The Asia Trail is a 5-acre accessible pedestrian and animal habitat corridor woven into the historic National Zoological Park, originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The Trail marks a fundamental change in the Park’s program, replacing crowded facilities for displaying animals with environments that simultaneously simulate a natural habitat and a contemporary circulation network for public enjoyment. Prior to construction of the Asia Trail, the Park organized animals by type – all bears in one location, all monkeys in another – and prioritized the visitor’s experience over that of the animals. The Asia Trail creates a cohesive series of exhibits organized by ecosystem, with attention to the experience and stimulation of animals by simulating natural habitats. The Trail is designed for visitors to learn as much about native habitat as the exhibits’ threatened animal species –communicating the importance of habitat preservation in maintaining delicate symbiotic relationships between animals and their environment.
The Trail itself rests on an architectural base to maintain an accessible, 5% slope through the Park’s steep central valley. This structural solution doubles as a container for the majority of the Asia Trail’s animal holding and mechanical spaces, hiding operational functions from public view and reducing the overall footprint of the project. By reducing the Trail’s footprint, the design team managed to preserve mature trees within the park, which provide shade and natural erosion control. Incorporated in the architectural base are a variety of sustainable design strategies: gabion walls, resin-based trail surfaces, and green roofs.
For exhibits associated with the Asia Trail, the design team created species-specific activity spaces to encourage behavioral displays that are typical in wild habitats. Water, rockwork, climbing trees, and fallen trees stimulate the animals while forming necessary physical separations between animals that appear seamless to the public, creating the impression of a continuous environment.
The Asia Trail quickly became the most popular destination at the National Zoo following its opening in October 2006 and receives up to two million visitors annually.