Trails a sensory experience for all

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					Trails: a sensory experience for all
Pam Enting, Nillumbik Shire Council

1.      Introduction
Recreation trails are formal and informal paths or tracks used by walkers, cyclists and
horse riders to get from one destination to another, and/or to be simply ‘in the
outdoors’. They enable people to be physically active and to enjoy, and be stimulated
by their surroundings. Frail older adults, people with disabilities, students and family
groups can enjoy formal recreation trails more fully when creative and sensitive design
principles have been applied.
The Department of Victorian Communities (Access for All Abilities Initiative Fund) has
funded Nillumbik Shire Council to research and develop a framework (known as the
‘Sensory Trails’ Design Framework) to guide the planning of urban and rural trails to
meet the needs of all people. The project is bing undertaken in the light of concerns
about obesity and fitness, the under-utilisation of open space by people with disabilities
and older adults, and the benefits of involvement with nature. (Deakin University 2002)

How did the project come about?
The ‘Sensory Trails’ Design Framework (STDF) project was stimulated by a request for
information to Nillumbik Shire Council from an Adult Training Support Service that
wanted to take adults with intellectual/dual disabilities on walks along ‘sensory trails’.
At first glance, there appeared to be no ‘sensory trails’ within metropolitan Melbourne,
and little literature to guide their development. A few sensory gardens and accessible
play areas were found in public open space but the majority of ‘sensory experiences’
were located on the properties of health/disability/accommodation service providers, for
the exclusive use of the agency’s clientele.

2.      ‘Sensory Trails’ Design Framework
The Framework comprises.
   1. knowledge about the relevant policy and operating environments;
   2. identification of trail design principles;
   3. a common understanding of a ‘sensory’ experience;
   4. application of sensory experiences to infrastructure and the identification of
       features that may be combined to make a ‘sensory trail’.
   5. adaptation of trail audit tools; and
   6. identification of potential project sites.
After four months of the year-long project, some ‘frames’ of the framework are still
under development. Material sourced for the draft framework, and included here, has
come from a literature search which has considered texts in the disability, accessibility,
recreation, interpretation, design, landscape, health, arts and park management fields.

2.1     Trail Design: The Foundations
As a ‘sensory trail’ is highly likely to be created on a formal recreation trail, being
familiar with the planning, design and development of these trails is essential.

Recreation Trails
Recreational trails are found on a wide range of reserved public land and open
space: National Parks, state forests, regional parks, nature reserves, linear
reserves along waterways and former railways, neighbourhood parks, coastal
reserves, as well as designated bridle and cycle paths.
A recreation trail has been defined as:
   A corridor, route or pathway used for recreational walking, cycling, or horse
   riding that passes through or connects natural environments and/or human
   It is a route formally designated by the land manager and may take a variety of
   forms including fully-developed tracks, road reserves (formed and unformed) or
   signed routes through the landscape.
                                                               (Maher Brampton, 2003)
Policy and Operating Environment
Understanding the policy and operating environment of land management agencies is
critical to the viability and long term sustainaiblity of any trail development project.
An example is the development of Nillumbik’s recreation trails which is directed by the
Council Plan, the Open Space Strategy, aspects of the Recreation Trails Strategy and
the strategies/policies of statewide agencies such as: Parks Victoria (Linking People &
Spaces 2002), VicRoads (Principal Bicycle Network), Sport and Recreation Victoria
(Physical Activity Framework and Victorian Trails Strategy 2005) and the Department
of Infrastructure (A Step Ahead in Victoria: Setting the Agenda for a State of Walking).
Trail Development Principles
In many recently-produced recreation trail and open space strategies, trail development
is underpinned by principles regarding:
    • Effective partnerships between agencies, communities and funding bodies
    • Equity of access to open space and leisure opportunities
    • Diversity of landscape values and leisure experiences
    • Flexibility to adjust to current trends and respond to issues
    • Sustainability - balancing social, economical and environmental demands for
       open space and recreation which result in inter-generational equity.
                                                                   (Parks Victoria, 2002)
Before a formalised recreation trail is designed, many assessments are undertaken
with tools such as the Track Opportunity and Demand Spectrum Tests (Maher
Brampton, 2002), the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (In Mackay, 2003) and the
Settings-based Model (Mackay, 2003) which take landscape values into account. Such
consideration of topography, amenity and heritage values influences design.
In an attempt to improve the consistency of standards of tracks and trails, the
Australian Standard 2156.1-2001 Walking Track Classification and Signage has been
developed. This classificatory system for walking trails guides the design, fabrication,
trail marker use and information signs. It can also identify participant fitness or the skill
levels required. The standard signs can be used in literature, maps and promotional
material. (Sport and Recreation Vic.: Victorian Trails Co-ordinating Committee, 2005)

2.2    Designing trails for human involvement
‘Good trail design allows for dynamic possibilities.’
Trapp, Gross and Zimmerman explain that trails fill fundamental human needs:
   … a well-designed trail offers the possibility of fulfilling those needs - solitude,
   peace, inspiration to name a few.
   Trail design is the process of exposing the mystery, variety and beauty that a site
   has to offer. Nearly everything that engages a visitor along a trail can be classified
   into three categories:

   Designing for mystery
   Mystery is any feature that arouses curiosity and provokes the visitor to explore.
   Designing for variety
   Variety is any features of a trail that provides contrast, diversity and change.
   Designing for beauty
   Beauty may be described as grace, elegance, or harmony.
   Trails should be planned to be a unique and refereshing adventure. They have
   many moods depending on time of day, weather or season. Their planning is a
   holistic endeavour that includes an understanding of the needs of people and the
   potential of the site.
‘A trail should never appear as an intrusion. People appreciate a primitive appearance.’
Some practical suggestions include:
  •   Create loop trails - where visitors never see the same portion of the trail twice.
      A sense of solitude can be achieved as there a fewer encounters with others.
  •   Routing trails past the largest trees
  •   Planning vistas that allow for directed views of lakes, cliffs, peaks and valleys
  •   Use curves to draw people down trails
  •   Use structures to create unique views and vistas
  •   Position views on trails so the sun is on the visitor’s back
  •   Managing vegetation for diversity in texture, patterns and density
  •   Introducing and maintaining colourful trees, shrubs and ground cover
  •   Create views into forests by selectively cutting understorey, thinning stands and
      making openings
  •   Create forest openings that invite entry
  •   Screen objectionable views, sounds, or artificial strucutres
                                                  (Trapp, Gross and Zimmerman, 1994)

2.3    Towards Equality of Experience
Both legislation and design philosophies aim to enable people with disabilities to have
equal access to life’s opportunities. Relevant to the STDF are ‘rights’ regarding access
to goods, services and facilities created by the Disability Discrimination Act (1992).

2.3.1 Design Philosophies
Various schools of design/architecture promote philosophies that benefit all people.
The intent of one philosophy - Universal Design - is to simplify life for everyone by
making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as
many people as possible, at little or no extra cost.
The principles of Universal Design include: Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple
and Intuitive Use, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort,
Size and Space for Approach and Use. Universal design benefits people of all ages
and abilities.      
Building on Universal Design, ‘Inclusive Design’ principles include the concept of
‘reasonable’. Two principles of particular relevance to the STDF project:
   •   Working with, not for, people.
       Involvement of an inclusive range of users in site planning and development is
       essential in avoiding costly mistakes and maximising the success of design.
   •   The right to choose
       It is important that people are sufficiently well-informed about what is on offer if
       they are to be able to make their own choices.

2.3.2 Accessibility
‘The decision to go outside is made inside.’
Accessibility takes into account all the aspects that contribute to visiting a place such
as community involvement, outreach, information, interpretation, transport,
accompaniment, safety and meaningful landscape design. Often overlooked are
access-related issues of how far people have to travel from their homes to experience
nature and the difficulties of using public transport. (Price and Stoneham 2001)

The Access Chain
  The Access Chain describes access as it is experienced from a visitor’s
  perspective. By thinking of access as a chain of events, it becomes apparent that
  failing to provide for every link in the visitor experience can mean that the visit
  may end with the visitor feeling frustrated, or the visit may not happen at all.

Accessible Communications
Fundamental to a person’s enjoyment of a place is having their basic human needs
met. Providing wayfinding devices with simple information/directions about facilities at
pre-visit and immediate arrival points means visitors’ basic needs can be readily
addressed. Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ indicates that visitors will likely to be ready to
have their ‘middle order’ needs met after being orientated and having directions
supplied. Higher order needs of self-actualization arise from the context of a place
being clear, or explained, and the significance being interpreted in an engaging way.
Consideration should be given to methods such as Ekarv’s and Australian versions of
Widgit. ( and (

2.3.3 Designing for sensory interest
   All landscapes induce sensory responses but it is the concentration of different
   experiences that gives sensory designs their identity.
   Sensory designs will normally be in places where the whole ethos is to
   encourage users to explore, touch, pick and crush plants or interact with objects.
   Successful design is largely based on finding ways of concentrating or 'stage
   managing' events and experiences that would normally require venturing further
   afield. Involvement by artists is ideal.      (

Landscape Values
Price and Stoneham believe that landscape values are to do with people’s subjective
judgements and perceptions about a place. Research findings show that people derive
well-being and therefore value from open space settings when:
    •  The environment is ‘readable’ and they are able to interpret it
    •  It has variety in terms of its range of uses and in its sensory richness
    •  It is comfortable for people both physically and psychologically
    •  A person can make social contact, and find his or her own ‘niche’ in the place

Landscape Patterns
Landscape patterns should be regarded as how visitors read a place rather than as
principles for design, explain Price and Stoneham.
According to the Kaplans (in Price and Stoneham) people ‘read’ the landscape through:
Harmonious frameworks          Points of interest             Use of spaces
Landmarks                      Human presence                 Path layouts
Compatible materials           Change                         Different ambience
Exploration & orientation      Small-scale patterens

2.3.4 Beyond Utility
Concepts such as universal design and barrier-free environments have fostered a
belief that if an environment can be designed without obstacles, then people will be
free to enjoy independence and well-being. However, small sites specifically targetting
people with disabilities run the risk of not attracting sufficient numbers, and approaches
to design that emphasise only practical concerns will fall short in addressing the
emotional and pyschological impact that landscapes have on people. Integrated
accessible provision is important but it must be seen hand-in-hand with
‘worthwhileness’ to ensure sites are both open and worth visiting.
                                                                 (Price and Stoneham 2001).

2.3.5 Environmental Psychology and Landscape Design
Kaplan and Kaplan have translated the psychological benefits of the natural
environment into a suite of landscape patterns based on long-term observations of
people’s preferences. Although these patterns are not overtly designed with people
with disabilities in mind, they do facilitate the design of landscapes to be more
accessible in psychological terms, helping people to relate and connect more easily to
landscape settings.
From research on perceptions and preferences the Kaplans learnt that people
constantly showed a low level of preference for large expanses of indeterminant
landscape, with little going on and apparent sameness, where it could be hard to find
one’s bearings and very little to explore. In settings where people were confronted with
dense vegetation and obstructed views, they felt a sense of threat and confusion, that it
was easy to get lost and they didn’t know what to expect. Scenes highly preferred
generally involved spaced trees with underlying smooth ground where people felt a
sense of invitation to explore further, whilst trees provided a sense of focus.
The Kaplans maintain that the most basic restorative experience in natural
environments is relief from mental fatigue.
                                                           (Price and Stoneham 2001)

2.3.6 Designing for the Senses
From the Sensory Trust:
   We experience everything through our senses. We may process information
   through our intellect, our memories and our prejudices, but we get the raw
   materials from looking, touching, smelling and many other senses.
   How many senses are there? Depending on who you talk to, there are
   between 9 and 21 recognised senses. Apart from the big five, we also have,
   among others, the senses of balance, of heat and cold, of pain, and
   proprioception, the sense of awareness of our own body.
   We are sigh-dominated creatures. Sight is how most of us get our raw
   information about our world. But we shouldn’t discount other senses. Senses
   like smell have routes into other parts of our brains, and trigger different
   responses. Smell is well known as a memory stimulant: memories can be
   triggered by a smell even before our cognitive processes have recognised
   what that smell is.
   Designing should be about designing to satisfy our senses as much as our
   intellect.                               (

2.3.7 Summary
Many interventions in open space and on trails effectively exclude elderly, frail adults
and people with disabilities, or, at the very least, control their activities and experiences
through poor access or inappropriate design.

A trail will not be accessible at all the times for everybody, and, requirements imposed
by different disabilites can at times conflict. However, providing for wheelchair users
must occur because they represent the group making the largest demand for specific
landscape facilities.                                        (Stoneham and Thoday 1994)

Choosing between making a rich site accessible or enriching a dreary/degraded
site is at the heart of decision-making for the development of ‘sensory trails’.
                     ‘Landscape is a template for human endeavour’
The aim is to design with a ‘landscape-up’ approach and to:
   •   protect and conserve the ecolgical integrity of the environment
   •   promote human interaction with wildlife and people; for recreation not therapy
   •   cater for all people, maintaining an unbroken Access Chain
   •   provide features of interest
   •   create pockets of different sensory experiences, some of which should be near
       the entrance, car park and nearby road pull-offs
   •   accommodate choices and allow visitors time to respond
   •   allow for flexibility and diurnal/seasonal changes
   •   facilitate technical solutions to access that neither dominate a design nor
       substitue for it
   •   enable accessible wayfinding, providing trail descriptions that enable visitors to
       self-select destinations and routes.

2.4    Open Space Infrastructure and Sensory Experiences
The Sensory Trust describes a ‘sensory trail’ as:
   … having similar objectives to a sensory garden in that it provides a range of
   experiences but it has more association with movement. The sensory trail can
   therefore have a direct application to teaching orientation skills, for example
   through people learning to recognise different sounds, textures and smells
   along the trail and gaining confidence in their own abilities to interpret the
   environment and find their own way.
   On the other hand, an overall rich site that is relatively diverse and easily
   accessible may lend itself to [trail] development with a theme of sensory interest
   rather than concentrating on specific areas.

This section of the framework explores the application of sensory experiences to open
space infrastructure. It looks at the identification of features that may be uniquely
combined to make a ‘sensory trail’. This may involve highlighting additional needs for
custom-built infrastructure that existing trail infrastructure cannot meet. This section will
be added to over the duration of the project and after trail assessment is undertaken. It
is expected the arts, particularly sculpture which is often popular with deaf people.
Some initial considerations regard:
Protecting the environment
Erosion control: some areas may be left inaccessible to protect the plants and animals.
Trail configuration
An arrival zone to facilitate the transition from travelling to experiencing the site is
essential. It should be followed by a choice of non-slip paths with different surfaces and
experiences as well as ‘cut-back’ paths which allow for walks of different lengths.
Change of surfaces at trail junctions warn visitors with low vision of the potential for
Paths along, rather than across, contours provide an easy gradient and often better
views. Dual-use access cause conflicts between cars and pedestrians everywhere!

Some spaces are designed to be quiet and relaxing. Here the emphasis is on using a
combination of sensory qualities to create a comfortable and calming environment.
Structures such as pergolas, courtyards, sheltered picnic facilities add to charm and
useability to a trail. They can protect older people who are greatly affected by changes
in temperature from wind, cold and sun. Well-placed and regularly-provided seats and
structures like bird hides invite visitors to pause, reflect, observe nature and rest.
Ramped lookout towers and elevated boardwalks can give a fresh perspective to an
otherwise dreary place. They all require good design in symapthetic materials.
Ground level and above head-height plants create difficulties for people in wheelchairs
and those with less agility. Raising the height of plants by using planter-boxes assists
people of all ages and abilities to reach and touch plants. Climbers and ground cover
planted can cascade down from hip-height planter boxes for children, wheelchair-
bound people and the less-agile to smell and feel.
Effective shelter belts require a semi-open structure which filters wind and slows it
down. Usually the shelter belt needs both shrubbery and tree canopies to work.
Features of interest
As many people walk slowly and not very far, features of interest located near
entrances, seating, car parks and nearby pull-offs enable people have experiences that
they may not otherwise have.
Materials and installations
Many older people and people with disabilities are sensitive to glare. Non-glare paving
and signage materials tested at various times of the day benefit all visitors.
Hard materials can provide a richness of colours and textures (stone, old brick, gravel,
slate) or simple materials can be used to create patterns of colour (mosaics, murals,
It should be noted that the construction of outdoor structures, paths, ramps, buildings,
etc are guided by Australian Standards and Building Guidelines.
Vegetation can be selected for colour, noise, touch, smell and taste.
Distinctive shapes come in leaves (kangaroo grass, everlasting daisy, flax lily, acacia,
casuarina, banksias), fruits (lilly pilly, lomandra, weeping grass), flowers (paper daisy,
correa), stems (carex lomandra, iron bark). Fruit and bark from trees can cause
hazards so plant offending species away from paths.
Variations in density create atmosphere and while lightly-foliaged trees dapples light.
Movement combined with sound can be created with trees (casuarinas), grasses,
chimes, water and moving sculptures. Natural sounds include leaves rustling in the
wind, birds singing, water tricking/dripping/splashing, rain on an overhead cover.
Edgings with flowers or foliage create contrast which is particularly valuable for people
with visual impairments who have some residual sight.
Although most attention has been given to scented plants there are many other
materials that have distinctive and interesting smells. With regards to taste it is
probably necessary to restrict the choice to those food plants that are clearly
recognised, such as apple, herbs eg parsley and mint.
                ( (Trapp, Gross and Zimmerman 1994)

2.5    Trail Audits
Trail auditing has been proposed as a means of assessing ‘sensory trails’. The
intention was to adapt audit tools which are used on receation trails as part of
development proposals and during regular maintenance regimes.

In Nillumbik, the Recreation Trails Advisory Committee’s ‘Detailed Trail Assessment’
proforma holds data entered by staff and volunteers on the following criteria:
     •   Consideration of Council’s Community Inclusion Policy
     •   Environmental Impacts Assessment
     •   Land use, zoning or property holders issues
     •   Identification of potential alternative routes, possible land acquisition needs and
         other residents, agencies and organisations that need to be included in the
         planning process
     •   Possible themes to be developed through the trail
     •   Preliminary mapping showing route positioning
     •   Special Factors
The term auditing has a negative connotation when it is used to consider access.
Malnar and Vodvarka explain…
     Access audits point out all the issues faced by people with mobility difficulties.
     Many highlight wayfinding and other informational issues which must be
     addressed. However, unless the quality of experience offered by a place is
     understood, there is a real danger that costly access improvements may be
     made that are rarely, if ever, used. Ramps alone do not make an experience,
     unless maybe you’re a skateboarder!

Sensory Mapping
The Sensory Trust has developed an Evaluation Toolbox which supports the inclusive
design and management of open space. One of the tools, Sensory Mapping, allows us
to assess what a park has to offer to the five main senses, and also to record other
feelings that a particular space evokes. It enables park managers, community groups,
landscape architects or designers to evaluate a park or other piece of open space for
sensory value. Consideration is now being given to how this tool can be used in STDF.

3.       The Project
The STDF project is guided by a steering committee comprising representatives from
statewide recreation, disability and advocacy agencies, a wide range of Council staff,
community representatives, people with disabilities and local providers of recreation
and therapy services for older people and people with disabilities. The Steering
Committee is a subcommittee of Council’s Recreation Trails Advisory Committee and
reports to Council through this Committee.

Staff include a Council-employed part-time project officer and a one day-a-week
contribution by Council’s Community Development Officer. Funds have been set aside
to employ consultants to carry out tasks beyond the expertise of the Steering
Committee and Council staff.

Potential project sites have been identified in Nillumbik’s nature reserves and urban
wetlands, and along major waterways, linear paths and an indigenous food and
medicine trail. Volunteer trail auditors will trial assessment tools on some of these sites.

An aim of the project is to create ‘learning organisations’ – both the steering committee
and the Council overall – using a community development approach. Site inspections,
literature search, committee workshops, review by technical reference group, feedback
by industry representatives are some of action research techniques used to date.

4.     References
City of Greater Geelong 2004. Walking More: Walking More Safely. CoGG

Deakin University (Health and Behavioural Sciences), 2002. Healthy Parks Healthy
People: The Health Benefits of Contact with Nature A review of Literature. Deakin
University, Burwood Australia.

Mackay, J. 2005, Draft ACT Recreation Strategy

Mackay and Brown, 2004, Larapinta Trail Draft Management Strategy

Maher and Brampton, 2003, Cradle Coast Trails Strategy

Mathers, A., 2001, Participation of People with Learning Disabilities in the
Landscape Design Process of Urban Green Space University of Sheffield.

Merom, D. date? A Public Health Perspective on Trails and Greenways: Towards
Evidence-based Practice NSW Centre for Physical Activity and Health

Parks Victoria, 2002. Linking People and Spaces: A Strategy for Melbourne’s
Open Space Network.

People Outdoors, 2004. Accessibility checklist: A Self-assessment Tool. People
Outdoors, Coburg, Victoria.

Richard Price and Jane Stoneham 2001. Making Connections: A Guide to
Accessible Greenspace. The Sensory Trust Bath, England

Roffee, L., and Greenwell, P., 2001. Accessibility in the Outdoors for Persons with
Disabilities: Striking a Balance. Unites States Access Board.

Sensory Trust and English Heritage, 2005. Easy Access to Historic Landscapes:
Sources of Information. Sensory Trust. Cornwall, UK.

Sport and Recreation Victoria, 2001. Physical Activity Framework. Victorian
Stoneham, J. and Easingwood, J, Eds., 2003. Public Parks Keep Out: Conference
Report Green-space and Sensory Trust Cornwall, UK.

Stoneham, J. and Thoday, P., 1994. Landscape Design for Elderly and Disabled
People Garden Art Press. Suffolk, England

Sussex Downs Conservation Board, 1997. Interpretation and Information: A
Strategy for the Sussex Downs Area of Outstanding Beauty. Sussex Downs
Conservation Board, UK.

The Sensory Trust 2004. A Sense of Place Conference Proceedings. The Sensory
Trust Cornwall, UK.

Trapp, S., Gross, M., and Zimmerman, R., 1992. Signs, Trails and Wayside exhibits:
Connecting People and Places UW-SP Foundation Press, Wisconsin

Victorian Government, 2001. A step ahead in Victoria Setting the agenda for a
State of Walking

Victorian Trails Co-ordinating Committee, 2005. Victorian Trails Strategy 2005-2010.

5.      Resources

Sensory Trust Fact Sheets
Designing for Sensory Interest and Sensory Design: Ideas and Inspiration
Sensory Mapping
Equality of Experience Newsletter Article by Malnar and Vodvarka
The Access Chain

Universal Design

Australian Standards
Walking Track Classification and Signage (2001)

Interpretive Media
Special Populations: Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines for Interpretive Media,
1999. National Park Service

Exhibition Design
Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design

Print-based media
Readability Guide: A guide to the preparation of documentation in a format suitable to
facilitate easier access to information. Vision Australia Foundation

Evkrav’s Method (simple format to express complicated ideas)

Symbol-based language and communication that has a visual structure and supports
different parts of speech. Different from pictographs, produced as computer software.

The Web
Web Accessibility Information. Disability Information Victoria provides links to related
Web Accessibility information sites.


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