Earthplace Nature Center: A Recreational and Educational Trail System within Universal Design Principles
by David Kamp, FASLA

The Earthplace sanctuary is 62 acres of privately-held land that is the largest open-space area in Westport, Connecticut.  Adjacent to this land are 11.8 acres of land owned by the Town of Westport. This property was once a farm and there is still abundant evidence of stone walls, open fields, and old wagon roads through the woods.

The mission of Earthplace is to educate the community about nature, the environment, and ways of taking action to preserve, protect, and enjoy nature. Founded in 1958 and accredited by The American Association of Museums, Earthplace maintains and operates a variety of public education, research, and wildlife rehabilitation programs in its wooded sanctuary.

Dirtworks PC was asked to develop a Master Plan for Earthplace, incorporating site-wide landscape enhancements and an educational and recreational trail system based upon the principles of Universal Design.

Image courtesy Dirtworks

Universal Design is a concept that requires all new communication modes, products, and environments be designed with consideration for the needs of all potential users. This concept also recognizes that good inclusive design principles benefit the whole community. There are seven principles to Universal Design, which are drawn from the article referenced below:

  • Equitable use
    The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities
  • Flexibility in use
    The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities….
  • Simple, intuitive use
    Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level
  • Perceptible information
    The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities
  • Tolerance for error
    The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions
  • Low physical effort
    The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue
  • Size and space for approach and use
    Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Ron Mace devised the concept of Universal Design and led a group that created these principles, as described in the article “The Seven Principles of Universal Design,”  by Rosemarie Rossetti, which is on The Universal Design Living Laboratory web site (see References).

Universally designed trails offer opportunities for different experiences for everyone, regardless of ability, from children or adults with disabilities or limited mobility, to hikers with extensive experience. Universal Design principles take into consideration the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes that each person experiences over the course of a lifetime.

People use trails to connect to nature. Trails offer users adventure, exercise, transportation, and leisure. By balancing the desire for access to nature with environmental protection, Dirtworks completed a trail system offering two distinct trail experiences, depending upon the individual user’s abilities and interests. Structured as a series of connected loops, the entire trail system is wheelchair-accessible. It has comfortable seating in a variety of different settings, areas for group activities, and special curbing or raised edging and Braille handrails that serve as guides for those who are visually impaired.

Image courtesy Dirtwork

Image courtesy J. Mally

The first loop is called the Discover Trail, which is fully accessible and is the less challenging of the two loops. The trail accommodates a range of individual abilities with attention to user strength and stamina, awareness, orientation, and sunlight sensitivity. The trail provides a level gradient, a secure, smooth surface, and frequent areas for resting.

The Discover Trail is mostly in dappled shade with benches located at convenient spots on which to sit, pause, and enjoy the view. The trail travels through a forest crowned with a mature canopy of trees. Nearby open fields offer abundant sunlight which filters through the trees and contributes to clear sightlines through the forested area. Trees along the trail offer shade and protection from exposure to wind and rain.

The second loop, called the Meadow Grass Trail, winds through a sunny, open meadow where native grasses and abundant birdlife can be found. While wheelchair accessible, with path edging and abundant seating, the trail offers users greater challenges (such as steeper gradients) and a variety of different experiences.

Guidance for the visually impaired is provided along the entire trail system by cues to special features and trail intersections. For example, changes in trail surface material provide tactile information for visitors with visual impairments, which lets them know when they are approaching a particular area such as the end of the trail or prepares them for a turn in the path. An interpretive trail signage system was developed with easily identifiable symbols representing each trail. These symbols (acorns, pine cones, etc.) are used in a variety of children’s activities.

There are many opportunities for having fun while learning about the environment as one walks through the forest, open fields, and wetlands. Along the trail, small ponds attract waterfowl, with the most interesting species appearing during fall and winter migrations. The trails are also excellent places to study wildlife including many native, non-captive yet approachable species. Wild animals, including white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, are often visible along the trails at Earthplace .

The trail system is an integral part of the Earthplace’s activity and education programs. Beyond the structured activities, the diversity of experience and moments of delight offered by this natural setting also encourage individual exploration and foster a greater understanding and appreciation of our place in the natural world.

David Kamp, FASLA, President of Dirtworks, PC Landscape Architecture, has been a landscape architect for over 30 years, in private and public practice. He can be reached at

Earthplace–The Nature Discovery Center. 

Rossetti, Rosemarie. "The Seven Principles of Universal Design." Universal Design Living Laboratory. Action Magazine, December 2006.

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