Why Trails Matter: Trails are Inclusive

Trails, if designed well, can promote equitable access to the outdoors for people of all ages and abilities, bringing together people with diverse social, racial, gender, and economic identities. Inclusive trails don't just happen. It takes a robust public engagement process, inclusive approaches to trail programming, public awareness efforts and trail enhancements to meet the diverse needs of the entire community.

by American Trails Staff

Inclusion is a matter of perception

Trails are often free to use and provide a variety of active transportation and recreation alternatives. Therefore, it may be surprising to discover that many trails and greenways aren't as welcoming to all users as they might seem. Unconscious and unintentional bias and inflexible approaches to public engagement can make a lack of inclusion hard to perceive. Potential trail users in the BIPOC community, those with physical and cognitive disabilities, and other underserved populations may be left out of the trail planning and design phases. This can mean that trails don't serve their needs.

The good news is that any stage of trail development can be an opportunity for outreach to the local community, and a chance to remove barriers to inclusion. Most importantly, embracing a robust engagement process is more likely to result in trails everyone will use and participate in maintaining. To quote activist and consultant Verna Myers, "Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance."

This article summarizes information about how to make trails more broadly inclusive. It is written for trails managers, designers, builders and interested volunteers.

Inclusive trails are important for quality of life

At American Trails we believe that access to trails, more than any other single factor, helps establish quality of life in communities and creates a growing psychographic of healthy, active people. The growth of trails has been a significant contribution to the growth of the active lifestyle movement and outdoor industry across the country. Trails and greenways are one of the most potent tools in maintaining urban viability and appealing to a broad range of demographic groups to which quality of life is paramount when choosing where they live, work and play. Inclusive trails are key to creating and sustaining an active, healthy culture and rich set of community amenities with connectivity and vibrancy. People of all ages, backgrounds and abilities want to live in active, authentic communities that provide residents and visitors with access to the outdoors, connected walkable urban design, and healthy active living. A robust trail planning and design process is a key strategy for achieving equitable and inclusive trails.

Inclusion as part of trail planning and design

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) states in its State, Regional, and Local Parks and Trails Systems policy document that "Equitable access and distribution of well-maintained state, regional, and local parks and trail systems are currently lacking in many American communities". According to the Inclusionary Trail Planning Toolkit, "The status quo expects disenfranchised groups to work harder in order to access resources that are more readily available to privileged groups. Because trails challenge this status quo by providing free spaces for recreation and transportation, trail developers are well positioned to achieve equity through inclusive planning."

A good first step in ensuring that your process includes a broad cross-section of the target community is to assess the local demographics. What is the average age and income in the area served by the trail or trail system being designed? What percentage of the local community members are at or below the poverty line? Are there languages spoken besides English? Think about how to effectively communicate with stakeholders. Keep in mind that outreach is one-way information sharing while engagement asks participants to share their experience and opinions and requires the trail planning team to listen carefully and not jump to design solutions too soon.

An inclusive and equitable outreach and engagement process may be different for each community during the trails planning process. It might include confidential personal interviews with neighborhood leaders and residents, focus groups with teen community activists, public meetings and visioning sessions built around community members' work schedules and availability, with translation for non-English speakers.

If you are looking to hire someone to help you get started, try the ASLA Firm Finder or the Trail Skills Project's searchable database of trail planning and design professionals. The American Planning Association and the Professional TrailBuilders Association also have some excellent resources.

Accessibility as part of inclusive design

When you design or realign a trail or shared use path, do you think about how it can accommodate wheelchairs, strollers, and those with other physical or cognitive impairments without conflicting with other users? Does your trail design include resting intervals, benches, and space for trail users to pass each other? Do you apply principles of Universal Design when designing and locating trail signage? How often do you think about the cultural barriers to access that people of color encounter? A study published in the 2022 Society & Natural Resources Journal indicates that trails managers can create a greater sense of inclusion for diverse groups by engaging underrepresented populations and enhancing outdoor public spaces to incorporate culturally appropriate place meanings into these spaces.

According to the publication Trails For All People, the physical and cognitive changes that come with aging mean increased challenges in accessing nature and outdoor recreation. According to a 2017 study, almost 13% of American adults have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, and just over 11% have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Deafness or serious difficulty hearing, and vision difficulties are also becoming more common as our aging population lives longer.

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility as a design consideration entered the public awareness. Trails for All People is an excellent reference for understanding the United States Access Board Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) and Outdoor Developed Areas Accessibility Guidelines. It is also a guide for Best Management Practices (BMPs) for non-federal hiking and pedestrian trail projects. Did you know that trails open to the public, even on private land, must be accessible to power-driven mobility devices, unless specific written policies disallow access by mobility devices? For understanding regulations governing trail access for power-driven mobility devices, (OPDMD) see Other Power-Driven Mobility Devices on Trails and Areas Open to Pedestrians.

The National Recreation and Park Association publication Active Parks! Implementation Guide is an excellent resource for parks and trails professionals interested in increasing equitable access to outdoor spaces. Including a broad spectrum of trail users means engaging the community and keeping them engaged. Programs like exercise classes or after school activities, promotional campaigns translated into different languages on trailhead kiosks, social media and print media, and access enhancements such as ADA ramps at crosswalks, entry points from nearby neighborhoods and culturally relevant signage all help more people stay active and make the most of their local trails.

Why are Inclusive Trails Important? 3 Reasons…

photo credit: Mike Bullington

  1. Because including underserved groups improves access for everyone.
  2. Because when more people have great places to go, that meet their unique needs, there is bound to be less conflict among different types of trail users.
  3. Because the process of developing inclusive trails is an excellent investment in building a vibrant, healthy, cohesive community.

More Resources from American Trails

Trails for All People - Guidance for Accessibility and Inclusive Design - 2021 Document

WeConservePA. This document, originally published in 2014, provides a constructive review of regulations and best management practices for trail and greenway accessibility.

Be Trail Kind - Trails are Common Ground Initiative Launches - 2021 Article

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) organized a coalition of diverse trail users.

Inclusionary Trail Planning Toolkit - 2020 Document

Pennsylvania Environmental Council. This document describes community engagement around open space development that focuses on improving the quality of life for existing residents and creating more equitable spaces by prioritizing historically disenfranchised groups.

How Trails Support Healthy Aging for All - 2023 Webinar

Measuring Our Success in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion - 2023 Webinar

Bridging the Gap - 2023 Webinar

The Trails Safe Passing Plan - 2023 Webinar

Trail Development: Considerations for Adaptive Mountain Biking - 2020 Webinar

Trails are Common Ground - 2021 Webinar

Youth Serving Accessibility - 2019 Webinar

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