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How natural trails can be more accessible - and more affordable!

Updated: Mar 12

A careful review of federal Universal Access trail guidelines reveals low-cost options for removing many barriers to natural trails for people with disabilities.

A bench on the PennDel pedestrian trail in White Clay Creek Preserve in southwestern Chester County, one of several trails in the region that approach Universal Access (UA) standards and that, with some low-cost upgrades, could become accessible to everyone .

Over the past two years, we have been exploring how trails might connect people with disabilities to the beautiful outdoors. And we were running into a problem: there are relatively few trails in our region that are accessible AND that immerse people in nature.

Most shared use paths like the Chester Valley Trail cut a wide swath through the woods, or run through fields or beside roads through long sections. Shared use paths like the Struble that thread through the woods beside a creek are the exception. As a result, shared use paths like the Struble draw a lot of traffic (including cyclists).

Another problem? Paved trails can be extraordinarily expensive. The recently-approved contract for 1700' of 6-8' paved pedestrian path running next to Chandler Mill Road in Kennett Township works out to more than $100 per square foot (not including design and permitting fees).

Even a gravel path like the recently opened section of the Woodlands Loop at Willistown Trust's Rushton Woods Preserve (pictured left) might require multiple funding cycles to complete. This is due to the cost of meeting Universal Access (UA) standards for hardened trails (summarized here on Kennett Outdoors).

Following extensive discussions with with experienced trail designers, we have begun to recognize that some natural surfaced trails can, when properly designed, approach these same UA standards and potentially meet the needs of many users facing challenges to mobility. We describe examples of these "A-" trails elsewhere on Kennett Outdoors, referencing Knutson and colleagues' excellent summary of regulations. These natural surface trails are not only easier and less costly to build, but their pervious surfaces also eliminate run-off. For example, a grass path designated for hikers only will do just fine for many users as long as it is mowed, maintained, drains well, and meets standards for grades. A hiker can actually touch nature when these trails are designed with a minimal footprint (e.g., as little as 3 feet in width along much of their length).

Still other natural trails ("B" trails) may meet UA standards for most of their length, but fall short of meeting full standards because of several isolated sections. For example, a path through the woods may be level and wide enough but have roots or rocks that create obstacles. As a result, some may only require relatively minor improvements to be entirely accessible to almost everyone. We give examples of these trails elsewhere on Kennett Outdoors, including how they can be improved to meet full UA standards.

Consider the .75 mile northern section of the PennDel trail in White Clay Creek Preserve from the lot on London Tract Rd to the bridge over the East Branch of the White Clay Creek (note that this is for hikers only, in contrast to the very popular southern multiuse section that continues from Southbank Rd into Delaware). Northern portions of this section run along the old Newark-Pomeroy line and so are level and dry. But several isolated sections make this a B trail, leaving it potentially inaccessible to wheelchair users. This includes 2" high rocks and roots (pictured above) that could simply be removed or graveled over. Other places with rocks or roots jutting 2" high or even higher) do not violate UA standards if there is an unobstructed route at least 32-36" around them.

Another barrier are the descents from the old rail bed where the trail turns east to closely follow the creek. The grades are simply too steep, and contribute to erosion that makes the trail a "C". As a result, the bench overlooking the creek (pictured at the top of this post) is simply inaccessible. Rerouting the trail to limit grades could also help to control erosion.

A more significant - but not insurmountable - problem is the entrance to the trail from the parking lot. At 31.5" wide, it is impassable for the typical 32" wide wheelchair user (I had to remove one wheel from my daughter's special needs stroller to get through). This illustrates the benefits of considering accessibility from the start of the design phase. Addressing the barriers noted above would allow everyone to enjoy a peaceful break by the creek.

So one of our goals at Kennett Outdoors is to identify trails that, with minor improvements, could approach full standards for universal access and potentially meet the needs of almost all users. Even better would be to join planners before trails are mapped out, to build in accessibility from the start. Parks and preserves in the process of being expanded. Spar Hill Preserve in Kennett Township, St. Anthony's in New Garden Township, or Big Elk Creek State Park in Franklin Township are just some places where we can map out natural trails that are accessible AND affordable.

Read more at Kennett Outdoors under our Learn tab, and check out our presentation at the Land Trust Alliance's national conference earlier this year for more detailed information.

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