A few days ago I noticed a figure ascending Edinburgh’s famous Arthur’s Seat on an undesignated path – a desire line – that ran in a straight vertical line from bottom to top. People naturally want to take the shortest route – well mostly – unless more meandering routes hold greater charm or ease.
It made me smile because my first ‘lesson’ in landscape architecture involved a journey tracking these short cuts across campus in an attempt to teach the principles of pedestrian circulation. Thirty years later the concept of desire lines is still being debated by the profession
The simple truth is, we can’t possibly anticipate everyone’s journey or desired route to a particular destination. So, should we be strategically positioning paths at all, or should we just wait and see where they appear before formalizing them? In Finland planners reportedly wait for the snowfall to establish the footfall before making paths permanent. Elsewhere this principle is called ”paving the cow paths”
Desire lines represent people’s singular navigational decisions; the very verb ‘desire’ denotes a strong wish to go your own way – make your own personal path. Treading a new route has the same kind of anarchic satisfaction as ignoring a road sign saying ‘road unsuitable for vehicles’ and the rich rewards this can bring in discovery unchartered territories. So as well as offering a short cut– desire lines have an inherent affective quality to them which should be celebrated.
Author, walker and broadcaster Nick Crane refers to desire lines in his book ‘Two degrees west’ (Viking 1999) as; “……expressions of free will, ‘paths with a passion’, an alternative to the strictures of railings, fences and walls that turned individuals into powerless apathetic automatons. On desire paths you could break out, explore,’feel your way across the landscape’.”
So, when did you last walk a desire line? Have you created your own? And what feeling did it generate?