Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy the urban planners

So goes the logic of “desire paths” – described by Robert Macfarlane as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”; he calls them “free-will ways”. The New Yorker offers other names: “cow paths, pirate paths, social trails, kemonomichi (beast trails), chemins de l’âne (donkey paths), and Olifantenpad (elephant trails)”. JM Barrie described them as “Paths that have Made Themselves”….

Desire paths have been described as illustrating “the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them”. Because they often form in areas where there are no pavements, they can be seen to “indicate [the] yearning” of those wishing to walk, a way for “city dwellers to ‘write back’ to city planners, giving feedback with their feet”.

But as well as revealing the path of least resistance, they can also reveal where people refuse to tread. If you’ve been walking the same route for years, an itchy-footed urge to go off-piste, even just a few metres, is probably something you’ll identify with. It’s this idea that led one academic journal to describe them as a record of “civil disobedience”.

Rather than dismiss or even chastise the naughty pedestrian by placing fences or railings to block off “illicit” wanderings, some planners work to incorporate them into urban environments. This chimes with the thinking of Jane Jacobs, an advocate of configuring cities around desire lines, who said: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them … that we must fit our plans.”…(More)”.