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UNIVERSAL DESIGN - Walks and Trails

"All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking." Friedrich Nietzche

This article is the second dedicated to universal design and its potential to shape the world around us. The basics of universal design revolve around seven principles that can be creatively applied during the planning process, elevating a design and accommodations above and beyond minimum ADA requirements:

Principle 1 - Equitable Use
Principle 2 - Flexibility in Use
Principle 3 - Simple & Intuitive Use
Principle 4 - Perceptible Information
Principle 5 - Tolerance for Error
Principle 6 - Low Physical Effort
Principle 7 - Size & Space for Approach & Use (1)

How these principles apply to walks and trails is the topic of this article. Though the focus is primarily on recreational trails, these principles apply to urban walkways as well.

Equitable Use
Absolute equality in all cases is not feasible; however, thought should be given to how the same overall experience for all users can be provided and how to avoid inadvertent user group segregation. Basic planning principles related to safety, security and privacy, movement barriers, and information barriers should be equal for all user groups. Some trail and walkway amenities related to equitable use may include restroom facilities, railings and curbs, recreation facilities, overlooks, rest areas and path configurations.

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  • Park and Playground Design
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Flexibility in Use
Trails and walkways accommodate a wide variety of users (bikers, skaters, joggers, walkers, strollers, seniors, children, people with disabilities, etc.) representing an even wider range of user abilities. The addition of a few design features can assist in accommodating most users. User abilities to consider when planning trails and walkways may include: endurance limits, travel speeds, physical strength, stature, judgment abilities, cognitive understanding, mobility, sensory functionality and vehicular use.

Simple & Intuitive Use
Trails and walks should have limited circulation complexity and be simple to understand. Trail heads and entries should provide the user with a clear understanding of what to expect. This can be accomplished by actual physical layout, interpretive materials, placement of sensory cues and landmarks, circulation hierarchies, and most importantly consistency.

Perceptible Information
Each individual user will have different perceptions and sensory abilities. A trail should communicate, through many forms, information such as location, direction, safety, accessibility, available amenities, security, and existing barriers. Different methods of conveying information should include presentations of materials through pictorial, verbal, and tactile means. This material should be clear, concise, contrast with its surroundings for visibility, be universally legible, and be compatible with devices used by those with sensory limitations. Information and site circulation should also limit requirements for decision making.

Tolerance for Error
Minimizing consequences of accidental or unexpected actions is possible through forward thinking during the design process. Simple design features like raised curbs along tight corners and at toes of slopes, railings along steep slopes, warning features near hazardous activities or locations, proper bollard placement, correctly placed sight lines, frequent rest areas, proper trail widths, proper maintenance, and separated conflicting uses can help avoid instances where users place themselves in unsafe situations.

Low Physical Effort
In order for trails and walks to be navigable by all users, physical attributes of the circulation path should strive to limit repetitive actions, long sustained physical effort without relief, and should allow users to maintain a neutral body position as much as possible.

Size & Space for Approach & Use
This principal focuses on the usability of the site based on the user's body size, posture and mobility. Trail amenities, signs, and way finding features should be designed to accommodate the reach limitations of children, seated individuals, and standing users. Sight lines should be visible and recognizable from seated height as well as standing height. Trail heads should be sized to appropriately handle traffic levels, and to provide a sense for the actual size accommodations of the trail. (The user should be able to perceive the general trail conditions based on the condition of the entryway.) Trail crossings, water crossings, bridges, and path intersections should comply with the scale and materials of the rest of the trail. In addition, assistive devices should have adequate space to turn around and pass other devices.

These seven principles of universal design (discussed very briefly) should be considered guides to the thought process of planning a successful and enjoyable experience for all users. They are not however, the only items to consider during the planning process. Other planning principles to consider should also include economics, constructability, engineering, environmental concerns, and cultural requirements.

1. Bettye Rose Connell, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullick, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story, and Gregg Vanderheiden.1997. THE PRINCIPLES OF UNIVERSAL DESIGN. NC State University, The Center for Universal Design.


  • Universal / Inclusive Design - Part I-Playgrounds
  • State Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance
  • Proposition 84 Funding




Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect

This informational article provided by O'Dell Engineering - 1165 Scenic Drive, Suite A, Modesto CA 95350