Feature Article - October 2009
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Blazing a Trail

Designing & Maintaining Trails for Today's Users

By Kelli Anderson

One More for the Road

As many recent studies have shown, Americans are turning more and more to the great outdoors—and trails in particular—to connect with nature, save on transportation costs and to simply connect in a more tangible way with their own communities. In a 2005 survey of home buyers by Brook Warrick of American Lives, 92 percent want low-traffic areas, 79 percent want biking and walking trails and 78 percent want open natural space.

It only stands to reason that when taking into account the different seasonal demands, locations and purposes for greenways and trails that one kind of trail design or construction cannot fit all. And it doesn't have to. "Think of a variety for trail uses: paved for bikes, crushed rock for walking, parallel treads for heavily used trails," suggested Stuart Macdonald, editor with American Trails. "Accommodate as many people as possible."

When done right, multi-use trail systems and their multiple construction designs have much to recommend them: functional transportation routes reducing traffic congestion, promoting energy conservation, providing recreational amenities for a wide range of users, creating land service access to outlying areas and even attracting visitors from far and wide (read: "Cha-ching!").

Local governments around the country responding to the increased demands for multi-use and regional trails are not only experiencing happier residents but a boon to the local economy by attracting tourists from beyond their borders. "Another aspect of the benefits is tourism like ski towns expanding to another season," Macdonald said. "The real thing is trails are a low-cost way to enjoy public lands and it's a growth area."

Taking the multi-use trail concept to an all-new level, the City of Elkhart, Ind., has created a path that doubles as an ice-skating trail within one of its riverside parks. "It is the only city in the country to have such a design," said Karin Frey, superintendent of parks and recreation for the city. "In the winter the trail becomes a skating path that leads to an open area. The trail mimics the frozen rivers of Amsterdam."

The creative path system, now only in its second winter, has been very well received and has become an attraction unto itself. "We're drawing from Michigan and some surrounding colleges," Frey explained of the design's success. "And of course we are getting varied interest from families too."