The Nature of Trail Aesthetics

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.

by Taylor Goodrich, Communication and Media Specialist, American Trails


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.

Natural Shape

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.

Examples of Natural Shape

Anchors

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.

Examples of Anchors

Nature & Change

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.”

Examples of Nature and Change

The Quality Without a Name

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.”

Examples of the Quality Without a Name

More Questions and Answers

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.

Image One: A trail that feels alive because it resolves all of the forces in its context, including erosion. Erosion is limited by frequent crests and dips in the trail alignment that cause water to fall off of the trail in the dips while forming natural shape in 3D. This trail needs very little maintenance.Image Two: This trail lacks dips for drainage. As a result, the trail suffers major erosion as water runs down it. This trail is being destroyed in the short run. It feels dead because it doesn’t resolve erosion as a force.

Image One: A trail that feels alive because it resolves all of the forces in its context, including erosion. Erosion is limited by frequent crests and dips in the trail alignment that cause water to fall off of the trail in the dips while forming natural shape in 3D. This trail needs very little maintenance.

Image Two: This trail lacks dips for drainage. As a result, the trail suffers major erosion as water runs down it. This trail is being destroyed in the short run. It feels dead because it doesn’t resolve erosion as a force.

This groundbreaking book explains the real keys to all types of natural surface (soil, rock, crushed stone) trails. For any trail use or location, it builds the critical foundation of a system of thought that can generate a sustainable, enjoyable trail. And it can forever change the way you look at trails.

This groundbreaking book explains the real keys to all types of natural surface (soil, rock, crushed stone) trails. For any trail use or location, it builds the critical foundation of a system of thought that can generate a sustainable, enjoyable trail. And it can forever change the way you look at trails.

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.

About the Author

Taylor Goodrich started with American Trails in January 2018 as Communication and Media Specialist. Taylor currently lives in Dallas, Texas, which is also where she grew up and where she attended the University of North Texas receiving her degree in History. While in college she started doing freelance work editing and writing, and also got into graphic design and discovered she loves the creativity and craft of digital arts. After college she traveled quite a bit, and lived in both the Pacific Northwest and in New Mexico, and while in both of those places took full advantage of what the outdoors had to offer. After moving back to Texas she started moving towards doing graphic design, social media, and communications work full time, and she has contracted with several companies from tech startups, to music festivals, to law firms, to grow their social media and digital communications presence. Taylor loves hiking and kayaking especially, and is glad to be working with an organization that fights for further accessibility and stewardship of our nation’s trails. She feels very lucky that in this position she will be able to use her professional skills and passion for something she is also very personally passionate about, and in helping to grow American Trails.

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