Connecting Paths And Building Bridges

Many people have a unique memory of hiking or biking along trails. I recollect being at state parks, spending weekends with family by my side. We often biked along winding, narrow boardwalk paths that revealed amazing views or beaches at the end—the perfect spot for a picnic and sightseeing.

These trails, regardless of where they are, share one thing in common—they encourage connectivity, exploration, and discovery. They are a necessity for communities because trails improve the economy, promote tourism, preserve and restore open space, and provide opportunities for fitness and well-being.

Each jurisdiction, whether national, state, or local, is faced with important long-range trail plans. They allow areas to set goals for maintenance and resurfacing, increase safety along existing trail corridors, improve connectivity between existing trails, and identify opportunities for new trail systems—all necessary functions to preserve trails for future generations. 

Master Planning Trails

As the landscape architects for Timmons Group in Central Virginia, our team has partnered with a number of localities and organizations to plan for the future of trails. We often work together towards the lofty goal of implementing an interconnected, nationwide system of non-motorized trails that lay lightly on the land. We’ve helped develop strategies that meet goals, inspire imagination, and reach a childhood sense of wonder. When working with various agencies, we often begin the process by recommending the establishment of a strong foundation—taking inventory of existing conditions, analyzing them, and then prioritizing the needs.

  • Inventory—Prior to initiating the inventory, noting comprehensive trail standards and design guidelines is critical. New technology, like GIS, hand-held devices, and web-based applications, has made complete trail mapping and inventory a more streamlined process than ever before. One person can walk a trail and collect all data necessary, including trailhead locations, width, materials, and conditions, which is then easily downloaded into a comprehensive file. 
  • Analysis—Once the data are collected, each trail should be examined using a series of metrics, including connectivity, cost, and feasibility, in order to objectively prioritize all proposed trail additions and upgrades. Accessibility, safety, and compliance with current environmental and stormwater regulations are key considerations for existing trails.
  • Prioritization—A number of factors need to be considered in the prioritization phase, including the potential for connectivity, costs, feasibility, and community needs. Community involvement at this stage is invaluable in determining which alternatives will best fulfill the needs of trail users. Scoring for each factor should be structured to yield high, medium, and low priority trail enhancements. With priorities and phasing articulated, jurisdictions can then begin fundraising and incorporating those needs into capital planning. 

Implementing The Master Plan

Once a strong foundation of inventory, analysis, and prioritization is secure, the next phase is design. Trails should be designed with four guiding principles:

  • Sensitivity to environmental conditions
  • Safety
  • Connectivity to trail systems
  • Composition of users.

Professionals with specific experience in trail design are essential. An estimate of fees, ranging from 6 to 10 percent, should be accounted for in the trail’s initial installation cost. 

Trail projects require review and permitting prior to construction. The number of required submittals and the approval process will depend on the complexity, location, and land disturbance of each trail. Typical trail widths range from 6 to 12 feet depending on hierarchy and requirements for emergency access. Surfaces range from compacted soil, engineered wood fiber, or wood chips to gravel, asphalt, or concrete. The topography and intended use are critical factors in determining the best surface for each trail application, preferring those that combine longevity with cost effectiveness.

Trails should be made accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Current regulations focus on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines, although there are alternative standards for trails in some locations that allow for more challenging conditions.

Safety should be the number-one priority for planning trail corridors. The methods and standards of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design for planning optimize visibility, activity, and safety for users and deter criminal activity.

Maintenance Of The Trail System

Trails wear out over time, and the demographics of trail users are constantly changing. Each surface has a projected initial cost and also a maintenance cost over time (life cycle cost). When designing and building trails, it is important to note that long-term maintenance costs can sometimes account for an additional 35 to 45 percent of the original cost of the trail installation. Be sure to budget yearly for trash/debris removal, sign and lighting replacement, pavement stabilization, and landscape maintenance.

Being located in Central Virginia provides our landscape architecture team the opportunity to work on a number of unique trail projects. Recent projects include:  

Connectivity And Accessibility

Henricus Historical Park, in Chesterfield County, Va., is nestled adjacent to the 800-acre Dutch Gap Conservation Area along the James River. A primary goal of the 10-year master plan for the park was to connect regionally with nearby greenways and blueways to tie into a major East Coast system. A secondary goal was to raise funds to implement the design of a proposed pedestrian spine that will be universally accessible and cantilevered over a series of exhibits on river commerce and Native American life. As part of this master plan, Timmons Group has prioritized and prepared costs for all proposed connections. Future trails, both on the site and connecting to the regional system, will increase tourism dollars, grow school group outreach, expand environmental and educational opportunities, and increase access to fishing, biking, birding, and kayaking.

Sustainability And Wellness

The Bon Secours-Washington Redskins Training Facility and Park in Richmond, Va., is a major event space hosting over 160,000 people for 3weeks a year when the football team is in town. The facility is designed as a sustainable urban park showcasing 36 species and varieties of native trees, a ¼-mile-long crushed-stone trail with exercise equipment, a 2,000-seat amphitheater, and musical play equipment. The trails and equipment are utilized by Bon Secours as part of its commitment to the NFL Play 60 fitness campaign, which encourages young fans to be active for at least 60 minutes every day.

Discovery And Wonder

The city of Richmond boasts some of the greatest urban whitewater rapids in the country along the James River’s Belle Isle. Until 5 years ago, the experience of traversing along the large boulders on the rapids was inaccessible to visitors with limited mobility. Thanks to the persistence of a very thoughtful and passionate park superintendent, adding accessible ramps made of native hardscape materials became a top priority. The ramps to the river have afforded many individuals the sensory experience of being in the middle of a rushing river with the deafening sound of the rapids, cool breezes, and all-encompassing splashing water enveloping them. 

These three examples emphasize how imperative trails are for our communities. Each jurisdiction will face various obstacles when implementing and maintaining trails as technology and user demographics change. We must continue to adapt and work together to provide communities with economic value, tourism value, restoration value, and the opportunity for fitness and well-being through trail systems.

As the firm’s Principal Landscape Architect, Lu Gay Lanier, LA, FASLA, is responsible for land planning and landscape architecture support for all sectors of Timmons Group, a multi-disciplined engineering and technology firm. Lanier recognizes the need to integrate economic, environmental, and social responsibilities into each design project. She applies these philosophical approaches in this challenging economy. Through self-discovery, education, and innovation, Lanier is committed to excelling in the new generation of landscape architecture and how site design becomes an integration of disciplines beyond pedestrian spaces and plants. 

Scott Wiley, LA, is a landscape architect with Timmons Group, an ENR Top 500 Design Firm and leader in civil engineering and professional consulting services. From his experiences with nature, he has developed a unique understanding for how people interact with the spaces around them and how designers influence the way people see the environment. He has had the opportunity to work on a diverse group of projects ranging from small parks and trails to large-scale community master planning. Through exposure to environmental, commercial, residential, municipal, and parks and recreation projects, he has developed an expertise in creating spaces for people that have an impact on the quality of their lives.