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November 2012 Issue
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Boardwalks often protect fragile ecosystems from heavy boots, but they also conform to a standard that makes them all very much the same
Boardwalks and viewing platforms conform to a standard that make outdoor experiences predictable and dull

The Hump Ridge is a special place, and unique in many ways. It’s where southern Fiordland emerges from Southland’s plains and low hills, and where, in its ecologically important snow tussock and alpine wetlands, can be found many different native insects and invertebrates.

With its stunning beach walks and stunted beech forests (with goblin-like mosses hanging from every branch) the Hump Ridge Track is rightly on the must do list of many. The views are amazing, and especially so from the loop track near Okaka Lodge, perched 900m above the ocean. In one direction is Rakiura/Stewart Island, while in the other unfolds range after range of the rugged Fiordland mountain tops.

Yet while the landscape is simply one of a kind, there’s one aspect of this place that’s predictably like many of our most popular spots found on our public conservation lands, and which, if you’ll pardon the pun, leaves me somewhat bored.

Yes, it’s the boardwalks. Everything about them seems standardised. It’s as if they’ve been designed somewhere in the city, then pre-cut, flown in and installed. Their standardised design means they can be fitted anywhere, with the different sections coming together a bit like a model railway track. Fun, perhaps, if Meccano’s your thing, but less so if you’re having to walk on them for any stretch of time.

Every step is the same height and depth, every board cut to exactly the same width, and every handrail always made from a 100×50 length of timber. And because, like a railway set, every section is the same so too is the tempo of my walking. Clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp, and clomp.

Of course it’s vital to provide some sort of boardwalk to protect these fragile alpine meadows from trampling – it only takes a few footprints before irreversible damage is caused. That’s why the issue isn’t whether we should use boardwalks, but rather why do they have to be so predictable and dull?

Nor is this a criticism of the local trust’s effort to develop the Hump Ridge Track, but rather of the way the relatively recent national standards are being used. Developed by the Standards New Zealand, with input from DOC and the Auckland Regional Council, the ‘SNZ HB 8630:2004 Tracks and Outdoor Visitor Structures Standard’ stipulate requirements for the width of track, gradient of stairs and amount of mud allowed for different categories of trail.

This would all be OK if these standards were seen as guidelines from which to assess the design of any new structures. That way you can be sure a set of stairs, on say a popular local walk, won’t be too steep or arduous for the general public.

But instead of being a guideline these standards have become the default design for almost every boardwalk, set of stairs and simple footbridge being built. Walk up Grahams Bush just north of Dunedin, or up Dog Stream in Hanmer Springs, or to a viewing platform on Stewart Island and you’ll be walking up exactly the same set of stairs. Every step is the same height and depth, and after every four metres height gain is the same one metre landing. And just as these structures and tracks become predictable so also do our experiences. In the end, what are very different places begin to feel the same.

Walk in the national parks of North America and there’s a completely different feel to the structures being built. In Maine’s popular Arcadia National Park, large rocks have been carefully placed across creeks to work as stepping stones. Elsewhere, stone masons have cut steps out of granite boulders, while handrails, made out of carefully selected complete tree branches (which feel great to hold onto) are bolted directly to rock walls. Boardwalks are made from local timbers, sometimes split lengthways in half, before being laid out in matching pairs, like an enticing pathway into the forest.

Whether it’s Jasper, Yosemite or North Cascades National Park you’ll find bridges made through the individual skill and craft of local track builders working with their local materials. There’s no sense of one size, or one design, fitting all. Instead it’s cedars on the West Coast, pine along the Rockies and alders and other deciduous trees out East. It gives a real sense of the care and stewardship Americans have for their national parks. Nor is safety compromised – the prospect of lawsuits ensures structures meet required standards.

One place that’s been up for this challenge in New Zealand is Arthur’s Pass National Park. Last summer, one trial placed poems from leading New Zealand authors on the steps to the popular Punchbowl Falls. The reasoning being, on the long haul up the hill any excuse for a rest is a good excuse and reading the thoughts of Brian Turner, Kerry Popplewell and David Eggleton gives a chance to think about what makes our outdoors so special. The poems have been placed in such a way that they’re not visible on the way back down so people, on their return, can be left to their own thoughts. After receiving a great response, a more permanent stainless steel version that remains legible after rain and mud wash over them is being put together.

Maybe it’s the landscape architect in me, but I can’t wait for New Zealanders to use even our most mundane of facilities – like our boardwalks, steps, stairways, seats and small bridges – as an opportunity to bring us closer to nature.

Our tracks are not just transport corridors, to be designed as if we are building a motorway. Their purpose is not to get people quickly to some destination like a hut or track intersection. Rather it’s the very places we have boardwalks that are often the most amazing places to pause. Through thoughtful design it’s possible to meet both the standard and be under budget, while creating crossings that encourage us all to rest, dangle our legs and take it all in.