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Thinking Like a Trail Designer
1. Seven Missing Pieces
2. A Process-Based Approach
3. Advantages of the Process-Based Approach
Old and new systems compared
The process-based approach provides the seven pieces missing from technique-based attempts to learn and teach trail development:
The eleven concepts of the Foundation Level, plus words such as "shaping" as a more accurate term for natural surface trail design, construction, and maintenance, create easy-to-use nouns and verbs to both shape our thoughts and describe complex aspects of trails. This language facilitates learning, teaching, communication, and learning to treat trails as an integral part of a rich whole. It also establishes a new set of "primitives" that can be used to think about and communicate even more complex ideas while shaping our thoughts in the process.
Forces, relationships, causes and effects, and human factors
These are thoroughly described, mostly in the Foundation and Upper Levels, and integrated as the basis or an aspect of nearly all decisions. By basing everything on forces and relationships instead of particular techniques, we consciously work as much or more with the "why" of situations than with the "how" or "what." By concentrating on relationships, you'll learn to relate dozens of aspects of trails that previously seemed separate (or that weren't even apparent to you).
Means of predicting change over time
By looking at trails as instances of basic human and natural forces and relationships, predicting change over time is explicitly built into the Foundation Level (and hence incorporated into higher levels, too). In fact, predicting change over time is a major aspect of the Foundation and Middle Levels as well as one of the keys to sustainability.
A common base that works with EVERY type of trail use and location
Again, by explicitly looking at trails as instances of the same human and natural forces and relationships, it's easy to understand and work with any type of trail anywhere. Different trail uses merely exert different amounts of the same forces and have different degrees of the same basic relationships. And by working with locations and sites in terms of their base factors—soils, slopes, climate, runoff, drainage characteristics, interactions with trail use, sustainability of drainage, and more—any site can be understood. The Foundation Level provides most of the common base. In addition, it's easy to work with new materials, trail uses, and shaping techniques since you work with these in terms of their base forces and relationships.
A process that generates sustainability, enjoyment, and stewardship at the same time
By design, all three levels examine human and physical forces and their interactions, predict changes over time, and account for myriad variables. Also by design, these are performed with three overarching goals: (1) to be as sustainable as feasible (low impact, low maintenance), (2) to be as enjoyable as feasible, and (3) to engender as much appreciation, respect, and sense of stewardship as possible by skillfully combining human and physical aspects in satisfying ways. "Satisfying" is defined largely by human factors in the Foundation Level, especially in the concept of harmony.
A process that encompasses all of trail design, construction, maintenance, and management
By combining all of these in a clear, concise, three-level system, it's much easier to see their connections and consider all of them with any given decision. The process unites the known and previously unvoiced pieces of trail design, construction, maintenance, and management into a single process. It provides a concise, structured way to think and make decisions using a system of thought very similar to that used by skilled trail designers.
Effective, workable, easy-to-perform trail evaluation
The Foundation Level provides an easy yet comprehensive evaluation of how well a trail accommodates basic forces and relationships. The eleven concepts of the Foundation Level all provide a concept of how each can be maximized, so evaluation simply looks at how much the potential of each concept is realized. This is done without needing quantitative measurements and can take many variables into account, making the evaluation process quick and flexible enough to be useful. The Upper Level provides a more comprehensive evaluation that evaluates a trail on all three levels.

More advantages
Easy to learn. Because the process builds on what you already know, people find it easy to learn. Even the Foundation Level, which puts a new foundation under everything you know about natural surface trails, is comprised of familiar, even everyday, concepts. In workshops, I present the Foundation Level and part of the Middle Level to a room full of people in one classroom day—and they stay eager and awake because it relates so well to their real problems and what they already know.

Helpful to novices and professionals alike. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned professional, you'll find fresh insights in the structure, clarity, relationships, feeling, and language of trails once you understand them via this generative process. Even if you have experience, the Foundation Level puts a profound new foundation under everything you already know. In fact, because the process is so comprehensive and puts so much emphasis on skillful combination of human and physical aspects, it's rewarding to practice.

Attractive to volunteers. Because the process is so close to nature and human feelings as it weaves sustainability, enjoyability, and stewardship at the same time, volunteers love it. And because the process is direct, simple, and describes the real world so well, they can learn it easily and quickly. Volunteers using this system will make quantum leaps in their ability, effectiveness, and usefulness. Those volunteers who really "get into it" will be dynamos as they spread the word, attract and energize volunteers with their energy, and potentially begin to teach staff about the process.

Builds consensus. People using the system, including a roomful of strangers, can come to remarkable consensus in a short time because the process tends to lead everyone in the same direction. This is possible because part of the process is built on feelings, which we tend to feel in common, rather than opinions that tend to be more arbitrary and typically range all over the board. In fact, using this process is probably the best way to reach consensus in any review/comment situation.

Shapes our thoughts in holistic ways. As mentioned previously, the process uses language and constant emphasis on learning basic physical and human forces and relationships to shape our thoughts in naturalistic ways. The idea of building trails like small roads becomes unthinkable. You'll carefully consider you previously took for granted or didn't even think to consider. You'll see and use the rich web of relationships that determine how we feel about trails, how trails make us feel, what works and what doesn't. And you'll be inspired to do your best for the trail, for the site, and for the visitors.
book cover
Learning the process
By book or workshop, the process begins with the Foundation Level.

The short, full-color book Natural Surface Trails by Design: The Physical and Human Design Essentials of Sustainable, Enjoyable Trails describes the Foundation Level in detail.



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