Trailshaping is a system of understanding in which simple, everyday forces shape (generate) the big picture, details, and nuances of all trails and all trail types, as well as context-specific trail planning, design, construction, maintenance, and management.
In October of 2019 American Trails held a webinar to discuss the “The Nature of Trail Aesthetics.” This webinar was hosted by Troy Scott Parker of Natureshape, LLC. Parker starts by saying that four concepts—which are part of a larger system called trailshaping that structures how all trails are shaped in the real world—shape trails for better or worse. These concepts behave as forces that work together to shape all types of trails.
The first force Parker speaks of is called natural shape. Natural shape is literally the shape of nature itself, such as the kinds of irregular shapes found in rocks, plants, roots, creeks, and trees. Natural shapes help shape the character of the trail itself. The more that a trail has natural shape in its own alignment, in both large and small scales, as well as natural shape in its materials, such as natural stone and wood, the more naturalistic it feels. Natural shape is a force, not just a shape, because nature shapes everything with it. Straight lines and curvilinear shapes, in comparison, feel artificial.
Anchors are vertical features in the site that make a trail feel like it belongs where it is in relation to the anchors. For instance, if there is one tree in a large meadow, the trail feels best when it next to the tree. The tree anchors the trail. The more anchors a trail has, and the more that the anchors themselves are shaped with natural shape, the more the trail feels like it belongs where it is. Anchors are forces that shape trails because we like trails that feel anchored and therefore strive to have anchors on and along trails.
Nature & change includes the ways that nature changes things through weathering, wear and tear, vegetation growth, and all other natural and man-made forces. It includes changes that happen over time such as changes in trail shape due to erosion, widening, tread creep, etc.
Nature & change also includes intentional change such as intentional revegetation and restoration projects. It’s a force because all things change over time, including nature and trails, and the aesthetics of the trail change with them. As Parker explains, “Nature & change is amoral. It's not about whether change is good or bad. It doesn't care. It's about the fact that change will happen.”
The last force Parker presented is “the quality without a name.” This quality, named by architect Christopher Alexander in his seminal book, The Timeless Way of Building, is hard to describe in words, but as Parker says, “It’s the quality that results when all forces in the context resolve. Everything feels just right just the way it is.” The quality is always shaped by the physical shape of the site. “When the quality is present we feel it instantly. When we're aware of it we feel it intensely.” Parker quotes Alexander, stating that, “things and places that have the quality ‘have that sleepy, awkward grace which comes from perfect ease.’” Trails can have it when the forces of everything in a context—the trail, trail users, the site, and everything else—resolve such that all of the forces are resolved and none of the forces leak out and destroy the system in the short run. Trails and places that have the quality feel “alive” rather than “dead.”
Following the webinar, Parker allowed those with questions to submit them to him in writing, and provided written answers, which can be read in full here. One webinar attendee was concerned that by making trails feel “alive,” more naturalistic, casual, and relaxed, they would require more maintenance. Parker wrote that trails with the quality often require less maintenance because they resolve all of the forces in their contexts.
Another webinar attendee asked how an organization can instill an appreciation for aesthetics in seasonal trail workers and managers, not just the trail designers. Parker writes that when trailshaping as a whole is used—not just the four forces presented in this webinar—“aesthetics is an integral part of trails, not something free-floating or tacked on, and aesthetics shapes every aspect of working with trails for everyone who uses trailshaping. Organizational culture change happens as a matter of course with little overt effort.”
You can learn more about all these issues by purchasing the full recording of the webinar here; purchasing Troy Scott Parker’s book, Natural Surface Trails by Design: Physical and Human Design Essentials of Sustainable, Enjoyable Trails, at this link; and reading the full Q&A here. The full Q&A goes into more details about subjects such as visual arts, ADA compliance, and avoiding poisonous plants while trailshaping.