Feature Article - October 2009
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Blazing a Trail

Designing & Maintaining Trails for Today's Users

By Kelli Anderson

Maintaining Safety

Whatever the trail surface, when it comes to keeping them in top form it is essential to understand the particular maintenance requirements of each trail and the terrain it will traverse to avoid needless man-hours in repairs and safety hazards for trail users.

Wood chip trails, for example, which decompose over time, need fresh material added about every two years. Wood chips can also interfere with water drainage and may require a more vigilant eye to keep pathways clog-free. And while solid-surface trails like asphalt, stone dust and concrete may be a more maintenance-friendly option at the outset, over time cracks and small ruts, if left untreated, will become potentially deadly potholes for unwary bikers and skaters.

By and large, however, the main enemy of the trail is water. Over time outsloped trails typically develop berms on the outside edge which will eventually prevent water runoff and lead to trenching. By simply pushing the 4-to-5-inch berm back into the path as needed, water damage can be avoided. However, if left too long, deeply trenched trails become too hard to repair and often have to be relocated all together. An ounce of prevention in this scenario is definitely worth the pound of cure.

Some methods for diverting water are also more maintenance-intensive than others. Water bars, for example, are a common go-to solution but because of their tendency to fill up with debris over time and to require regular clearing, it can create a maintenance battle many find frustrating. For that reason, some prefer to design trails that implement the reverse-grade technique.

For many trails, simply having volunteers or staff regularly walk a trail to report any early warning signs goes a long way toward making short work of an otherwise too-little-too-late approach. For nonprofits like HHC, volunteers are the backbone of a dedicated operation, collaborating with hiking enthusiasts, scouting groups and community groups to report possible problems, to repair damage and to do the routine work of clearing brush every one to two years.

Ultimately, understanding what the community can contribute on a consistent basis as a well as identifying their limitations will go a long way toward making best choices. Early discussions and designs that include user input and where maintenance roles are spelled out for staff and volunteers can eliminate a lot of unwanted and unanticipated maintenance headaches.

Sign Me Up

But even with the best planning and construction, a trail experience can still fail to deliver the best results without good mapping, signage and amenities. In the case of Brookfield, the planners found ways to make the most of existing features by connecting its trails to city parks where users would have access to restrooms, water fountains and trash receptacles.

They were also forward-thinking when it came to their signage. Coming up with a master plan for their signs, the result is consistency in both design and message. "Before we installed any signs we came up with a plan," Kolstad said. "We made sure we had a consistent logo, theme and colors to phase it in as our trails are completed."

Other amenities include parking and bike racks near all trail heads and benches for seating scattered throughout the system. "More importantly, we've posted maps to help people find their way around," Kolstad concluded. "We're an edge city—the first suburb of Milwaukee. People are used to sidewalks without having to use cars. They're interested in a transportation alternative and the national trend is more outdoor recreation."