Hamilton, Ontario. 1897. Local cyclists or ‘wheelmen’ advocate for a cycling trail from downtown to the waterfront. The route? A diagonal section of land slicing through the street grid, following the course of a 1850s underground water pipe carrying three million litres of Lake Ontario water daily to a reservoir on the Niagara escarpment.
Two years later in 1899, the wheelmen celebrated the opening of their gravel cycling trail with a grand cycling procession.
Over the decades, however, as Hamilton evolved, the vision for the Pipeline Trail receded in peoples’ minds.
Although Hamiltonians continued to use sections of the disconnected 6 km trail for walking and cycling, the route was far from realizing its potential as a linear park knitting together four different Hamilton neighbourhoods.
That is, until Elizabeth Seidl and her neighbours came along.
Elizabeth and her neighbours make up the Pipeline Trail Planning Team, a volunteer-run group dedicated to improving this unique Hamilton green space.
“When I first discovered the Pipeline Trail, I didn’t know about its history and importance, so it felt like a random, nondescript trail in the suburbs. I didn’t see it in the way I see it now – as a space with incredible potential.”
In just a few years, they have convinced the City to develop and start implementing a Pipeline Trail master plan that includes $4 million of planned investments in park infrastructure. They have thrown parades, held clean-ups, built gardens, and nurtured crucial relationships with non-profits and city staff who share their vision for the trail. In other words, they have brought a community, and a city, together to realize the potential of this hidden gem.
How have they achieved such great success in such a short time? And what can we learn from them about what it takes to get community-led initiatives off the ground? Elizabeth shared their story and advice with Park People:
“I was aware of the Crown Point planning team (one of Hamilton’s community planning teams that develop and implement action plans for their neighbourhood) for a while, but I’m reserved by nature. Eventually I had had enough of hanging back. You have nothing to lose by getting connected to your community.
And in Hamilton, you get the sense that you can really do anything – there’s even a t-shirt that says ‘you can do anything in Hamilton’! There are small grants available, and the neighbourhood planning teams are like tiny think tanks where you can find like-minded people to work with. That makes it easier to get involved.”
“The Crown Point planning team community developer and another long-time team member laid the groundwork by giving me guidance and connecting me to other people who were interested in the trail.
That first spring, I led a Jane’s Walk. It was the first thing I did on my own and it was daunting. But I got to know another lady who was organizing Jane’s Walks, and I thought – what do I have to lose?
A number of people turned out for that Jane’s Walk. The city had just hired Jason Thorne as the General Manager of Planning and Economic Development, and guess who showed up for my Jane’s Walk! He has been a really good supporter ever since.
Not long after that, I did an online and in-person survey of the neighbourhood to gather people’s ideas for the trail. This also helped me gather more interested volunteers. As a next step, I held a meeting in my backyard. 8 people came out, and we decided to do a parade and a pop-up parkette at Kenilworth Avenue in the parking lot.
We asked for a small grant through our neighbourhood planning team. At the same time we applied for a bigger neighbourhood engagement grant through the Hamilton Community Foundation. We decided to use this grant for a pollinator garden and the addition of some benches, which were some of the top things that people had asked for through the survey.
We needed a charitable organization to partner with us to apply for the grant. Both the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club and Environment Hamilton came on board – I found their Pollinators Paradise project blog one night and emailed Jen Baker, and she thought the Trail was a perfect place for a pollinator garden.
As a team, we created a design for the garden. We have a master gardener as part of our team who led the design process. We also worked closely with city staff to address sight lines and safety issues.
We needed to create a group of stewards to take care of the garden, so we formed an adopt-a-park group, the Crown Point Garden Club, separate from the Pipeline Trail Planning team. The Garden Club also does an annual plant sale and tends to other public gardens in the neighbourhood like a large boulevard.”
Taking a leadership role
“I see myself as the organizer mostly – the liaison, promoter. I wear many hats at different times, and the team wears many hats too – we all bring different strengths. I always try to bring us back to the core task of bringing our vision statement to life. It is a vision we created together, and I check that everything we do is in alignment with that vision.”
Getting people involved
“It’s important to go to meetings, listen to what people feel strongly about and what they want to see. And do lots of events. I do feel fatigue sometimes, but over the years the team has become more solid. Clean-ups are easy, and every event gets easier the more times you do it. Over the years I have gotten better at project management.
Learning and using social media to your advantage has also been a big advantage. I even tried out paying for a Facebook ad last year for the parade.
A well-timed survey can really start a larger conversation, and prompt people to opt in to help. The first survey connected me with people who are still on my team now.
The McMaster School of Nursing has a course that works with community planning teams. We were lucky to benefit from this as a ‘code red’ neighbourhood. The community gets to pick the research questions. One year they studied walkability, and another year they looked at the socioeconomic impacts of revitalizing the Pipeline Trail. The walkability study identified the trail as a neighbourhood asset that should receive investment. Their community presentations helped me recruit more people to join the team.
Overall, you just have to keep things moving – regular updates provide regular momentum.”
Recovering from setbacks
“We had some challenges during community consultations for the master plan. Turnouts weren’t huge, and the process was not as effective as it could have been. Beyond our core group, we didn’t have many people turn up.
After that we regrouped and did some walkabouts in the different neighbourhoods. We asked people if they had heard about the meetings and about the project.
The final presentation of the master plan went much better. It was held at the Museum of Steam and Technology, and was organized as a family activity on a Saturday with food. Everyone was in a great mood, and the Hamilton Spectator came.
Later on, there was a letter circulated by someone living near the trail who would be impacted by the development of the trail as envisioned in the master plan. He was concerned about access to his garage via an alleyway. There are also others who were concerned about loss of parking near the trail.
It was frustrating to hear these concerns after the master planning consultation process, which they could have participated in. But because we can’t address these issues ourselves, we are staying focused on showcasing the benefits that the trail can bring to the entire neighbourhood.”
Working with decision-makers
“Form partnerships with like-minded organizations like we did with Environment Hamilton and Hamilton Naturalists Club – it gives you credibility because they are well-established and talk to the City all the time. The City then takes you more seriously because those groups have been around for years and have a strong voice.
Build a strong relationship with your city councillor. Our councillor has moved things along faster than I would have imagined. That first summer, he moved a motion for the master plan. It helped to have the environmental organizations meeting with him. The Crown Point planning team had also identified the pipeline trail as part of their community plan. He had been hearing about it for a couple of years from multiple places, so he had to respond.”
“The biggest impact of my work has been keeping the momentum going, but there are also things you can see, like the gardens and the benches. During events like the clean-ups, which we do two or three times a year, people see us having a good time, and we get to see people out and about using the trail. People always thank us when they see us working on the trail.
And we’ve expanded our reach – for example, now Park People knows about the Pipeline Trail!”
The personal impact of volunteering
“The Pipeline Trail has changed me. This project has opened doors for me in the neighbourhood and built my skills and confidence, and even helped me in my day job.
I do sales in my work as an interior designer, and being able to articulate your vision is a huge part of getting new clients. I realized that sales is really storytelling, like telling the story of the Pipeline Trail. Through my work with the trail, I have been building my own confidence in being able to go out there and tell my story, in a way that’s interesting and that makes people want to be a part of it.
I never could have imagined what I’m doing now, and now I can’t imagine not doing it.
Where I want this to go is that there is a succession plan, and maybe I’m not here to do this in the future, but there is someone else to step into this role. This work will be built up enough that someone else can take it forward.”
What’s next for the Pipeline Trail?
“We are currently planning this year’s Pipeline Parade, with funds from the City for Canada 150. We are doing a nighttime parade at dusk with the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre. We want to make this parade as inclusive as possible, and we want to engage with the local indigenous population.
Getting a new organization involved each year to build that broader base of support is critical.
We will also be receiving an Ontario Arts Council grant to fund a series of workshops to explore what kind of community art we could do along the trail.
And funding has come through for another pollinator garden on the other walkable part of the trail. There’s a charitable housing organization called Indwell with a building along the trail, and we hope to work with their tenants on planting and stewardship of the garden and include them in the community art workshops.”
The Pipeline Trail in 2025
“When you visit the trail in 2025, people of all ages will be using it – kids, cyclists, dog walkers, parents with strollers, older people. There will be more places to spend a little time, sitting, playing some games. It will have been resurfaced and graded, and the street crossings will be safer for everyone, including pedestrians and cyclists. There will also hopefully be less car traffic, because of the LRT.
There will be wayfinding signage, more trees and gardens, and art. I’m hoping to see both public art and community-involved art, whether that’s banners or painted fences or sculptures.”
5 key lessons from the Pipeline Trail
1. ‘Keep the iron warm’ with regular events and updates
2. Use many different outreach methods – experiment!
3. Build a diverse chorus of voices in support of your park
4. Craft a shared vision to focus your efforts (and bring everyone back to it if the work strays)
5. To make sure your project is sustainable, plan for a future without you in charge