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Article Breakdown: How Can Public Authorities Support Co-Production of MTB Trails (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023)

Updated: Mar 8

Summary and Application By: Kelsey Johansen


A Group of Mountain Bikers Ride Through A Forest

Article Summary

In this Article Breakdown, I explore the key findings of Iversen, Kristensen, and Arvidsen's (2023) journal article 'How can public authorities support co-production of mountain bike trails?' published in the World Leisure Journal and talk about how their findings, based on research conducted in Denmark, can be applied by trail organizations here in Canada. If you're interested in reading the original academic article, you can access it here.


Iversen, Kristensen, and Arvidsen's (2023) research explores trail building and maintenance in Denmark, which, in the municipalities they studied, typically occurs through co-production, or partnerships, between volunteer organizations and public authorities, such as municipalities, conservation authorities, or land stewardship organizations. As this is often the case in Canada, not just for mountain biking trails, but for many mixed use, pedestrian and motorized trails, their findings about the conditions that lead to favourable partnerships can be applied here, with some modifications to account for differences in local contexts and governance.


Before we dive into their findings, let's take a quick look at what mountain biking trail building looks like in Denmark...


Mountain Bike Trail Building in Denmark

Around the world, increased interest in trail-based recreation and tourism, including mountain biking, has lead to higher demand for sustainable trail infrastructure (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023). In mountain biking, and other trail-based activities, trail organizations must work to balance delivering trails that cater to a growing number of users and trail users' needs, while balancing environmental sustainability and conservation of nature, with minimizing competition over recreational assets and instracture within and between trail, and other recreational, user groups (ibid).


In Denmark, one of the key challenges faced by MTB trail builders is the limited areas suitable for establishing new MTB trails (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023). This is because only 15% Denmark's total land area is forest, and only 22% of the forests are owned by the State or by municipalities (ibid). This is further complicated by the presence of a considerable number of cultural monuments, and vulnerable nature areas / natural landscapes (ibid).

Volunteer trail organizations in Denmark, such as those interviewed by Iversen, Kristensen, and Arvidsen (2023), often become involved in trail planning, design, construction and maintenance, when the demand for trails exceeds what can be provided by public authorities and professional trail builders.

For more insights into collaborations between public authorities and professional trail builders, consider reading Newsome, Stender, Annear & Smith's 2016 article on park management responses to mountain bike trail demand in south western Australia.


In several national contexts (e.g., Denmark, England, Germany, Austria, and Canada), trail construction is highly dependent on volunteers, and the dependence on these volunteer organizations for maintenance of trails constructed by both volunteer trail organizations, and by professional trail builders including municipalities and local authorities, is growing.


The Danish Case Study

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of individuals participating in MTB, gravel, BMX or similar biking activities in Denmark increased from 6 percent to 9 percent (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023 citing Rask & Eske, 2021). While the exact number of publicly accessible MTB trails in Denmark is unknown, the implementation of a standardized MTB trail marking system puts estimates at between 300 and 350 marked MTB trails (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 4).


To determine the success factors contributing to the co-production of these MTB trails, Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) undertook a case study of trails in three municipalities: Silkeborg, Skanderborg, and Viborg. All three of the municipalities are known front-runners when it comes to close collaboration with volunteers on the construction and maintenance of MTB trails, and have successfully collaborated on the construction and maintenance of more than 160 kilometers of MTB trails (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 4).


Furthermore, all three municipalities are located on the Jutland peninsula, in western Denmark, a geographical location suitable for MTB trails owing to its forests and changing elevations (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023). All three municipalities have also collaborated with both volunteers and the Danish Nature Agency (DNA) on MTB trail building since the mid-2010s (ibid). The DNA is a national government agency, similar to Parks Canada, who owns and manages several natural areas that are home to 60 marked MTB trails that tally 700 total kilometers of trail (ibid).


Lastly, all three municipalities prioritize sustainable MTB trail building by providing volunteers with both financial and administrative support; however, this is operationalized very differently across the three municipalities. Therefore, to understand the common denominators across all three municipalities, Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) completed a comprehensive review of municipal strategies and key documents, and interviewed key public officials from each of the three municipalities and the DNA, and volunteer trail managers and trail builders.

Now, here's what Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) found out about successful trail co-production partnerships in Denmark ...


Success Factors Leading to Co-Produced Trails

Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen's (2023) findings show that favourable conditions for voluntary mountain bike trail building, in partnership with local authorities (e.g., municipal governments and their departments) depends on:


  1. The availability of the public officials;

  2. Whether financial, practical and administrative resources are available;

  3. How public officials perceive volunteers / the volunteer organization;

  4. Whether possibilities for joint decision-taking between volunteers and public officials exist; and,

  5. The extent to which volunteers / volunteer organizations have a voice in the decision process and, if so, when they were involved in the process (p. 1).


Let's break this list down further before exploring how best to apply these findings in Canada.


Responsive and Available Public Officials

For co-production efforts to be successful, the staff of the public authorities, such as municipalities, conservation authorities, and public land stewardship organizations like the DNA, working directly with volunteers / volunteer organizations need to be available, responsive, skilled, and competent. While these four factors may seem similar, especially available verus responsive and skilled versus competent, there are some key differences:


  • Available refers to the ability of public officials be at the disposal of volunteers, volunteer organizations, and trail stakeholders, including trail users and trail advocates. This can look like proactive engagement in regional trail committees, hosting annual trail summits, collaborating on training and volunteer development, attending trail builds, monthly trail organization meetings, or special events hosted and organized by volunteer trail organizations. Its not just replying to emails and phone calls in a timely manner!

    • Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) found that having a dedicated staff member responsible for communicating with volunteers, or assigned to coordinate joint efforts with each volunteer trail organization, supported this.

  • This differs from responsive which refers to the ability of public officials to respond quickly, and flexibly, to changes in the wants and needs of trail users, recreationists and tourists, accessing trails and natural areas surrounding trails, and volunteers / volunteer organizations building and maintaining trails with insight and consideration of diverse perspectives. Furthermore, in responding to evolving situations, public officials must balance the financial, environmental, and community impacts of decision-making processes and outcomes.

    • According to Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023), "a shared understanding among volunteers and public authorities of how to build good and durable MTB trails means that the parties state that they 'speak the same language' and can make compromises to the benefit of all parties" (p. 8). This in turn led volunteers to perceive public officials / authorities as "more responsive to the volunteers’ ideas for trail construction and more open in relation to meeting the users’ wishes and needs" (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 8).

  • Skilled refers to having the ability, or training, to perform a certain activity or task well. In the case of public officials working collaboratively to co-produce trails with volunteers and volunteer trail organizations, these skills may include public speaking, conflict resolution, meeting facilitatition, grant writing, etc., but also importantly includes trail building and maintenance skills, as well as basic outdoor skills.

    • Volunteers interviewed by Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) stated that "there are better opportunities to get competent feedback regarding trail construction when the public officials possess insight into the basic principles of MTB trail construction and this in turn leads to the construction of MTB trails of a higher quality" (p. 8).

  • Alternatively, competent refers to possessing not only the skills, but the knowledge necessary to function effectively, or to successfully accomplish specific objectives. For public officials co-producing trails with volunteer organizations, this often refers to trail construction and maintenance-specific knowledge (e.g., knowledge of design considerations for sustainable trails, land use and zoning requirements, principles of environmental conservation, invasive species management, interpretation, and public engagement, etc).

    • As Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) state " knowledge of trail construction among the public officials seems to help ensure that the trails established are both durable, safe, and constructed with consideration for the natural environment, forestry, cultural monuments, and other nature users" (p. 8).


In short, Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) found that being able to draw on the professional expertise of public officials / authorities helped volunteers, and the organizations they represent, to feel that they had not only access to competent feedback, but that they are understood and supported by likeminded individuals, and that they were building better trails as a result.

More than Just Financial Assistance, Practical and Administrative Supports Are Needed

In all three municipalities, the public authorities contributed either financial and/or material support to MTB trail building (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 8). However, volunteer trail builders and trail managers also placed a high-value on practical and administraive supports. For example,


  • Subsidizing trail building and maintenance as an integral part of the annual municipal budget to ensure long-term trail protection and trail network vitality;

  • Having a professional trail manager to oversee trail construction and maintenance, including coordinating trail work with the municipality, the DNA, and the local volunteer trail builder associations, and training and / or overseeing voluntary trail builders;

  • Coordination of different voluntary trail builder groups within the municipality into one overarching collective impact-focused trail builder association that handles all communications with public authorities;

  • Hiring machinery and/or machinery operators to assist with the heavy work so that trail construction occurs more rapidly while making trail construction and large maintenance projects more manageable for volunteers who are freed up to spend time on more fun tasks like  building jumps and berms or laying gravel rather than potential 'boring' preparatory work like root removal, or surface leveling and compacting; and,

  • Hiring seasonal or permenant staff to conduct trail audits to identify hazards, and reduce maintenance times (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 8 - 9).


While financial and material support from public authorities, such as those approaches outlined above, can contribute to the efficiency of trail building and make volunteering more fun and accessible, a careful balance has to be struck (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).

One pitfall of providing too much practical assistance, or tipping towards micromanaged oversight, on the part of public authorities, is the potential for its to decrease ownership of the trail building and maintenance projects and outcomes by volunteers and volunteer organizations (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).

Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) therefore caution public authorities to strike a balance between providing sufficient support so that the volunteers successfully build high quality and safe trails, while also ensuring the development of a strong, voluntary trail building culture and committed community of trail volunteers (p. 9).


Long-Lasting and Trustful Relationships

Public authorities in the Danish case study municipalilties also viewed trail volunteers as a resourceful group, valuing their many and varied skills which could be leverages to "solve construction and maintenance tasks as well as strategic and administrative tasks" (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 10). Recognition of the invaluable contributions of volunteers, by public officials, including their ability to address knowledge and skill gaps within municipalities and the DNA, helped to foster long-lasting and trustful relationships between volunteers and public authorities.

Beyond trust in their trail building and maintenance skills, volunteer trail organizations, and in fact individual volunteers, who have demonstrated a clear commitment to holding up their end of trail stewardship agreements, also contribute to establishing long-lasting and trustful relationships with public authorities (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).

But, it is important to acknowledge that these relationships weren't built overnight.


Instead, public officials and volunteers interviewed by Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) spoke to the importance of clearly communicated expectations at the beginning of their working relationship. For public officials, this meant starting of by approving all parts of the trail construction plan to ensure that it aligned with building codes, and risk management criteria, which progressed to lower levels of direct reporting as volunteer trail organizations and individual volunteers demonstrated their competency and consistently delivered well-designed, safe, and sustainable MTB trails (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).


This heightened trust was, in turn, positively received by volunteers, many of whom felt that it played a central role in the co-production of MTB trails, made MTB trail construction more flexible and responsive to trail user needs and changing environmental conditions, helped to create more diverse type of trails as well as a greater distribution of trails in municipalities and on DNA lands, and increased public authorities investments of resources in MTB trail construction (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).


Thinking Ahead with Long-Term Strategic Planning and Empowered Decision-Making

Other factors that Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) identified as contributing to the successful co-production of MTB trails in Denmark were long-term planning, and public officials abilities to make decisions. This is because these two factors contributed to forward momentum on trail construction projects, and cultivated voluntary commitment (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).

As Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023) state,"the starting point [of trail building] must be the laws and regulations that apply to the areas where the construction takes place" (p. 11). As a result, several administrative processes are involved in MTB trail construction which benefits from strategic, and long-term, planning.

Volunteers are typically involved in obtaining permits and applying for grants, which are time consuming processes particularly when working in environmentally sensitive areas of Denmark, or near cultural monuments, and when other user groups, landowners, and neighbours of the MTB trails, are being consulted (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023). While volunteers are often understanding of the extensive permitting processes associated with new trail builds in Denmark, having public authorities who can provide clear and quick answers enables volunteers to work more effectively and efficiently, while helping to ensure that the extended permitting processes does not cause frustration or adversely affect volunteers' motivation (ibid).


Therefore, in addition to engaging in long-term strategic planning (such as development of regional trail plans), public officials and forest officers must be empowered with the necessary decision-making power to ensure progress in the construction work (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023). Including volunteers in long-term planning processes, not just consulting them on already designed plans that are ready to be rolled out, also helps to avoid frustrations, build trust and foster goodwill, acknowledge hardwork and expertise amongst the voluntary trail community, and ensure that trail volunteers "have good knowledge of the municipal system prior to the initial permit processes, as these can otherwise negatively impact the voluntary commitment" (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 12).


Volunteer Motivation and Influence Go Hand-in-Hand

It is therefore unsurprising that having influence on the construction and maintenance of MTB trails is important for the volunteers’ continued motivation to participate in MTB trail construction (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 12). This is because, across the three Danish case study municipalities, the drive to build MTB trails comes from trail volunteers, who are involved in:


  • Selecting the location of new trails;

  • Planning, constructing, and maintaining the trails; and

  • Dialogue with landowners, the municipality, and stakeholders without direct support from professional trail managers (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 12).


In less frequent cases, where a professional trail manager who, in collaboration with the DNA, is responsible for the overall planning of the trails, it is equally important for volunteers to have a high degree of involvement in decision making processes and the design and construction of MTB trails (e.g. jumps, turns, placement of stones, etc.), as they are best positioned to advocate for the cosntruction of trails that align with trail users needs, wants, and experience-levels (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023).

If "MTB trail construction becomes too top-down-managed, the volunteers are more reluctant to contribute" (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 12).

This can have a detrimental impact, resulting in volunteers withdrawing from engagement and damage to the previously long-lasting, and trustful, relationships which took decades to build.


Contextual and Macro-Level Supporting Factors Contributing to the Successful Co-Production of MTB Trails

Several high-level factors also contribute to the successfuly co-production of MTB trails in the three Danish case study municipalities:

  1. Building MTB trails is not a municipal core service, compared to other, more fundamental welfare tasks, such as operating schools, healthcare, or childcare. Hence, there is no competition, neither with existing professional identities in the municipalities nor with law-required standards, of how to deliver the service (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 13);

  2. Individual trail volunteers posses either a) a high level of education or b) a high level of proficiency in practical construction, meaning that as a group, the trail volunteers possess highly-relevenant context-specific knowledge, which makes them relevant collaborators for, and assets to, the municipal officials (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 14);

  3. The public officials involved in MTB trail building are interested in and have some insight into trail building which they are able to leverage to "segment the volunteers in a way that supports higher levels and quality of co-production" (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 14);

  4. All three municipalities have both the human and the organizational resources necessary to support co-initiative processes (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 15); and,

  5. The question of liability and unionized labour are less pertinent than in other geographic contexts, enabling the three Danish municipalities to co-produce MTB trails with volunteered labour (Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 15).


Having summarized the micro and macro-level factors contributing to the successful co-production of MTB trails identified by Iversen, Kristensen, & Arvidsen (2023), let's look at the management implications before exploring how to apply these findings to Canadian trails.


Managerial Implications

Perhaps most interesting is Iversen, Kristensen and Arvidsen's (2023) summary of three essential management implications of, or key takeaway messages from, their findings. They highlight the importance of the following:


  1. Municipalities should not consider volunteers free labor and volunteers must be involved deeply and early in the establishment of MTB trails;

  2. Municipalities and natural resource authorities (in this case, the Danish Nature Agency) need to provide practical support for MTB trail construction; and,

  3. It is important to consider the national, as well as the local, context in which MTB trail construction occurs (Iversen, Kristensen & Arvidsen, 2023, p. 16).


These takeaways highlight the importance of a collaborative approach that balances the need for municipal investments in organizational and financial resources that support volunteer trail organizations, with empowering those same volunteer trail organizations to contribute to decision-making processes, thus cultivating a feeling of responsibility towards the MTB trails they have helped to build and maintain (Iversen, Kristensen & Arvidsen, 2023).

Application to Trails in Canada and Canadian Trail Organizations

As Iversen, Kristensen & Arvidsen (2023) concluded building trustful relationships, and co-producing trails, takes time. This process is made easier when both sides recognize the value and expertise that both parties, and their representative individuals, bring to the table, approach interactions with an open mind, and are able to be patient with time-consuming processes.


One key concept from Iversen, Kristensen & Arvidsen's (2023) article, which can be beneficially applied in the Canadian trails context is the importance of relationship building.

More than just public consultation, soliciting opinions or approval, relationship building is a process that involves creating and maintaining positive relationships with other people and / or groups. Relationship building processes can unfold in a variety of ways, but the goal is to create a strong connection between people and / or groups, that can help all parties achieve their individual and collective goals.

Volunteer trail organizations can start the relationship building process by:


  1. Developing a short Elevator Pitch that tells the story of their trail organization in a compelling way;

  2. Building a solid Business Case for the development of their trail / expansion of their trail network;

  3. Organizing Informational Meetings with local officials and agencies where they share information about their trail organization and the plans they have to build or expand their trail network;

    • Remember, its important to have several supporters or Local Champions (e.g., local council members, MPPs, representatives from local boards and commissions, small business owners, and local travel / tourism operators) rooting for your trail organization before making your pitch to larger governmental departments and / or subdivisions, and certainly before approaching your town council for support or granting body for funding.

  4. Hosting community-wide trail events, such as trail builds, trail maintenance days, AGMs, and on-trail events such as races or professional development days, that are open to the public, and extending specific-targeted and personalized invitations to supportive local officials and agencies, as well as established local champions; and,

  5. Identifying local, regional, provincial / territorial and federal entities whose support they need, as well as potential sources of funding, and working to establish meaningful relationships with those entities that can be formalized in co-operative MOUs (Memoradiums of Understanding).


Another, related, concept that is easily translated from the Danish case study municipalities to Canadian trails is the idea of working to coordinate different voluntary trail builder groups within a municipality or region into one overarching collective impact-focused association.


In Canada this often occurs through Regional Trail Committees that handle all communications with public authorities, advocate to local officials and government departments on behalf of the trail sector, and coordinate and support the professionalization of trails through strategic planning and funding initiatives.


Beyond the local level, many provinces and territories in Canada have provincial / territorial trail organizations or outdoor recreation councils, such as:


You can leverage the power of the provincial / territorial trail councils or parks and outdoor recreation councils to drive the co-production of trails, including calls for practical supports like funding and logistlical support, by joining the organization representing your region. If a collective impact organization like a Regional Trail Committee or Provincial / Territorial Trail Organization doesn't exist in your region, the  Canadian Trails Federation (CTF) cansupport you to establish one.


At the national-level, the CTF works for a stronger trails system across Canada, including advocating for the recognition of the value of trails, and is currently seeking partners to help make trails relevant in all areas where they have an impact (e.g., public health, environmental health, the economy, etc.). Membership in the CTF is open to the principle trail organizations in each province and territory, and you can support the professionalization of trails in Canada, including governmental support for co-producing trails, by ensuring that your province or territory has representation within the Federation.


Additional Resources

The Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia (ORCBC) has a number of great resources, including their Best Practices for Developing Public Trails on Private Land (published in 2022), and their Guidelines for Applications to Construct or Maintain a Trail or Recreation Facility (also published in 2022). While these documents are, in some ways, BC-specific, they provide valuable insights into processes for constructing trails on public lands in Canada in partnership with public authorities.


Similarly, the Alberta TrailNet Society has authored several key publications in partnership with the Government of Alberta, including The Trail Builder's Companion (published in 2001) and more recently their Exceptional Trails Guidelines (draft publish in 2018). These documents have been prepared using Alberta-specific contextual information such as the Alberta Trail Classification system. While some of the recommendations are best practice principles applicable across Canada, it is important to recongnized the limitations.


Therefore, before applying any of the principles outlined in these, or other guiding documents, to your own trail be sure to following Iversen, Kristensen & Arvidsen's (2023) advice, and consider the local and national context by researching your province's Lands Act, and the parallel federal legislation relevant in Canada's territories, as well as municipal by-laws and zoning and other regulations that apply to the areas where your are hoping to construct a trail. It is also important to ensure that your proposal and / or permitting application aligns with existing regional trail, outdoor recreation, and nature conservation strategies.


Where To Go from Here

If you're looking for more information about trail planning, check out our earlier blog posts 'All Trails Should Have a 'Shovel-Ready' Project' by Kirsten Spence and Jane McCulloch, and 'Trails, Social Enterprise, and Collective Impact: Insights from the Literature' by Kelsey Johansen. Also consider reading our previous Article Breakdown on 'Managing Land Use Conflict among Recreational Trail Users' by Kelsey Johansen, which explored how sound trail planning and design can minimize intra trail-user group conflicts.


Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, including how to apply any of the study's recommendations to your trail, including how best to work cooperatively with municipalities or other public authorities, please reach out to us at: info@trailresearchhub.com.

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