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Trail building 101: Exploring design details you may not have noticed on your local trail

November 23, 2020

By Mike Dartizio

Are you an outdoorsy type that loves infusing hints of nature into your routine? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at trail system design thinking.

I love injecting a hint of nature into people’s daily lives. Neighborhood trails are an excellent means of doing so. It’s nice when people can slip on their shoes or runners and head out to a local trail a few minutes from their homes.

Aside from my work designing trails as a landscape architect, I enjoy using trails as a great way to unwind, refresh, and get some exercise while walking or riding my bike. This year, cycling has surged in popularity, as people look for safe, healthy ways to commute or get fresh air during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over the last decade or so, I’ve spent a lot of time working on a number of trail systems for municipalities such as the Town of Newmarket, Ontario. The town should be applauded for its trail work. Newmarket offers more than 44 kilometers of trails, including some that connect to the neighboring towns of East Gwillimbury and Aurora. So far, I think our work has truly magnified the beauty and importance of nature in the area, while achieving Newmarket’s goals to provide an open space for educational, recreational, and community interaction. My team and I are currently designing the fifth phase of Newmarket’s Dave Kerwin Trail system, which will add approximately 1.7 kilometers of trails, connect new neighborhoods, and provide more opportunities for healthy living and passive recreation. The new section of the trail is planned to open in 2022.

Through my time working on trail projects, I’ve discovered a lot about trail design, including several details that the average trail user may not notice. If you’re curious about our design approach, here are a few elements that go into good trail design:

It’s important to design your trail for different kinds of users—from young cyclists having a fun ride, to people commuting by bike to work or school, to dog-walkers meandering around the area.

Maintain accessibility

A good trail should be accessible for anyone. This may present a challenge on certain projects, since natural systems often contain hills and steep slopes. In Ontario, my team aims to adhere to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

How can you get a certain grade without incorporating stairs? How can you deal with steep areas? On the Newmarket projects, we’ve used switchbacks, which look like ramps going down a slope in a zig-zag shape. The walls required for the switchbacks are designed using natural elements—such as armour stone and the use of timber railings—that blend in with the natural environment.

Design for different kinds of users

It’s important to make trails versatile. I aim to design them so that different users, such as a commuter or a passive recreational user, can enjoy the trail simultaneously. Some people use trails just to go between point A and point B, so I try to make their commute as time efficient and safe as possible by providing direct route options and maintaining safe sight lines.

Some users may prefer spending more time and experiencing nature. How can you enhance that user experience? During the design process, we seek out areas that would maximize the enjoyment of the route and provide a variety of experience, whether it be a mature hemlock forest, a boardwalk across a wetland area, or a route to view the blooming trilliums. We respect the environment and ensure that the trails do not harm it. These nature trails provide a sense of exploration and create ways for users to see a good representation of various landscape types along the trail. 

A trailhead identifies the beginning of a trail system or a key entrance point into the system. In Newmarket, Mike’s team designed an arch with the word “Respect” on it.

Create trailheads

We can’t forget about the importance of trailheads. A trailhead identifies the beginning of a trail system, or a key entrance point into the system. Some trailheads include signage with trail-specific information, such as the length, connecting neighborhoods, or a map. They may also provide a space to secure your bike to a bike rack if you choose to experience a walking trail.

For the southern trailhead at Newmarket’s Dave Kerwin Trail, a park and archway form the entrance into the wooded trail system. This creates a ceremonial-like entrance to the forest—a gateway from a man-made environment into nature. We designed an arch with the word “Respect” on it right at the threshold into the natural environment, as the artistic feel of this arch and word ”Respect” gently communicate a number of messages, as opposed to fully spelling it out with a phrase like “Do not litter.” We wanted users to feel like they’re arriving at something special that should be respected—a place where they could leave behind their busy urban lives for a dose of nature and calm.

It’s vital that trail users can experience the beauty of the natural environment.

Infuse history and geography into the trail

Before designing a trail site, I always search for meaning that is tied specifically to the site’s context. This frequently helps establish a relevant theme. We ask ourselves: What’s the history of the site? Aside from the cultural heritage of the area, what are its physical characteristics? What is special about this location that should be made visible? Who are the users and how can we maximize their experience of the specific site? By incorporating this type of thinking into trail design, we feel like we’re adding a layer to understanding the spirit of place. It reinforces a connection to our community.

At one of the key entrances to the Tom Taylor Trail west of Fairy Lake, adjacent to Newmarket’s Main Street, we discovered that the site was a significant trading post location. The site is where canoes carrying furs and other items were rested as the town’s merchants would trade. This inspired our idea to develop a metal ribbed structure resembling an oversized remnant canoe as an entry marker and space definer.

For the Dave Kerwin Trailhead, we tried to reinforce the site’s natural heritage. The design of the trailhead park laid out trees to depict the process of forest succession—trees were laid out linearly from pioneer species (the trees that appear when a forest begins), to intermediate species, to climax species like oaks and maples. We identified the tree species by etching the shapes of leaves and tree names into the sidewalk. We also referenced geological formations found in the region—drumlins, which are glacial deposits in the shape of teardrops—by creating large berms that mimic drumlin shapes. 

A trail’s physical characteristics and history can inspire design details, such as etching the names and leaves of local trees into cement.

Maximize user experience while protecting the environment

It’s vital that trail users can experience the beauty of the natural environment. How can you protect the sensitive parts of the environment while simultaneously spotlighting them for the user?

When it comes to layout, you can select a route that minimizes disruption to the natural environment. The selection of the right materials, plus the use of boardwalks and bridges, will help protect sensitive areas. The trail will guide users so they don’t trample through woodland floor woods, which could damage sensitive areas. We also aim to capture great views, sounds, and scents of natural elements to create a richer experience. If there’s a massive old tree in the area, we’ll lay the trail out so that users can get a closer look at the giant.

We brought this thinking to our work for Parks Canada on the marsh boardwalk at Point Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ontario. We created half a kilometer of new boardwalk through one of the most sensitive marshlands in the province. We maximized the views of the aquatic species, birds, and vegetation, while making sure to bring a delicate approach to the design.  

Experiencing a trail is a healthy thing to do for both your mental health and physical health.

Think about the health benefits

In the end, experiencing a trail is a healthy thing to do for both your mental health and physical health. It feels great to connect to nature (the air, sounds, beauty, and pulse of a different rhythm). As I mentioned above, I’m a regular trail user and I’m proud to work on these types of projects. It’s nice how some neighborhood trails can give you a taste of nature and provide a sense of calm without requiring a long drive to a cottage or campground.

I love providing trail users with a thought-provoking experience that ties into the community, so it’s not just a physical walk—it’s a journey through the area’s physical and cultural history.

  • Mike Dartizio

    Leading our landscape architecture team in the Greater Toronto Area, Mike is a principal. His specialty? The design of the public realm targeting streetscapes, parks, trails, and public spaces.

    Contact Mike
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