Marking the Trail

One of the downsides of my work is that it keeps me indoors so much. All too rarely, I have the opportunity to apply my craft through fieldwork in outdoor environments. When those occasions involve my old 10-speed, a spring day and air brimming with the smell of the grass and new leaves, the overall experience is pretty close to perfection in my book.

I experienced many such days when I had the privilege of working with the City of Rochester and its Department of Environmental Services to implement signage along its Genesee Riverway Trail (GRT). It was a special project, but not just for the unique and beautiful environment in which I worked. More importantly, I came to understand more about the difficulty and importance of preserving green space and providing some measure of intimacy with nature in a modern urban environment.

Rochester is yet another northeastern city hard hit by shifting economics and subsequent corporate and industrial downsizing. However, in the course of redefining its identity, the city has restored and embraced the riverway that is the reason for its origin. The GRT is a 19-mile multi-use trail situated along the Genesee River from the city limits at the southern end to the mouth of the river at the Port of Rochester on Lake Ontario. While the vast majority of the trail is off-road, certain sections are shared with city sidewalks due to preexisting urban development and the extreme topography of the river gorge.

Although I have been on many biking/hiking trails, none has yet matched the variety of experience available on the GRT. Barely a half mile from the center of a major city, the trail winds through wooded areas where only the sounds of birds and rustling leaves can be heard. Such intimate spaces contrast markedly with downtown streets bustling with activity and dramatic vistas across the river gorge north of the city. Waterfalls and power dams add additional drama and interest to this trail.


In 2000, with a large portion of the trail completed, the city’s Department of Environmental Services (DES) recognized the need for a comprehensive signage system. They applied for and received a locally administered federal grant that paid for consultant services to develop sign graphics and manufacturing standards and the implementation of the system within a defined Demonstration Area.

The DES hired Synegraphics as their consultant and designated the Demonstration Area to be a two mile segment of the trail south of downtown and along the west bank in an area known locally as the South River Corridor.

There were four primary challenges to the implementation of wayfinding along the GRT. First, there were major gaps in the trail, both downtown and north of the city. Secondly, there were issues involving inconsistent and missing signage. As the trail was expanded over the years, the city implemented various wooden and aluminum signs to identify hazards and provide rudimentary directional assistance. The different formats, mounting heights and materials did not serve to identify the trail in any consistent manner nor provide reliable wayfinding.

Another obstacle was the multitude of access points. The absence of identification at these points contributed to the confusion and general anonymity of the trail. The fourth, and perhaps most difficult challenge, involved the convergence of three major trail systems at the southern portion of the GRT in Genesee Valley Park. Here, the GRT merges with the New York State Canalway Trail (following the banks of the historic Erie Canal across the state) and shares the same path for some distance. Subsequently, they merge with a third trail, the Genesee Valley Greenway Trail, approaching from the south.

Jeff Mroczek, Landscape Architect with the DES and Project Manager for the Wayfinding Program, explained, “The convergence of these trails combined with the canal and river crossings makes navigation of this segment extremely difficult. As such, the design team placed special emphasis on coordinating with other trail groups to ease navigation difficulties at the convergences and help identify each trail.”


Our work began with the survey of existing signage along the completed segments of the GRT. It was on these initial excursions that I first sampled the impressive scale of the trail as well as the diversity of its settings. Although it is rare that one cannot see the river from the trail, the array of experiences includes stretches of quiet water, waterfalls, dams, panoramic views of the lower gorge, and intimate forest settings contrasting with bustling urban streetscapes.

The scope of the trail, as well as the variety of trail conditions and environs resulted in two important criteria for design development. Signage would require message changeability to allow modifications to the trail map to accommodate new trail segments developed and additions/changes to the points of interest keyed to the maps. Also, as the public could approach the signs, and because several were required in remote trail settings, the graphics needed to be highly vandal-resistant.

In response, we explored an array of available signage materials, fastenings and application technologies along with their associated costs. Ultimately, the system crystallized into a family of signage units that incorporated aluminum posts and panels. The faces of the sign panels were designed with retainers to permit a composite of fused resin message panels and polycarbonate backers to be inserted and changed by the city as necessary.

As the concepts took form, we were obligated to present the signage and wayfinding program to a public assembly that included representatives from city and state government, local utilities, trail groups and various other community organizations. Although often difficult and painfully incremental, consensus building is one of the most important processes in modern urban design. JoAnn Beck, DES Senior Landscape Architect, explained, “The City is fortunate to have many advocates in the community who championed the project and provided excellent feedback on our work.”

The formalities associated with this task sensitized us to the necessity for facilitation in carrying out large-scale public projects. Because our wayfinding project addressed a clear need and did not cross swords with any other project or interest, it was endorsed with only minor exceptions. With approvals in hand, we completed our programming of the Demonstration Area and executed the fabrication and installation segments of this pilot project. The signage alternatives that were deployed brought to light important issues regarding the placement of signs, alternative materials, hierarchies in destination representation and overall nomenclature standards. It permitted us to assess the utility of each category and fine-tune content and location for the eventual expansion of the signage to the remainder of the trail.

One of the standards changed as a result of the Demonstration Project involved the detailing of the message modules. We found that aluminum backers proved superior over polycarbonate in terms of remaining flat and could more easily be removed from the retainers. We also found that the flexible trail markers, tested as a less costly alternative to rigid aluminum units, did not return to their original upright positions after being subjected to Rochester’s wind and snow loads. As such, they were removed from the standards in lieu of the rigid alternatives.

After the Demonstration Program, the city extended the signage standards incrementally by adding signage to individual trail construction and improvement projects. Then, after receiving a grant from the New York Department of State, they were able to extend the signage program along the full length of the trail along both banks south of the city as well as several key points downtown and north of the city. As of April of 2007, the city had installed 150 signs.


The signage utilized on the GRT optimizes the experience in several ways. On the most fundamental level, directional signage identifies major destinations, intersecting trails and connections to surrounding neighborhoods. These signs were particularly effective at the southern portion of the trail where it intersects the Genesee Valley Greenway Trail and the Canalway Trail.

In addition, there are warning signs that alert trail users to significant grade changes, varying trail conditions and trail junctions. Single aluminum posts that feature the GRT logo and arrow provide simple and economic confirmation of direction on the trail. Pole-mounted trailblazers in adjacent neighborhoods direct visitors to points of trail access.

The real workhorses of this signage system are the orientation components. Located at all access points and trail junctions, these provide a helpful overview of the GRT and its offerings. They feature detailed trail maps keyed to an accompanying directory of points of interest and “You Are Here” orientation cues. There is also a regional map that depicts the many other trails in the region. Also included are “loop” maps that identify segments of the trail and their length for users interested in shorter walks and bike trips.

The two-sided signs also include a narrative that describes the trail, ADA and safety-related information, directionals to key destinations and contact information for trail users to report problems or learn more about the trail and scheduled events.

The orientation units employ separate fused resin modules laminated to ship-lapped aluminum modules. The modules load from the top of the sign within retainers built into the sides of the panels. The modularity of these components provides the city with the opportunity to revise and update the message modules separately as the need arises.

The materials have functioned well in addressing durability and changeability requirements and vandalism has been minimal. Thus far, all of the comments received by the design team have been favorable. Moreover, the DES is more than satisfied with the result. Jeff Mroczek explains, “When first exploring the idea of a unified, comprehensive trail signage system, the DES searched for existing programs to use as a basis for design. After extensive searching, no such examples could be found. To our knowledge, this is a unique system in scope, scale and depth of content.” JoAnn Beck added, “The signage system was the key to achieving a distinct identity for the trail, unify that identity, encourage people to use it, and give it a presence as an important civic facility.”

Although the signage is the most visible component of this wayfinding system, the communication of its identity and offerings extend well beyond the trail. A brochure, developed to complement signage during the Demonstration Program, replicates much of the information available on the orientation devices. Revised and reprinted several times since, this tool promotes tourism to hikers and bikers throughout the region and state. By replicating the map graphics and other elements from the signage on its Web site, the City of Rochester promotes this asset even further.


The orientation signage and brochure created for this project communicates Rochester’s wide variety of heritage sites and points of interest to trail users. The initial determination of these attractions, as well as their regular updating, involves considerable coordination between the DES and the city’s own marketing and communications personnel.

The formal promotion of these attractions is the job of the Greater Rochester Visitors’ Association. A recent initiative of this group will highlight and promote the city’s scenic beauty as rendered by its river, gorge and trail system. What is more, the Friends of the GRT put a significant grass-roots promotional effort forth each year. This group enhances trail usage through such events as the MS Walk, Asthma Walk, Stroll for Strong Kids and the Compeer Walk. They are also planning a bookmark brochure and Safety Handbook that will subscribe to the graphic format established in the Riverway and Trail Guide brochure.

This group’s chairman, Richard DeSarra, has several personal activities and projects he uses to promote the GRT. He conducts tours along the GRT and is active in multiple bicycling and trail groups where he has the opportunity to establish partnering relationships to further promote the GRT.


The benefits of the GRT to Rochester and its region are many. In addition to bringing people and nature closer together, the trail unifies what would otherwise be isolated pockets of natural areas. In connecting people and neighborhoods to the river that defines its landscape, Rochester is cultivating cultural and economic linkages as well. Through the many activities that involve the river and the trail, the city is capitalizing on an important natural asset to not only foster bonding of its own diverse community but also to enhance tourism.

Rochester Mayor Robert J. Duffy articulated the importance of the GRT in this way: “Projects like the Genesee Riverway Trail are exciting because they enhance our natural resources and contribute to the revitalization of our community. There is no limit to the potential that our waterways offer and the benefits it brings to our community. Living and working along urban trail systems is fast becoming a national trend, spurring increases in property values and new development throughout the country. Rochester is ahead of that trend and moving forward every day to provide the amenities and services that will preserve our heritage and secure our future.”


The Genesee Riverway Trail is a 19-mile, multi-use trail that parallels the river from Rochester’s southern boundary to the Port of Rochester on Lake Ontario. It passes through or is in very close proximity to ten parks, seven historic districts, four business districts, a major university and an entertainment district.

The trail offers views of waterfalls, a scenic gorge and wilderness areas. It provides connections to a network of regional trails that include the Seaway Trail, Canalway Trail and Genesee Valley Greenway Trail.

The GRT had its early roots in the planning of Rochester’s parks and parkways by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1888. He proposed a system of parks that focused on the city’s most dominant natural asset, the river and its magnificent variety.

JoAnn Beck explains, “The Genesee Riverway Trail is built on a tradition of visionary leadership, starting in the 19th century with the development of the original park system by Frederick Law Olmsted (one of only four Olmsted park systems in the country) and continuing through the 20th century by citizen advocates and trail champions.”

The modern rebirth of the trail was begun in the 1970s near Turning Point Park, between the Lake and downtown. Formerly an industrial site, this area was on its way to becoming an oil tank farm. Then, through an effort spearheaded by local environmental activist, Bill Davis, the city was convinced to change course and trail development began. In the late 1970s the next major segment, the South River Corridor was added. The GRT developed continually from that point, especially under the leadership of former Mayor William Johnson. Throughout the 1990s, former Commissioner Ed Doherty fought each year to secure funding for additional trail development.

The newest addition, completed last fall, includes a boardwalk over 2/3 mile in length over the west bank at Turning Point Park. This segment completed the trail between Lower Falls Park and the northern terminus at Lake Ontario. The final trail segment, between Lower Falls Park and High Falls, is currently being planned.

With completion of this trail on the horizon, Rochester is planning to extend the depth and breadth of the GRT. The city is incorporating interpretive signage at key points downtown and at the Port of Rochester. It is also collaborating with Monroe County, surrounding suburbs and various transportation agencies to create spur trail linkages to other city neighborhoods and additional connections to regional trails.

In 2000, the White House Millennium Council named the GRT a Millennium Trail. Last year, the GRT was awarded National Recreation Trail status by the National Park Service and the U. S. Forest Service. The National Recreation Trail distinction, rarely bestowed upon metropolitan trails, is well deserved given the tremendous complexity of creating corridors of this sort through dense urban areas.

“The Genesee Riverway Trail is there for all of us to use,” explained JoAnn Beck, “and we are thrilled that it attracts thousands of people, on foot and on bikes, to experience first hand the cultural, historic and scenic beauty of our community.”