Four Simple Tasks to Do Prior to Trail Design

By Jef Farland, CPRP, MPA

Asking the right questions is a vital first step in effective planning of a trail project.

After over thirty years of professional experience in the field of parks, recreation, and leisure I decided to make a change and work toward joining the academic profession. The last two and a half years have been spent at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) working on my doctorate in Leisure, Youth and Human Services. This experience has brought a tremendous amount of satisfaction to my personal life as now I can blend and share my professional experiences with the more structured academic environment.

One of the biggest rewards is the opportunity to once again "sell, promote, and develop" leisure opportunity through service learning education. One such opportunity arose in the second semester of my studies as I had the opportunity to be a graduate assistant in a class called "Recreation Impacts and the Environment."

The class focus was to design and develop a plan for a trail on the UNI campus in an area that had historically been set aside for senior housing. The land had been left in a natural condition for more than 30 years and there was no clear plan for the immediate future. The outcomes of the initial class were carefully developed during a four month process of working with the "UNI Community" along with teams of two to three students. Although the process was extremely thorough I would like to simplify its results and offer some important tips while considering the design and development of a multi-use trail design.

photo credit: Josh Popichak, Saucon Source
Involving the community is another essential step to a successful trail project

Involving the community is another essential step to a successful trail project

The community process

Community input and concurrence is an extremely important phase of the process. In fact it is the most important part of the initial process. When initiating a new idea in any community it is desirous to make sure that the stakeholders become involved. It is also important to seek interested supporters of the project as well as those who may have issues or concerns. This simple procedure will not only expedite the process as the community then becomes a team member in the design and decision making, but will also alleviate those concerns and issues that are brought upon by misconception and rumor. When the "community" is involved the project is also viewed as open to the public and becomes rewarding as equal input and mutual respect is built by stakeholders and team members during the process.

Focus on the project goal

During the initial phase of the concept design it is very important to focus on the specifics of the trail and its purpose. Why is the trail being proposed? Where is the final general location? Who will use it? What type of trail will it be? During the UNI trail design process our design teams promoted several very different ideas that included student only use to links to the overall community bike path, and various programmed use from competitive BMX bicycle trail designs to a more natural study area to be utilized only by the Natural Science Department. It is up to the community to decide what the ultimate location and use should be, but the focus of the trail must be decided and fully agreed upon prior to moving forward. If all parties can concur on one purpose for the trail it will bring everyone to a much needed decision regarding its future development.

photo credit: Jef Farland
The planning team is charged with the process of conceptually designing the trail

The planning team is charged with the process of conceptually designing the trail

The plan

Once the trail design is focused in one direction the next step is to develop an overall project plan. Who will design the trail? Where will the funding come from? How long will the trail be? What type of surface will the trail have? What other amenities will it have? What construction protocols must be followed? This will be the responsibility of the community design team.

This group may be a subcommittee of the community input process, a municipal design staff, or a special landscape architect consultant may be hired to facilitate the specific design process. In the case of UNI , the student teams each acted as a consultant group and six different concept designs were presented. These options are open and community politics and resources will dictate the outcome. The central point to the process is to have a thorough plan developed that will lead the trail construction through to a successful development process.

The long term responsibility

Who will be responsible for the long term needs and maintenance of the trail? This question is often answered very simply; who owns the land? In the current economic situation however this is not always the case. In some cases the most responsible party is the land owner, possibly the local university, municipality, or state agency. During the design phase and after the trail is completed there is often a partnership agreement between the land owner and various stakeholder groups to care and maintain the trail and its surrounds. For instance, the local BMX bicycle club may offer to be responsible for the development and upkeep of the BMX bicycle trail. Conversely, the local Audubon group or Ducks Unlimited Club may offer to provide and plant wildflower seeds and maintain those areas with annual cuttings or burns as appropriate to sustain long term growth. The local Boy/Girl Scout or Environmental group may offer to construct a natural trail and lay woodchips along it or provide appropriate signage and benches. A coordinated effort will definitely offer a greater return to the community.


These four simple tasks are obviously not so simple in the reality of trail design and development. They do however offer a logical path to the process of conceptually designing a community trail of any proportion. There is never a process that will fit the needs of every community. Use these simple tasks as a guideline to assist in your process. Please note that there are also many resources available in your local parks and recreation, regional and state agencies with the expertise to assist you in this process. In some cases there may also be an undergraduate recreation impacts class at the local university that is seeking a class project for the next year or so!

More articles in this category

Blackstone River Bikeway (2017)

posted Apr 19, 2024

The Blackstone River Bikeway is a 48-mile-long route connecting Worcester, Massachusetts with Providence, Rhode Island. The Bikeway generally follows the historic Blackstone River and utilizes an off-road multi-use path and an on-road facility.

Benchmarking Bike Networks

posted Apr 17, 2024

This report summarizes guidance and best practices to create safer bicycle facilities and connect them into networks that allow more people to safely bike to more places within and throughout communities.

Wilderness Stewardship Plan Handbook

posted Mar 27, 2024

The purpose of the Wilderness Stewardship Plan Handbook 2014 is to provide direction for creating wilderness stewardship plans, driven by the concept of preserving wilderness character. The Handbook focuses on how to incorporate wilderness policy and wilderness character into a wilderness stewardship plan and also offers a general overview of planning and compliance to be useful for those with and without a professional background in planning.

Ice Age National Scenic Trail: Trail Stewardship Notebook

posted Mar 27, 2024

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail (NST) is a thousand-mile footpath highlighting Wisconsin’s renowned Ice Age heritage and scenic beauty. The Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) and its partners can shape users’ experiences. As stewards of the land and the Trail, we can help users develop a connection with the land and create a sense of wonder — even pique their curiosity enough to further explore the Trail.

1,353 views • posted 05/23/2018