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A new urgency for planning quality trails

Trails provide many advantages and have a strong base of community support, but a number of thorny practical issues must be addressed as well.

By Roger Bell

photo: walkers on an urban trail
 

A new awareness has dawned in recent years in communities across the land. With the pace of development and urbanization, public entities must act quickly to set aside and preserve pockets of open space, wildlife corridors, greenways, and trails. Without thoughtful public policy deliberation and fast action, these vital areas for outdoor recreation and environmental appreciation may be lost forever.

For open spaces to be fully appreciated and made accessible for hikers, horses and mountain biker— and increasing for persons with disabilities— well constructed urban trails are vitally needed. Whether these expand the resources available in nature parks, become streetside bridle paths replacing sidewalks, link various urban areas in greenbelts, or occur on preserved hillsides and scenic areas near development projects, trails are being "rediscovered" as important recreational amenities for urban and suburban communities. Recreational planners have thus been asked to work with public agencies, citizen groups and developers to set in motion the mechanisms whereby good trails can be established and nurtured

"Good trails reduce environmental degradation, promoting care and appreciation instead."

Here are some of the significant advantages and values which well conceived and constructed "urban trails" offer:

Popularity
Hiking and other trail use is the number one recreational preference, according to a recent survey. Also, mountain bike sales have skyrocketed. Equestrian centers are thriving. Joggers especially like trails as an alternative to hard pavement and an opportunity for combining exercise with scenic beauty. Clearly, trails are a priority item for recreation and leisure area dollars.

Economic and community values
Trail systems say something significant about how communities can preserve a distinctive and slower paced or "rural" atmosphere. Recognizing this potential and building trails which are permanent improvements allows developers and property owners to significantly benefit from higher property values. Some communities report that their trails attract recreational tourist dollars and become opportunities for business development such as bike stores, equestrian centers, bed and breakfast places along extended routes, etc. Almost without fail, people who are resistant to trail development initially discover after installation what a positive value they offer economically and as a community resource. Around shopping areas or business parks, trails can enhance the way that space is used, integrating recreation and respite opportunities, inviting moments of pause and renewal amid the hectic pace of such urban places.

Access to and appreciation for nature
Conveniently accessing nature on well conceived trails encourages care for the local environment and for the flora and fauna that might otherwise be lost. Good trails reduce environmental degradation, promoting care and appreciation instead. High mountain trails attract outdoor sports enthusiasts, but urban trails are more convenient and provide for a much larger base of community participation. By linking with mountain and coastal trails, furthermore, they can draw use from people who might otherwise not have this opportunity. Through signage and educational interpretation, trails are a device for expanding awareness of environmental values, wildlife, and geologic features. Urban trails are linear parks-taking parks to people in ways that enhance a sense of community participation and real connection to nature.

Erosion prevention
Good trails preserve the land by controlling erosion and limiting traffic areas.

While there may be awareness of these advantages and consequently a strong base of community support for trails, a number of thorny practical issues must be addressed as well. Our companies, Bellfree Contractors, Inc. and Naturtec, seek to provide solutions and practical assistance through consultation, design and layout assistance, product advice, trail maintenance, as well as through full scale construction services.

In working with urban trail development, here are some of the practical issues and considerations with which government entities and others likely will be confronted:

Environmentalist vs. developer
Some communities find trails raise heated political debates between supposedly "naïve" environmentalists and "greedy" developers with sharply different interests and agendas. Mostly this turns out to be a non-issue, as the mature recognition emerges that all of us stand to benefit from wise public policy and action. A good trail system generally leads to win-win results. If may, however, take persistent political savvy to get initially opposing groups to reduce needless friction and find common ground. There are some brilliantly successful examples of how urban trail efforts not only have done that, but also have helped create a framework for resolving other environmental issues amicably.

Standards and Specifications
For example: Establishing trail width standards for different user groups; determining whether trails will be multi-use or specialized; working out consistent design standards for drainage structures, slash treatment, fencing, switchbacks, gates, barriers, steps, walls, surfacing and soil stabilization treatments, street crossings, bridges, walkways, turnpikes, signage, etc.

Location and aesthetic considerations
This includes determining the right balance of practical and aesthetic considerations in design and location— whether the shortest route and least expensive construction ate always best, for example, or, on the other hand, whether some overly elaborate plans are really in keeping with preferred simplicity in design; whether particular trails lead somewhere and therefore are also transportation corridors, or whether they primarily highlight some environmental attraction or provide an exercise loop, thus suggesting somewhat different design criteria. By avoiding oversize construction equipment, makeshift short-cutting, and steep grades, designers keep trails gentle on the land. Carefully planned location and construction methods are critical factors in preserving good trails and honoring aesthetic considerations.

Land use regulations
How to structure land use permits and regulations, dedications and other methods for assuring and funding trail development. What to do about isolated trail segments created by the timing of different development projects.

Mapping and incorporation
The planning process requires political entities to map trails so that they may be incorporated officially into the community's General Plan. This process can be laborious and calls for patient shepherding and hours of field exploration by informed trail users and government officials. Effectively navigating this bureaucratic labyrinth may require seeking out tried and tested methods others have already discovered. Use of GPS and GIS can improve the accuracy of trail maps and become tools for on-going maintenance; our company is developing expertise in use of such tools.

User rules
How to create positive trail rules and etiquette among various users, as for example between mountain bikers and equestrians. How to provide for on-going security and safe use.

Funding and Pricing
How will construction and maintenance be funded, and what kind of pricing is likely for various kinds of trail packages? Even if construction funding occurs through the development process, what costs and methods will assure adequate funding for repair and maintenance, after construction? How should contractors, consultants, volunteers, and public work crews be effectively utilized? When is privatization cost effective? What kind of grant funding opportunities exist and how can those be applied in the most effective manner.

Volunteers and trail maintenance
Trail user groups and volunteers are sources of great energy and enthusiasm and can provide needed support and funding. Nurturing such support takes effort and skill. It may involve, for example, creating a hand tool cache for use on large work parties, working out a system of trail adoption by clubs, etc.

On most projects volunteers need expert supervision to make the most of their contributions, and this may be a role for trail professionals such as us. Without our kind of assistance and specialized equipment, the well meaning work of volunteers can end up reducing its long term value and producing needless erosion problems, excessive grades, unneeded structures, etc. The Forest Service has found, in most cases, that contracted work is more cost effective in the long run and unquestionably of higher quality than in-house or volunteer construction. For that reason Federal agencies must obtain contract bids before they are permitted to do work by other means. However, it may not be necessary to make this an either/or proposition, as we have developed new models for combining expert and volunteer forces effectively. 

Whatever approach is used, clearly maintenance considerations must be in the forefront not an afterthought. We offer a comprehensive trail maintenance program for public agencies who may not have sufficient in-house or volunteer resources available.

Liability
Urban trails raise special kinds of liability issues and this can be a major roadblock in developing workable trail proposals. Fortunately, effective legal protections exist for property owners who dedicate land for trails, public agencies which manage them, and volunteers who repair them. This legal information is available.

Communication and coordination
Promoting good relations between land owners, government representatives, users, contractors, and volunteers; working with adjoining communities and public agencies to promote linkage with other trail systems; gathering community support and reducing reactions based on misconceptions about property values; news coverage and other devices for providing public information. These are crucial aspects of the trail program, and there is much good information about how to proceed in this arena. 

Environmental education
Using trails as teaching devices for schools and others about wildlife and natural resource preservation, geology, plant life, local history, etc.

Accessibility
Good trail planning must include the dimension of providing access for persons with disabilities. Accommodating different difficulty levels in the trail spectrum is a necessary part of universal design. Creating a trail system that truly considers the needs of all citizens— without pandering or condescension— is essential— and it is the law. Design guides for access to trails and other outdoor recreational areas are currently being reviewed and must be carefully studied when trail planning begins.  Gate design, trail surfacing and grades, restrooms, curbs, drinking fountains, picnic tables, degree of outsloping, bridges and other drainage structures— all of these must and should accommodate accessibility considerations. This does not mean all trails need to be paved and all hazards removed— it is always a matter of degree and thoughtful planning how these design issues are addressed. Our company "literacy" in this matter is evolving, and we would be pleased to share our perspectives and specific suggestions as well as to pass along those from an organization we support in this field, Whole Access.

These are some of the knotty problems and opportunities which surround urban trail development. We can help you develop a successful trail program and create trails that are well constructed and aesthetically pleasing so that they serve user needs and long term interests of your community .

An initial consultation to discuss your needs and our possible assistance is without charge.

Bellfree Contractors, Inc. and Naturtec
505 West Cypress Avenue, Redlands, CA  92373
(909) 793-4501
rog@naturtec.com 

Copyright © 2000 Naturtec

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