, I now am so much more informed about where the greenways and trails are in the valley. I’m sure my kids are tired of me saying ‘There’s a greenway just around this corner!’ Or ‘There are some trails on that hill over there!’ I think that one of the highlights that this site offers to the Roanoke Valley community is an opportunity to find trails they didn’t know existed, and to see new parts of the valley from a new perspective,” Alexander said.
The website includes a comprehensive history of the local greenway system, saying, “The effort to initiate a greenway program began in 1993 when local citizens of the nonprofit Valley Beautiful Foundation became interested in greenway projects they had seen in other states. They met with city officials to encourage development of greenways in conjunction with replacement of sewer lines.“The greenway program arose in 1995 as a citizen initiative to improve quality of life in the region. The City of Roanoke, Roanoke County, Salem and the Town of Vinton established the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission in 1997 with the signing of an Intergovernmental Agreement. At the same time greenway founders set up Pathfinders for Greenways, Inc. to be a non-profit that could involve volunteers in greenway development,” the website says.
The greenway network now includes over 400 miles of paved and natural surface trails. Botetourt County has become a partner. “The greenway network is part of the bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure for the region and increasingly provides connectivity to neighborhoods via sidewalks, bike lanes and on-road facilities,” the website says. “The greenways and trails have become avenues to get places without a car, a free training ground for athletes, a place to meet your neighbors, and an economic driver for the region.”
“We bought the URL www.GREENWAYS.ORG in 1997,” Belcher adds. “Sometime after that, one of the board members developed an initial site. It has changed and developed through the years depending on the skills of various volunteer board members. The regional commission has helped us through the years by doing most of the mapping and then our site would refer to them.
“We had significant input from folks who wanted mapping,” Belcher said. “This site is focused on finding and using the greenways and trails (at least those in the Greenway Plan). So many people now do everything on their phone and addresses to trailheads and online maps have become more important to users. We hope to continue to grow the website, adding more information, pictures, and so on,” she said.
Website users are able to access details on each trail in the greenway system including the distance covered, the elevation, the amount of use, the difficulty level, the surface type, whether it is wheelchair and stroller accessible, and the recommended activities for each (walking, biking, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, dog walking, bird watching, or jogging).
The public is invited to submit their pictures (under “Get Involved” on the menu) and allowed to communicate directly with maintenance issues. Users should continue to call 911 if they see illegal use, such as mopeds, or illegal activities (camping). This “Report an Issue” feature is in the table under each Greenway/Trail.
Belcher herself contributed to the development of the new website. “I’ve been working on it all along, with others on the committee and with locality staff – providing pictures, taking more pictures, correcting maps, GPS’ing parking lots and trails, etc.”
The Appalachian Trail specifics are yet to be added to the Roanoke Greenways website. The trail is included in the Greenway Plan.
“We felt there was so much information on the Internet about the Appalachian Trail that we wanted to take time to put it together carefully,” Belcher said. “In particular, we want to encourage use beyond the McAfee corridor.”
The website is a project continually in progress. “As trails and greenways get build, we will add them,” Belcher promised.
Check out the new Roanoke Valley Greenways website at https://greenways.org/