The PermaTrak featured designer article series showcases top performing landscape architects and engineers who discuss their design perspective, current projects, challenges and accomplishments.
This month's featured designer is Brittain Storck from Alta Planning + Design in their Durham, NC office. She is a project manager, landscape architect, and trail expert for their southeast region.
We talked with Britt about how she approaches trail design, collaboration between landscape architects, planners and engineers, her latest multi use trail work, and how trails are changing from "connections" to "destinations."
Q: Tell us about the work you do for Alta Planning + Design.
Britt: By and large, the majority of my work is involved in some stage of a trail project, whether it is routing a greenway concept in its infancy, or making the final edits to a project manual for construction. I also work at a range of scales: trail planning at local and regional scales, corridor feasibility study, and trail design. At Alta, our landscape architects and engineers work collaboratively to generate preliminary all the way through final design plans.
I also do quite a bit of coordination with regulatory agencies and permitting, and being on site during construction. There are a lot of moving parts to manage. What I enjoy about my job is the turnkey services we provide: seeing all phases of a trail project through the interface with our clients- all the way from the beginning, the inception, the idea of the trail, through to construction.
Q: What would you describe as your speciality- would it be that turnkey type of solution you're able to offer?
Britt: Definitely. Our team understands the big picture of trails but also the nuts and bolts of how to get them built. I especially enjoy the feasibility study stage of a trail project, because all the disciplines are tapped – landscape architecture, engineering, planning. A feasibility study is very technical but it also has to speak language the community can understand. Feasibility studies can be anything from a mile to ten miles, sometimes upwards of 15 or 20. It just depends on the project but the level of detail in the study is typically the same.
A feasibility study is very technical but it also has to speak to the community. There are multiple audiences trying to understand the foundation for what it takes to get a trail built. Feasibility studies can be anything from a mile to ten miles, sometimes upwards of 15 or 20. It just depends on the project but the level of detail in the study is always the same.
I enjoy generating a vision for projects and conceptualizing it but I also enjoy the mundane workings of trail design- knowing the permits you're going to need, laying out the different nodes and ancillary features along a trail, like waysides and seating or the tread material. That's what I enjoy most about my trail work, it's what makes them places.
Q: How would you describe your design perspective?
Britt: I think the most important thing, (and this is something that every landscape architect knows) is that you design a trail or site based on how the environment is canvassed. A successful project is a reflection of the community. It's not a stamp of the individual designer. You can open up these reflective qualities in a community in many different ways: through public involvement, and assessing the connections to places people want to go. A great trail designer threads in all of these different components- including art, environmental education, and nature, and packages it into a linear place.
"You design a trail or site based on how the environment is canvassed. A successful project is a reflection of the community. It's not a stamp of the individual designer.”
When trail design is accomplished properly, especially in very natural environments, the end result should look almost...ambiguous. I'm working on a wilderness trail plan in upstate New York, and during fieldwork the trail steward said: "When you're walking along a trail in the woods, you shouldn't notice anything that was altered by man, even down to the trees that are pruned for proper clearance. Don't make people's eyes work harder than they need to in nature. You want to maintain the most pure experience for the trail user." These types of values I take seriously when I design trails. When I’m running or biking on a well designed greenway, sometimes you don’t even notice it when it’s done right. That’s the goal of my work, that the trails we design blend with their environment and become a natural part of a community’s infrastructure.
How are you different from other landscape architects?
Britt: Perhaps one that stands out is that, I specialize in trails and I don't know that there are a lot of landscape architects that have one specialty. Landscape architects typically work on a wide variety of projects at different scales, it’s the nature of our work. With a trail focus, you have to have a certain understanding, patience, and expertise to work on linear projects because it's not a site plan. Trails can stretch for miles and there are many different challenges that accompany that.
A lot of my work involves collaborating on a regular basis with our engineers. So I think that's another distinguishing factor that makes me more of a specialty landscape architect- I'm continually collaborating across disciplines to get these trail projects complete.
What’s your biggest challenge with your trail design work?
Britt: Well, that one's kind of easy to answer- it is also the thing that is most rewarding about my work, which is public interest. People get really fired up about trails in their community. And a lot of communities are noticing the benefits trails bring and they want a contiguous, complete system that connects everything as quickly as possible. Trail projects take a lot of time and patience, and sometimes it seems communities can't build them quickly enough! That’s why it is also a challenge, because the pace at which trail projects are built is slower than the demand.
”People get really fired up about trails in their community. And a lot of communities are noticing the benefits trails bring and they want a contiguous, complete system that connects everything as quickly as possible.”
My job is more than design and planning. I have to communicate why trails can be so challenging to get built quickly, because there are so many moving parts.
What trail projects are you working on now?
Britt: The Wolf River Greenway in Memphis, TN is a 23-mile riparian trail. This is truly an office-wide effort. The project has multiple phases under design, one phase will include PermaTrak.
While the 23-mile Wolf River Greenway is happening, there's also a 4-mile trail in Wilson, NC- the Hominy Creek Greenway and Water Quality Park, where we're working with the city to develop a trail master plan in tandem with a water quality improvement plan. This project is unique in that we're not only examining the project as a recreational and the transportation corridor that willdraw this community together and provide a hub for activity and potential economic development, but we're also looking at improving water quality and quantity, and how we can improve flooding to create a sustainable, green infrastructural component as part of our work.
Anything you'd like to add about trail design or trails in general?
Britt: One of the big takeaways and trends I’m seeing in my work is that people used to only consider trails as connections to destinations. That was the historic thinking about the purpose of trails. But now, people consider the trail itself as a destination, and we’re designing them as such. People are making trips to go to trails, just to enjoy the trail as a place.
"But now, people consider the trail itself as a destination, and we’re designing them as such. People are making trips to go to trails, just to enjoy the trail as a place."
Projects like the Razorback Greenway, Wolf River Greenway, and some of our larger scale trails are catalysts for other economic development projects like downtown revitalizations, parks, and urban spaces. Communities are understanding the value in the upfront investment of trail infrastructure and experiencing significant returns on that investment based on trails’ ability to transform public space.
That makes sense. Instead of hopping on a trail that's next to our house, we'll even make a trip to get to a trail.
Britt: Right. And landscape architects are trained to think about the user. When you use a trail that has been designed by a landscape architect or has a landscape architect on the team, it's going to feel different than a trail that has been soley engineered for active transportation. Having a diverse, multidisciplinary team of professionals designing these trails is critical to these projects.
"...landscape architects are trained to think about the user. When you use a trail that has been designed by a landscape architect or has a landscape architect on the team, it's going to feel different than a trail that has been soley engineered for active transportation."
At Alta we use an interdisciplinary design practice where engineers and landscape architects work collaboratively in an integrated studio environment. Our practice is not constrained by the pragmatism of pure engineering, nor by the idealism of pure landscape architecture. By working together, two seemingly divergent disciplines can learn from and support each other to create places to move and connect people in their communities.
Wolf River Greenway Trail, Phase 9 (Bid Documents)
Catawba River Greenway (Bid Documents)
Middle Creek Trail Priority Greenway Study (Raleigh-area, NC)
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more featured designers!
Have a designer you'd like to nominate? Send us a note!