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The Value of Research for Trails

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

by Kelsey Johansen

As a trail professional, trails, active transportation, greenway, parks, and / or outdoor recreation infrastructure provider, or trail supporter, you may be asking yourself ...

  • What is the value of research for trails?

  • Where do I start?

  • When should my trail organization think about doing research?

  • How do I conduct research of benefit to my trail organization?

  • Who can my non-profit trail group partner with to do research if we don't have the resources in-house?

This is just a small sample of the types of questions we field at the Trail Research Hub, along with questions about: where to find resources or Canadian case studies, how to create a survey and collect meaningful responses, and what the difference is between public consultation, evaluation, observation and research. To help trail professionals grappling with this topic, we are launching a blog series exploring 'The Value of Research for Trails'. In this introductory post, we look at how research on trails can be combined with industry expertise and community preferences to enhance the work done by trail organizations.

The Value of Research for Trails

Research, evaluation and assessment, observation, and public consultation are all necessary activities that help to answer questions concerning trails, including their development, operation, ongoing maintenance and repairs, use patterns, programs, and services. Historically, trail research has focused on things we can quantify, or the numbers. This includes trail counts (a type of observation), tracking revenue generation, program registrations and satisfaction levels (types of evaluation), trail audits (a type of assessment), and exploring willingness to pay entry fees and memberships (a type of public consultation), etc.. These types of research have merit - they can help organizations determine whether or not key performance indicators (KPIs) are met, track mission drift, assess which programs to operate or trails to repair, and they also help trail organizations to secure grants. However, these success-based evaluations or approaches to research neglect to explore the holistic purpose of trails as parks, greenway, recreation, and active transportation infrastructure, including providing non-numeric assessments of the value of trails as public goods that meet the needs of community members, and trail users, for mental and physical health benefits, as places to connect to nature, and as sites with intrinsic conservation and ecological value. As practitioners, and academics, we need to move beyond observing, assessing, and evaluating ‘the numbers’. We need to consider and ask questions focused on participant outcomes, needs, and expectations. We need insights into the services that trails provide to communities, and the environment, that extend beyond their economic impacts, and we need to understand how to make trails, and the outdoors more welcoming and inclusive places and spaces. We also need to explore ways to ensure sustainable trail development, access, and use, as well as needing to understand how the principles of good governance can be applied to trail organizations - thus making the organizations, and not just the trails, sustainable. While addressing these research questions can seem daunting, its important to do so in a systematic manner. The same applies to trail design and development which require elements of research before trail building can occur.

As trail professionals and volunteers, we want communities (including users and non-users) to experience as many benefits as possible from trails, and trail-based programs.

When we regularly conduct public consultations, undertake evaluation and assessments, make observations, and investigate research questions, we gain insights into how to sustain trails and trail organizations, how to make the most of available resources, and how to improve the safety, accessibility and inclusiveness of our trails, and where to prioritize our efforts, thus ensuring trails meet the needs of our communities. Research also helps us to 'make the case for trails' to funders, partners, and sceptics alike! Furthermore, trail research contributes to something called evidence-based practice.

Evidence-Based Practice

Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) is a term commonly used to describe the use of

  1. Current best evidence (research),

  2. Best practices (industry expertise), and

  3. Community input / preferences (public consultation)

to inform professional practice and decision-making in diverse fields, including recreation and tourism development.

Evidence-Based Practice in Trails © The Trail Research Hub, 2022

Research-Based Evidence

Research-based evidence is one of the three pillars of evidence-based practices depicted above. Research-based evidence refers to the best available information gathered from the scientific literature (external evidence) and from data and observations (internal evidence). Research-based evidence, whether externally or internally derived, is verifiable and can be considered 'current best evidence' when it has been either generated or re-verified within 5 years - this is especially important when using internal evidence. Historical data, e.g., data and evidence from research conducted 5 or more years ago can be problematic even when it comes from your own organization, if it no longer reflects current conditions - for example, historic trail counts from 2015 may not reflect pandemic use levels - and you won't know if they do until you collect current numbers and compare them. In turn, this can shed light on the impact of the pandemic on trail use patterns, or changes in trail use from year-to-year. To be considered 'current best evidence', researchers should also consider the geographic and / or political environment in which the empirical evidence was created - this is especially important when considering using external evidence from the academic literature, or other groups / organizations within the global trail community. For example, evidence derived from research on trails in other countries can be challenging to use as the basis for local decision-making because the funding climate, available resources, environmental considerations, and capacities of organizations involved may differ considerably to say nothing of the habitat and climate surrounding the trail system. This is why case studies and research on Canadian trails, from coast-to-coast-to-coast, are so important! The five most common ways of collecting empirical or verifiable internal evidence are: testing, evaluation, observation, induction and deduction. We will explore each of these approaches in subsequent blog posts in this series.

Forms of Research-Based Evidence © The Trail Research Hub, 2022

Empirical research uses qualitative or quantitative methods to collect these types of empirical evidence and analyze the resulting data. Quantitative research collects and analyzes numerical data. It is generally used to find patterns and averages, make predictions, and assess cause-and-effect relationships between variables being studied. On the other hand, qualitative data are the descriptive and conceptual findings derived through questionnaires, interviews, focus groups or certain types of observations. Analyzing qualitative data allows researchers to explore ideas and further explain quantitative results - it is therefore helpful in providing the context behind the numbers.

Industry Expertise

Industry expertise is an essential pillar of evidence-based practice and refers to the local and contextual insights, as well as knowledge, and judgement or reasoning, acquired through professional training and experience. Industry expertise can, and should, be factored into trail development, planning, construction, and maintenance and is often a driving force behind the empirical research processes employed to develop research questions, interpret data, and create current best-evidence. Industry expertise can be accessed through strategic partnerships, best practice missions and site visits, and through policy and practice reviews. We will discuss various approaches to each of these ways of accessing industry expertise in subsequent blog posts in this series.

Accessing Industry Expertise © The Trail Research Hub, 2022

As best practices can change over time, it is essential that industry expertise is accessed regularly. This helps ensure that research and recommendations reflect emerging trends and current issues and can lead to new research questions which in turn give rise to revisions to existing best evidence.

Community Preferences

Knowledge and understanding of community preferences are another pillar of evidence-based practice and refer to the unique set of personal and cultural circumstances, values, priorities, needs, wants, expectations and preferences identified by trail users, local non-trail users, regional stakeholders and the wider community in which a trail exists or may exist in the future. As such, community preferences can, and should, be factored into trail development, planning, construction, and maintenance, and are often a key subject or topic of empirical research which informs the development or production of current best-evidence. Community preferences can be determined through stakeholder identification and engagement, including surveys, focus groups and townhall meetings. Determining community preferences, and undertaking meaningful public consultation that goes beyond a top-down approach, and which is based on the principles of collaborative practice, is complex. As such, these approaches, and the philosophical and justice approaches which inform them will be discussed in later blog posts in this series.

Determining Community Preferences © The Trail Research Hub, 2022

None-the-less, as stakeholders and their preferences can change over time, it is essential that stakeholder engagement, aimed at determining community preferences, is an ongoing process. This can lead to revisions in current best evidence, result in shifts in industry best practices, and can help generate new research questions.

Where to Start

But how do you generate empirical evidence, and once you have it, how do you merge it with industry expertise and community preferences to inform practice? Empirical evidence can be generated in a number of ways, by academic researchers, consultants and consulting firms, municipalities, conservation authorities, government ministries, stakeholder organizations, and yes, even by trail organizations. The best empirical evidence comes from collaborative partnerships between all of these entities because academics bring theoretical knowledge and data collection and analysis expertise to the table, whereas other organizations contribute subject and context-specific knowledge to generate meaningful, timely and informed research questions. The Seven Steps of Evidence-Based Practice outlined below are a great starting point for any individual or organization interested in embarking on a research journey.

The Seven Steps of Evidence-Based Practice

Before embarking on your research journey, it is essential to cultivate a culture of inquiry within your organization.

Step Zero: Cultivate a Culture of Inquiry

Without an established culture of inquiry within your trail organization, the seven steps in evidence-based practice outlined below are unlikely to unfold.

A culture of inquiry means an organizational culture and environment where there is a zeal for questioning and learning; a quest to understand and constantly improve the status quo.

This type of culture is characterized by staff and volunteers who actively ask questions, seek answers to those questions by reviewing relevant (external and internal) evidence, and integrate that evidence into practice when evidence suggests that a change is beneficial or necessary.

This doesn't necessarily come naturally, and it requires Boards of Directors, managers and decision-makers to foster a culture where the team (whether paid staff or volunteers) can challenge the status quo, and critically discuss questions related to difficult and even polarizing topics without fear of reprisal.

Step One: Ask a Question / Series of Questions

Chances are there is something happening within your organization that you have questions about, or there is an emerging phenomenon related to trails and you are wondering how it may impact your trail community. The first step towards evidence-based practice therefore entails defining the problem. This can be broken into three sub-steps:

  • Determining the problem you want to solve and the reason for doing the research,

  • Examining the goals and objectives for the research, and

  • Developing broad research questions.

Determining the reason for doing the research will influence each of the steps that follow. Perhaps you want to find a better way to use the resources available to you, to understand why social trails are popping up within your trail system, or you need to resolve conflict between user-groups. Once you clearly understand the reason for doing the research, or have identified the problem(s) you want to solve, you can move on to examining the goals and objectives for the research. Goals can include developing a new signage program, completing a trails master plan, or persuading funders to support your regional trail development project. These goals and objectives in turn influence the broad research questions you will ask. Research questions differ from survey or interview questions in that they guide the research process and reflect the high-level purpose of the study. Research questions are specific, but open-ended questions (e.g., why are social trails popping up in our trail system?) that are answered by conducting a study. Research questions also help you decide what research methods to use by helping you to understand who is best positioned to help you find answers (e.g., a survey of all trail users). Survey questions are closed-ended questions that help you understand the opinions or behaviours of a group of people (e.g., are you satisfied with the design of this trail system? Is there sufficient signage on the trail to help you navigate to interesting trail features like lookouts and waterfalls?). Once you have established your research questions, it is time to explore the existing external evidence, and determine whether you need to collect internal evidence.

Step Two: Acquire the Current Best-Evidence (External Evidence)

The current best external evidence can be acquired by reviewing the existing academic, industry and government literature. Generally speaking, this means conducting a literature review guided by your research question. Evaluating all of the available evidence on a subject would be a nearly impossible task but the ability to decide what evidence is applicable and relevant to your inquiry is an essential skill for anyone undertaking research. A literature review is a comprehensive and systematic exploration of the published academic, industry and government literature and / or statistical data with the purpose of finding verifiable (and often repeatable) evidence on a specific topic or topics relevant to your research question(s). A literature review is a critical component of any evidence-based project as it helps you, your organization, and your research partners, to understand the complexity of the issue, gives you insight into the scope of a problem, and provides you with the best available evidence on the topic. This in turn can help you determine the best approaches for collecting your own internal evidence or avoid duplication of work.

Perhaps the most important step in the literature review is sorting, reading, and critiquing the peer-reviewed, industry and government literature and / or statistical data. Without this step, your evidence-based practice project cannot move forward without risking being based on faulty findings or inapplicable data.

Step Three: Gather Data and Make Observations (Internal Evidence)

Now that you understand the best practices employed elsewhere, such as how similar organizations have solved problems like yours, the economic impact of similar trail systems in other regions, or how other researchers have successfully collected verifiable data with similar users groups to yours (e.g., how best to survey mountain bikers), etc., you are in a position to collect your own data. This requires developing ethical empirical data collection methods, that will produce accurate, verifiable, repeatable, significant, exhaustive and trustworthy results. For example, designing a survey, creating focus group questions, designing an interview script, etc. that will provide insights into, or answers to, your overarching or guiding research questions. Next, your organization will need to gather the data, and ultimately appraise its value.

Step Four: Appraise the External and Internal Evidence

While external evidence is generally appraised during the literature review process, internal evidence requires additional analysis and appraisal. For example, trends, correlations, and causations can be statistically determined by analyzing numerical survey data. Likewise, themes that repeatedly emerge from interviews and focus groups can help researchers and organizations to better understand the context of statistical or numerical data by illuminating community preferences and values.

Step Five: Apply your Findings to Your Situation / Context

Integrating the external and internal evidence with industry expertise and community preferences and values allows for the development of recommendations and next steps. This includes implementing the newly generated evidence-based recommendations into day-to-day practice.

Step Six: Evaluate the Outcome(s)

Reviewing data and documenting your approach is essential in determining whether or not you have answered your guiding research questions, and whether or not any revisions or changes made to day-to-day practice were successful in resolving the problems which gave rise to the research question(s) in the first place. Furthermore, keeping close tabs on the outcomes of implementing your recommendations, including evaluating and summarizing the outcome(s), is a great way to demonstrate your organizations' success to funders, and stakeholders.

Step Seven: Disseminate Information

In addition to using your research results to support your organization's optimal functioning, sharing the results of your project with others can have lots of benefits, and it is therefore the final stage of evidence-based practice. Sharing results helps promote best practices and prevent duplicative work. It also adds to the existing resources that support regional and culturally relevant approaches to industry practices through the development of local, regional, and national case studies in underrepresented locations leading to the development of trails and trail programs that meet the needs of trail users, and communities now, and into the future.

More in this Series

Thank you for your interest in our series exploring the Value of Research for Trails. Future posts in this series will explore: forming partnerships to conduct research, defining your research question, funding for industry and academic research on trails, and more … If you have an idea for another Blog post in this or another one of our Blog Post series, let us know by taking this short 2 minute survey.

Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to structure a research program within your trail organization, or across your trail partnerships, are wondering how evaluation and assessment can improve organizational functioning and governance, or want to know more about the value of research for trails, please reach out to us at:


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