Skip to content


Path to a Brighter Future: Sustainable Trail Design

Path to a Brighter Future: Sustainable Trail Design

From families strolling along a path to cyclists having a safe, scenic place to ride, trail systems are quickly becoming vital components of urban and rural communities. They promote physical activity which can improve health and mental well-being. They act as social hubs where residents can gather, interact and build community connections. Trails also support economic growth by boosting local businesses and increasing property values. This myriad of benefits contributes to a community’s overall quality of life. However, the true potential of trails is realized when they are designed with sustainability in mind.

When trails are designed and constructed sustainably, they provide even greater value to communities. A sustainable trail design balances the recreational needs of users with environmental preservation, ensuring the trail's longevity and minimizing its ecological footprint. 

Accessible and Inclusive

Sustainable trails are designed to meet the diverse needs and expectations of users, ensuring accessibility, safety, and enjoyment for all. Inclusive trail designs are essential to address the needs of all users, including those with disabilities and underserved communities. Trail corridors can provide critical cultural connections and access to commercial, retail, and recreational areas without relying on vehicular transportation.

Access to quality parks and trails is directly correlated with improved health outcomes. According to the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore index, residents in top-ranking cities are less likely to suffer from poor mental health and physical inactivity compared to those in lower-ranked cities. Trails should also be designed to accommodate a wide range of users, ensuring that everyone, regardless of physical ability or socioeconomic status, can benefit from these public spaces.

Protecting the Environment

When designing sustainable trails, strategies to preserve the environment and mitigate ecological impacts should be incorporated. By minimizing environmental impact, sustainable trails protect natural resources and preserve the integrity of surrounding ecosystems. This includes:

  • Preserving Natural Features. Trail alignments can be adjusted to protect tree canopies and capitalize on natural viewpoints, enhancing the user experience while preserving natural landscapes.
  • Environmental Review Process. Identifying environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands and nesting habitats during the environmental review process allows for informed trail placement that avoids these critical zones whenever possible.
  • Low Impact Designs. Incorporating low-impact design elements like switchbacks, elevated walkways, and effective drainage systems helps preserve fragile ecosystems and reduce environmental degradation.
  • Natural Landscaping and Materials. Using locally sourced, natural, and/or recycled materials in trail construction reduces the carbon footprint and supports sustainable practices, further protecting the environment.

Built to Last

Resilient trails are built to withstand environmental challenges, such as erosion, natural disasters, and climate change, ensuring their longevity and reducing maintenance costs. Sustainable trails are built to be resilient and require minimal maintenance. They remain functional for years and can reduce long-term costs. This can be accomplished in several ways.

  • Environmental Assessments and Planning. Understanding the local ecosystem, soil types, topography, and water flow is crucial. Trails should be aligned with the landscape to minimize earthwork and erosion, following best management practices (BMP) for erosion control, water quality improvement, and runoff quantity control.
  • Effective Water Management. Adequate drainage systems, including culverts, water bars, and dips, are essential for managing water flow and preventing erosion, ensuring the trail remains usable in various weather conditions.
  • Durable, Low-maintenance Materials. Using durable materials such as gravel, natural stone, or advanced synthetics helps reduce maintenance needs and costs, ensuring the trail remains functional with minimal upkeep. Limiting maintenance activity also minimizes the impact that equipment can have on surrounding ecosystems.

B&N Can Help

Sustainable trail design offers numerous benefits, from promoting health and social cohesion to supporting economic growth and preserving the environment. By prioritizing sustainability, accessibility, and resilience, communities can create trail systems that enhance quality of life while safeguarding natural resources for future generations.

B&N’s multidisciplinary team of transportation, environmental and structural engineers have extensive experience designing trails for rural and urban settings, using sustainable design practices. Contact us to learn more.

Amy Rosepiler, PE, Director, Columbus Roadway Design Section

Amy Rosepiler, PE 
Director, Columbus Roadway Design Section

Brian Tornes, PE, Director, Environmental Division

Brian Tornes, PE 
Director, Environmental Division

John Shanks, PE, Director, Bridge & Structural Design

John Shanks, PE 
Director, Bridge & Structural Design