Planning a Walkway or Path

Paths do much more than merely provide a route from one place to another. They unify the landscape's design elements and reduce lawn maintenance. A path or network of paths is also a great way to add something new to an existing landscape without disrupting its character.

Before you start spreading a network of paths through your yard, consider the first rule of path design: Every path should have a purpose. To determine that purpose, answer these questions first.

  • How will the path be used? For instance, will it accommodate only foot traffic or will equipment roll over it?
  • Who will use it?
  • How frequently will it be used?

The answers will help you determine the path's route through the yard and what materials you'll need to surface it.

Function first

How do you know where you need a path? Look for signs in the landscape. A track worn in the grass, for example, shows where traffic naturally flows. You should consider building a sidewalk or path there.

Many landscapes need one or two strictly utilitarian walkways -- those that simply get you from one place in the yard to another. Walks from the house to the garage or from the garage to the garden shed are typical examples. Paths like these get frequent use. They should be wide, feel comfortable and secure underfoot, and allow you to move quickly from one point to another.

Such working paths are best laid in straight lines. For example, if getting groceries from the garage to the house is the main purpose of the walk, building a walk that winds through the garden only guarantees that people will take shortcuts through the plantings. If you already have a sidewalk that connects the locations but isn't attractive, consider ways to improve its appearance. You can resurface or color a concrete walk or pave it with brick or stone.

Paths that are purely for appearance or enjoyment can take a circuitous route. A path joining flower beds, for example, is well-suited to a leisurely pace. Gentle curves slow the traffic yet make it easy to move materials and equipment when you have to. If you won't use the path to move materials and equipment, you can make a narrow, winding path for interest.

The function of a path also affects how you build it. You would not surface a trail for children running barefoot between the pool and the house with sharp crushed quartz, rough bark, or slick tile. Stepping-stones or pavers in a sand bed spaced for child-size steps are better choices.

If you want a path that wanders through your gardens but is still suitable for the occasional wheelbarrow, closely spaced pavers or stepping-stones win over crushed bark or mulch. A path made of closely spaced stones lends itself to a leisurely pace, while stones spaced farther apart speed the journey.

Along the way

Think of a path as part of the floor of your landscape when you select materials and as a trail when you lay out the route. A trail invites you on a journey -- it hints of the unknown, the unexpected, the mysterious. When you plan a new path, include elements that increase the interest and provide surprises along the way.

Curves -- gentle or abrupt -- and tall plants can obscure the view around the corner, creating a sense of anticipation. The surprise can be anything you choose -- a shaft of sunlight piercing through the trees and falling on a gazing ball, a water feature, or some other accent. A spectacular view always provides great reward at the end of a path. Simple elements -- such as randomly placed cut-stone stepping-stones -- lead the eye along the path and entice people to follow it. Any kind of pattern will lure the curious, and if you include places for resting along the way -- a bench, a tree stump sawn at a height for sitting, or even a wide spot in the path -- you will create a rhythm within the walk that only adds to its charm.

Where does it end?

Imagine walking along a path and finding that it ends in a plain lawn or at a neighbor's chain link fence. You would probably be disappointed in a path like that. Once you've started down a path, you expect it to take you somewhere. That destination might be a dramatic overlook above a river or lake, a simple herb garden, or the entrance to a vine-covered garden shed. (Even a utility shed can be charming.) Paths can lead to areas for family play or pass through a wooded area to a secluded spot. They can lead to gazebos or other outdoor structures, or to entryways to public areas framed by pilasters or gates. Some paths lead circuitously back to their starting point. This is a good way to provide a destination when your landscape lacks dramatic features, but don't forget -- even flower beds can be exciting.

Slip-proof your path

There are several things you can do to design your path for safety.

  • Use coarse-textured materials, especially in locations likely to get wet. Broom-finish concrete to make it safe.
  • Build steps on steep slopes instead of running the path up or down the slope.
  • Use flat stones, and slope the walk slightly to one side so water drains off instead of forming puddles. Puddles are hazards in warm weather, treacherous when frozen.
    Remove clutter.
  • Install low-voltage lights alongside paths and steps that will be used at night.
  • Use different-size paving stones or materials of different colors to signal changes in level.

Pro Tip

How wide should a path be?
The width of a path is best determined by its principal function and the amount of traffic it will get.

The primary path that leads to your front door is usually the widest sidewalk on the property and will probably look best with formal paving. A sidewalk at least 4 feet wide allows two people to walk comfortably side by side.

Secondary paths -- those leading from the primary path or to side or rear entrances -- usually are narrower and may be paved with contrasting and more informal materials. Secondary paths are from 2 to 3 feet wide.

Tertiary paths, generally the least traveled, connect elements in the landscape. They are often (but not always) the narrowest; and their materials do not have to stand up to hard use. Tertiary paths and those designed for one person are 18 to 24 inches wide.


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