the predictability of spontaneous footpaths

These unplanned 'rule-breaking' footpaths that cut through open grass and quickly wear to a regular hard-pack earth are highly predictable and seen in exactly the same patterns worldwide. It's not a new phenomenon, or one that hasn't been studied in depth, but it's been largely ignored outside of academic settings. Just at UMass I photographed some dozen or so of these established informal paths for an anthropology class in under a half hour of looking. The problem is that the people designing and maintaing the formal paths never seem to take into consideration the realities of how people walk and refuse to compensate for them. Instead of providing adequate paths every year the same established footpaths are reseeded and roped off in a frustrating exercise of futile ignorance.
[via the Project for Public Spaces Blog]
(I've been meaning to do a photo-series on people's unplanned adaptations of designed objects and spaces...)


  1. These are called Desire lines. Sounds pretty, ha?

    I don't think their appearance necessarily means there is something wrong with the design. After all, people are just fine with moving off the path when the road doesn't suit them but other things that go down those roads, like the utility vans and bikes, might not be.

    Also, case in point: Boston. (Not that I don't prefer the character of Boston's crazy road system to that of more uniform systems...but still...)

  2. It's funny that I never heard that term used in any of my anthropology/planning classes where we discussed these desire lines... wonder how widely-used the term is.

    The issue with them is it promotes erosion (an environmental problem - water quality, etc) and these paths which are inherently more practical aren't suitable for wheelchairs (a small concern to be sure, but still worth considering). I would argue that placing down paths where people aren't using them is creating more impermeable surfaces (a major environmental problem) unnecessarily.

    There was one university that didn't place any paths down for a few months and just created them wherever the grass was worn down - an interesting and valuable experiment.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.