Featured Ecologist: Ellia Simmons
May 30, 2024
World Environment Day 2024
June 5, 2024
Featured Ecologist: Ellia Simmons
May 30, 2024
World Environment Day 2024
June 5, 2024

Blog & News

May 31st, 2024

Designing for All: Trails

Author: Katie Haas
Positive human interaction and outdoor recreational opportunities are invaluable. In our society we find ourselves more distracted by what’s happening on our phones and less connected with our environment. When well designed, trails create low to cost-free opportunities for people of different demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds to come together through one shared outdoor experience.  It is through these experiences we can improve our mental and physical health and create positive life-long relationships with our local ecosystems. 
According to the National Recreation and Park Association 20 to 30 minutes outside including sitting on a park bench or walking on trails can ease levels of stress.  When not observed, stress and lack of exercise could contribute to high blood pressure and risk of heart disease (a leading cause of death in the US). This suggests outdoor recreation, such as that provided by trails, is critical for human health.
The benefits of trails are obvious, but what is not so obvious is the accessibility of use. The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 adults (27%) in the US  have some form of disability. Some disabilities reduce a person’s mobility and/or cognitive function making trails and natural spaces unsafe for recreation. The rough terrain, and lack of amenities and signage can be very unsafe or disorienting. As a result, a substantial portion of the population may not reap the benefits trails provide. 
It wasn’t until 1990 (only 34 years ago!) that the federal government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities.  This act opened the door for improved design standards that aim to create usable spaces for everyone regardless of ability and without separate or segregated access. Universal design signifies inclusive planning and implementation practices. 
According to the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina University, there are 7 principles for planning universal trails including:
  1. Equitable Use;
  2. Flexibility in Use;
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use;
  4. Perceptible Information;
  5. Tolerance for Error;
  6. Low Physical Effort; and
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use.
These principles can be integrated early in the design process through stakeholder engagement, and site analysis. Engaging communities and stakeholders helps to clarify desired outcomes and establish strong programmatic designs for the site. Thorough site analysis helps define ideal spaces for programmatic elements and protect critical habitats.  Although not perfect, these planning strategies will increase the likelihood that more people are able to use and engage with trail systems.
When possible, at Great Ecology, we strive to implement universal design into our projects. Our goal as designers and planners is to improve human connections with the beauty of nature in ways that are sustainable and have a low impact on the local ecosystem. Examples of universal design include clear and wide circulation patterns such as elevated boardwalks in low marsh areas, or directional signage to site amenities such as bathrooms, benches, and lookouts. Great Ecology had the opportunity to implement some of these universal design strategies in a trail system as part of the Woodbridge Waterfront Park Restoration Project. As a result, Woodbridge Township was provided with the tools to develop its first public access to the Raritan River in over 100 years!
Trail systems like the Woodbridge Waterfront Park Restoration Project are an important asset for establishing a human connection with nature, creating inclusive spaces, and increasing opportunities for passive and active recreational activities.
So, the next time you wander down a trail and stop to experience a spectacular view, or feel the cool breeze prickle your skin, ask yourself how we can make more trails accessible to people of all abilities!