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2. A Process-Based Approach
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

Skilled trail designers know how to work with the forces, relationships, causes and effects, and human factors that trail techniques alone don't explicitly address. But designers usually don't have language to talk about them—so they don't. Those who know what to do but can't talk about it also lack a concise, structured way to describe a process that anyone can use to generate sustainable, enjoyable trails.

So, to get the critical information into the world, we must name the unnamed, make it conscious and explicit, and organize both known and newly named elements into a simple structure and process. (Note that while this sounds easy when it's stated this way—and actually is quite easy to learn—it took years to evolve it into a useful form).

The big picture of this inclusive process looks like:
Upper Level Reasons to have (or not have) a trail, ecological considerations and impacts, overall trail planning and siting, types and amount of trail use, visitor psychology, visitor conflicts, management techniques, maximizing and managing the visitor’s trail experience, and other management issues.
Can be drawn on maps or described verbally in relatively simple terms
Middle Level Trail tread formation techniques, drainage systems, trail structures, materials, tool use, trail maintenance techniques.
Can be drawn in specific and quantifiable ways. Most existing trail "how-to" books primarily address this level.
Foundation Level Shapes and relationships in the site; human perception; psychology; erosion; forces imparted by trail use; behavior of soils and rocky materials; and trail/site factors determining tread behavior, water movement onto and along trails, and sustainability of trail drainage.
Cannot be drawn as specifics, highly relational and contextual, can be difficult to articulate without specific language

You may find it helpful to compare the old and new systems side-by-side.

The Foundation Level of Basic Forces and Relationships is a new concept developed by Natureshape LLC. It provides many of the pieces missing from the technique-based system of learning and teaching.

The Middle Level of Trail Shaping Techniques is directly based on and supported by the Foundation Level. Hence trail shaping (design, construction, maintenance) techniques are explicitly based directly on the human and physical forces and relationships that determine their design, sustainability, enjoyability, and appropriate use.

Similarly, the Upper Level of Trail Purpose and Management is supported by both the Middle Level of Trail Shaping Techniques and the Foundation Level of Basic Forces and Relationships.

Trails are planned, designed, constructed, maintained, and managed on all three levels simultaneuously.

Introducing the Three Process-Based Levels
Process-based thinking is best understood starting with the Foundation Level:

Natural Surface Trails by Design: The Physical and Human Design Essentials of Sustainable, Enjoyable Trails fully describes the Foundation Level. This is Book 1 in the Trails by Design series,
The Foundation Level—Basic Forces and Relationships
The Foundation Level distills over two dozen basic forces and relationships that determine physical and human aspects of natural surface trails into eleven concise, interrelated, relatively simple concepts. These concepts apply to each and every natural surface trail for any use—hiking, horse, biking, wheelchair, ATV, motorcycle, and ORV—and any location. By design, they help form sustainable, enjoyable trails that shape a desirable visitor experience as well as help engender respect, appreciation, and stewardship for trails and natural resources.

The eleven concepts determine:
how we relate to and perceive nature, trails, and sites
how we feel about trails, and how trails make us feel
how physical forces of compaction and displacement caused by trail use cause trails to change shape over time
how erosion acts, and how it interacts with compaction and displacement
how the properties of various soils and tread materials (soil, crushed stone, others) behave and interact under trail use in wet and dry conditions
how grades, slopes, runoff, water sources, weather and climate, tread width, trail use, erosion, water movement onto and off of trails, and the sustainability of trail drainage interact
Together, they are the basis for what works and what doesn't at the point where the trail touches the ground. They are what skilled trail designers know how to see and work with, and they are the basis for the majority of decisions made by skilled designers.

Knowing how the basic forces and relationships interact enables us to predict what will occur on any natural surface trail. Being able to accurately see what's happening and to predict the future is the key of natural surface trail design, and the Foundation Level gives us this ability.

The Foundation Level also provides language based on the eleven concepts, a common base for working with every trail type and location, effective trail evaluation relative to the concepts of the Foundation Level, and the keys to the process for generating sustainability and enjoyability at the same time.

Foundation Level concepts respect and work closely with nature to achieve both enjoyable and physically sustainable trails. In the process, trails demonstrate respect for nature to trail visitors. Also, by combining human and physical factors including how humans perceive nature, we can shape trails to provide the best possible trail experience given the site and context. Good trail experiences help engender respect, appreciation, and a sense of stewardship in trail visitors. In fact, the process considers respect, appreciation, and stewardship to be a critical part of sustainability because these feelings increase the desire to sustain what we enjoy and value.

The Foundation Level is fully described in the book Natural Surface Trails by Design: The Physical and Human Design Essentials of Sustainable, Enjoyable Trails, available from Natureshape. The description of the book also explains more about the Foundation Level.

The Middle Level—Trail Shaping Techniques
The Middle Level consists of traditional and improved trail design, construction, and maintenance techniques. By explicitly basing them on the physics and psychology of the Foundation Level, trail shaping techniques gain depth, sustainability, richness, and ability to engender stewardship. In addition, some Middle Level techniques based on the Foundation Level can shape more sustainable, naturalistic trails with less initial expense and lower maintenance requirements than traditionally constructed trails.

Middle Level techniques use Foundation Level concepts to:
Improve sustainability and reduce maintenance through design.
Help us find (or develop) the most appropriate solution for each actual underlying problem.
Improve traditional trail design and construction techniques.
Improve effectiveness of trail maintenance.
Reduce trail shaping costs where feasible.
Improve the visitor’s trail experience.
Use trail shaping techniques to manifest Foundation Level concepts and better serve Upper Level trail purpose and management.
Wherever it's helpful, the Middle Level defines techniques as patterns instead of specific techniques. Patterns, based on the concept of architectural patterns presented by Christopher Alexander in two groundbreaking books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, contain not only the "hows" but also the "whys"—not only the solution but also the original problem and how a pattern helps to resolve it. This wider definition of a technique makes it more specific and more general at the same time because the nature of the problem clearly helps determine the solution (as well as expose less-appropriate solutions for what they are). A handful of patterns can express the commonalities of countless individual instances that all solve similar problems in slightly different ways. For instance, all the different types of drainage dips and waterbars are all aspects of a single pattern, "dips." Hence patterns are a great learning tool since, once you know the pattern, you can create custom instances—based on Foundation Level concepts—for each unique situation.

The Upper Level: Trail Purpose and Management
The Upper Level addresses larger-scale trail planning and management issues including ecological and social impacts of trails, whether or not a trail should even exist, what a trail should visit or avoid, trail corridor selection and planning, types and amount of trail use, recreation psychology of trail visitors, the intended visitor experience, single versus multiple use, management techniques, and comprehensive trail evaluation.

Decisions at the management level can override factors on other levels. For instance, to improve/preserve ecological sustainability, it may be decided to close (or not form) a trail which works quite well according to the Foundation and Middle Levels yet has excessive ecological impact. Management decisions, however, cannot make a trail sustainable and enjoyable unless the trail can be shaped to be sustainable and enjoyable on both the Foundation and Middle Levels.

This vertically integrated process tends to generate an Upper Level in harmony with (fully supported by) the Middle and Foundation Levels. And where conflicting goals or aspects exist at the top—as often occurs—the system reveals the conflicts and makes it easier to know the consequences of various alternatives and compromises.

On the other hand, unresolved forces in the Foundation and Middle Levels can destabilize trail management and/or work against the trail purpose. The process reveals these problems, too—and can pinpoint what they are. If problems can be prevented or resolved at the lower levels, it won’t be necessary to make purely administrative (and often ineffective) attempts to deal with them at the Upper Level.


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