Designing a Trailhead

By Eva-Maria Simms

Kathryn and I went to look at the Greenleaf trailhead in order to figure out how the entrance to the trails on that side of the mountain should be designed. Kathryn had written and received a block grant from the city and had lined up volunteers to plant shrubs and trees, which would be donated by the Home Depot. The trailhead is behind a gravel parking lot which is separated from the woods by one of those ugly concrete jersey barriers that you find on highways – and by lots of weeds. The city has promised to remove the barrier and erect a wooden fence with a gateway for the trailhead.

Instead of taking my car to the meeting with Kathryn at the Greenleaf parking lot I thought it would be better to experience the trailhead from a walker’s perspective and get a sense how the trail is connected to the neighborhood and the existing network of trails. I walked past the fancy houses and restaurants of Grandview Ave., scowled at the dilapidated and weed covered backside of the Bayer sign, and took a deep breath as I reached the open view of the Ohio River valley at the top of the hill. The wooded trail begins behind the Point of View Statue and meanders along the steep West End hillside and comes out on Greenleaf Street a quarter mile above the parking lot. Our landscape is a unique mix of urban landscape features, such as streets, houses, fences, and telephone poles, and feral landscape features such as trees, slopes, rivers and animals. With each feature comes a particular soundscape: the roar of vehicle traffic is always in the background, even though it recedes as soon as you enter the forest trails; birdsong can be heard everywhere, but it is most intense in the stillness of the woods. Urban and feral themes alternate and move through each other and form a unique landscape melody.

I approached the Greenleaf parking lot and trailhead as future walkers and motorists will: all I saw down the street was an expanse of gravel and a telephone pole. No one would know that this is a trailhead and that cars are allowed to park in the lot. Is it private? Is it public? Are you allowed to park there? Are you allowed to walk in the woods behind the Jersey barriers, or is it private land? “Are you allowed?” is the surprising question I have encountered most often when I take people into our urban forest. For Kathryn and me this means that we have to pay attention to designing the thresholds into the wooded parkland and give clear indicators that people may enter the common spaces (more about the idea of the commons in a future blog) of the park.

Kathryn and I looked at and talked about the threshold of the trailhead and how it lay in the landscape. I am a phenomenologist and I suggested that we explore our own sensory and emotional experience of the landscape as we looked at it, walked through it, and engaged with it, and tried to make conscious how it would unfold for other visitors. This would be the foundation for creating design elements that would respect the landscape, but also enhance its features for the hiker. Here is a brief overview of how we approached the trailhead and what we discovered:

1. We described the features we noticed: both the most apparent ones, like the concrete fence and the gravel lot; and the less apparent ones, like the end of the parking lot which opens into a protected, shady open space
2. We talked about what we saw as the salient features of the natural landscape behind the fence. There was a clearing behind the fence crossed by the trail which divided into a three way cross-road 30 feet ahead. The right hand trail lead into a semi-open meadow and the left gently up the hill and into the woods. Behind the trail-crossing a lovely clump of trees framed a view into a small valley. To our left the clearing was overgrown with weeds, to our right it stretched through some bushes and ended in a flat place under a set of midsized trees. Together we combined what we saw and pointed things out to each other.
3. We let ourselves be moved by the landscape. What did it want? What were the key natural features, and how could we enhance and intensify them? How could we create a trailhead that respected the lay of the land and was at the same time hospitable to people?
4. I found myself using my body and my hands often during our conversation. With my hand I pointed out and followed the line of the trail as it moved through the fence and divided at the crossroads. My hands followed through with this line by shaping the opening between the trees ahead and I had a strong sense that we should mark this intersection and make it a key feature of how we design this entrance. Traditionally places like this were marked by cairns or herms, and Kathryn suggested that we place large boulders in the clearing behind the fence, which would guide the trail but also provide a place to sit for people as they enter and exit the trails and maybe also for children to climb on and play.
5. We found ourselves generating more interesting ideas the more we looked and talked. To the left we imagined a picnic bench for the weary hikers or the families from the neighborhood – not too far away that it would be vandalized, but still secluded enough to give semi-privacy for a meal. Kathryn thought that she might be able to pay for the wood through the grant and built the picnic table with volunteers at the community volunteer day at the end of the month.
6. We thought about other places and their special features and remembered the lovely redbuds in Grandview Park, which bloom bright pink in early spring. How about a redbud or dogwood grove to the left of the boulders which would frame the trail as it leads up the hill? It would be spectacularly pink or white for a few weeks in April, and then let its magic fade into the background. How very Japanese!

We spent almost 2 hours interacting with the landscape. In the beginning I had worried that we would just stand there and count how many planting holes would be dug in order to spend the grant money. But our conversation and “design session” was a true phenomenological exercise because it allowed the landscape to come into focus through the process of intense and attentive observation and conversation about it. I left the gravel parking lot hopeful and inspired, and I think Kathryn walked away with some very creative ideas and do-able projects for the volunteers.
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