When we think of paths through nature, we may first think of somewhat muddy trails carved out willy-nilly through the trees, covered in leaves. But a few landscape architects and architects have been showing how paths can be designed, set-apart, yet also enhance the experience of being surrounded by nature while carefully protecting natural habitat.
Reed Hilderbrand, a landscape architecture firm, created a narrow 2,700-foot wooden boardwalk through a previously “unreachable and unknowable” 50-acre wetland near their client’s house in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While the path did cut through undisturbed nature, the idea was to create environmentally-sensitive access to improve the stewardship of the unexplored land, 70 percent of which was made up of re-growth forest.
To complement ongoing “woodlot management, edge restoration, and meadow extension” efforts, Reed Hilderbrand proposed a circuit trail that would loop through the wetland. It took nine months working with “conservation biologists, permit specialists, contractors, the property manager, and conservation commissioners to ensure adequate protection of the resource and mitigation of limited construction disturbance.” According to the firm, the only way the team could get permission was if there was a careful evaluation of the “hydrologic and biotic” characteristics of the site, low-impact construction technologies, and design elements that enhanced the wetland.
“Path alignments were studied in plan from air and then thoroughly tuned on site to navigate among trees and snags, woody thickets, beaver impoundments, significant perennial stream courses, and wildlife corridors,” writes Reed Hilderbrand. Invasive species were removed, to the benefit of local flora and fauna. Overall, the new boardwalk actually supports local habitat: “Since completion, beneficial plant communities including speckled alder and silky dogwood have responded favorably, improving shade cover and food sources. A corresponding increase in wildlife has been observed.”
Another project, Stone River, in eastern New York state, uses stones instead of wooden boardwalks to create a subtle, new way to experience nature. Landscape architect Jon Piasecki, ASLA, Housatonic, writes: “I joined the path itself to the pre-existing stonewall and woods in an attempt to offer the visitor the opportunity to experience a sense of fusion with nature. The goal of this project is to join culture to nature.”
Piasecki, a master with stone, actually moved each stone down the path in a small wood cart and hammered each stone joint into place. “I transferred tens of tons of gravel and sand as a setting bed with a wheelbarrow and I moved nearly 400 tons of stone in the wall and as paving over the 800-foot length of the path. I opened the existing stonewall, chose the course of the path within it and rejoined the residual wall stone in such a way that the path appears to have grown organically within this stonewall where it resides. I was able to personally lay stones so as to avoid individual clumps of ferns, standing trees, fallen logs and existing stones with mossy growths in the wall.”
The silver stone (a mica schist) used in the project is a highly sustainable material because it will last so long. To further cut down on carbon dioxide emissions from the quarrying and cutting process, Piasecki used machines running on vegetable oils.
The poetry of the landscape is only enhanced by Piasecki’s gentle intervention: “In this instance by joining stone and by making a path into the woods with great sensitivity, I am working to heal, in a small way, the rift between culture and nature that is intrinsic to our modern relationship to the land.”
Lastly, one Japanese architecture firm, Tetsuo Kondo Architects, wound a path through the tree tops in a temporary 3-month project in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia last summer. In the Kadriorg forest, which is located in the center of the city, trees have grown there for three centuries, around a palace built for the Czar of Russia. To provide a startling new look at the trees, a 95-meter-long elevated path was created.
According to Landezine, the elevated path is made of steel pipe and sheet steel, with no columns touching the forest floor. In places, the paths seem to lean on trees for support (apparently, both the city’s park managers and structural engineers signed-off on this).
The architects write: “Instead of looking up at the trees from the ground, people will be strolling near the leaves, making their way between the branches. A structure made for the forest, a forest that exists for the structure. With no change in the shape of the forest, it will seem that the structure and the forest are one.”
In these instances, man-made structures complement nature and even enhance the experience of being immersed in nature. These contemporary yet environmentally-sensitive paths help renew these places.
Image credits: (1-3) Half-Mile Hand Built Line: Berkshire Boardwalk, Andrea Jones, Garden Exposures Photo Library, (4-6) Stone River / Jon Piasecki and John Dolan, 2010 (7-9) A Path in the Forest. Reio Avaste / LIFT11