Natural Paths

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This post is a special submission from Daniel Rotsztain, a student of Urban Geography at McGill University.

When walking through Montreal, we cannot deny the usefulness of the shortcut. Shortcuts that are used frequently by many people show us the lovely chaos that ensues when urban design fails to consider our pedestrian needs. Many pedestrians share one goal: to get between two points in the city as fast as possible. Ideally, urban planners would design paths that meet our needs perfectly: major routes that bring the maximum number of people to the places they want to go.

Fortunately, the ideal of perfect planning is rarely a reality.  Each of us has a separate orientation toward the city, a separate idea of what routes are important, and a different concept of effective and efficient negotiations of the urban space and, ideally, the urban fabric is fluid enough to accommodate that. A simple example is the natural path that forms at many street corners. Cutting a corner makes your walk only slightly faster yet, inevitably, sidewalks at 90 degree angles are happily traded for a quicker trod through the soil.

Living in a wintery city gives Montrealers a unique perspective on the natural path phenomenon. Once the snow arrives, our mobility through large open spaces is considerably hindered. Every winter in Park Jeanne-Mance, the city ploughs paths that trace the perimeter of the park, the slowest route for someone who wants to walk across. Having to walk through the park daily, I’ve found that shortcuts through the snow appear every winter in the same place. A path that initially manifests as a narrow track of boot prints, meandering past trees and picnic tables, slowly evolves to become wide and navigable.

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We can read these indexes of movement as evidence of Montreal’s collective unconscious, instances of unorganized agreement by the community to subscribe to a more efficient path than that which has been offered by the city. The natural path through the snow also shows me that ultimately, I rely on the actions of others in urban space. The path’s angle shortens the walk for the most number of people, and is a beautiful instance where natural human behaviour manifests in collective rationality and the logic of a city can be easily read.
Another example can be found on Ave des Pins, just west of du Parc. When the city redesigned the intersection to fit a more human scale, a large fence was built separating the north and south sides of Pins in order to prevent pedestrians from jay-walking through the fast-moving traffic. Despite these efforts, a path has formed directly through the seemingly indestructible steel fence. We can again appreciate the organic and collective nature of our negotiation of Montreal’s urban space and realize that ultimately, our city is formed by its citizens: our actions, our behaviours and our habits.

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All photos provided by Daniel Rotsztain

21 comments

  1. Thank you for this piece on one of my favourite urban features: also called “desire lines”, a term coined by Gaston Bachelard in his 1958 classic “The Poetics of Space”.

  2. Nice article. I have long been fascinated by those winter paths that seem to appear exactly the same year after year.

  3. ça prendrait quelqu’un pour creuser un trou dans le gros bloc de béton que nos planificateurs intelligents ont placé dans le milieu du boulevard st Laruent au niveau de Bellechasse.

  4. Il est intéressant de savoir que Derek Sivers jonglait récemment avec la même idée, quoiqu’il l’utilisait métaphoriquement. Pour résumer, il faudrait d’abord construire un espace public sans trottoir. Leur installation ne se ferait qu’après coup, après avoir observé le chemin utilisé naturellement par les passants.
    Pas mal, non?

    http://sivers.org/walkways

  5. Often the pathways drawn by urban designers in “plan form” look beautiful and geometric from 1,500 feet above but are totally impractical for human purposes.

    Designers would see increased use if they spent time watching human patterns on a space before they designed an intervention.

    A case in point would be the new pavers at McGill’s campus. Expensive crosswalks have been installed in areas where no one crosses the street.

    Some park designers have prudently refrained from creating pathways during the first few years of use to see where humans will naturally walk. They then create sidewalks or trails in response to human behaviour.

  6. This article was short, fluid and got me to where I wanted; like the perfect short cut! Bravo!

  7. Maybe the city could plot those snowy ‘desire lines’ on the ground or photo them from the air, with the intention of upgrades during the spring.
    Or someone could draw them on a GooMap. I think we may discover them to be ‘ley lines’ based on purpose rather that geometry.

  8. this part of parc jeanne mance needs a bike path from Avenue des Pins. he situation now is every bike turns here onto the pedestrian path and then never rejoins the parc avenue bike path when it starts further north. His is an excellent example of building half a bike path by halfassed city planners who have less than half a brain.

  9. Lovely. Yes, this is also a fascination of mine, and now I know I am not alone. LOVE the term “desire paths,” which makes me feel like I have SOME desire in my life, at least.

    BTW, they’ve punched open the fence for the path crossing the train tracks between Van Horne and Bellechasse, again. Yes, it’s dangerous at times but it’s absolutely essential for us north of Van Horne.

  10. I have appreciated all winter how the park in the middle of Pointe St. Charles has diagonal paths crossing from each corner, so the natural shortcuts everyone wants to make are already accounted for. Although it becomes a bit of an icy nightmare after a melt and refreeze.

  11. JohnL, there was an architect who designed a school campus, leaving out the walkways, waiting to see where students created paths in the snow the first year – the “desire lines” Jennifer Roberts mentions – before she paved them. The name of either the architect or the school escapes me, unfortunately.

  12. Kai – i believe the school was Princeton or Yale; one of the north-east ivy leagues, anyways.

  13. To think our city is criss-crossed every winter with desire lines. People coming and going with purpose, with desire. What a beautiful film that would make.

  14. There is a perfect example of this in King’s College Circle, a large green space in the centre of the University of Toronto. In the summer it sports two soccer fields, but in winter it is criss-crossed with spontaneous foot-paths. Because of the soccer fields, permanent paths are not an option. But the thousands of users during the muddy months of November and March wreck havoc on the soccer pitches. The university would be wise to note where these paths are, and put down some sort of removeable surface (wood chips, or sisal matting, or the like) from mid-November to mid-March.

  15. Certains de ces «desire paths» sont aussi visibles l’été, là où l’herbe ne pousse plus, avec le passage des piétons et des vélos ( Parc Jeanne-mance notamment).
    Sujet tres interessant!

  16. “The university would be wise to note where these paths are.” But do these people walk? Ever the problem in society: the people with the means to effect change, don’t live like those who need it.

  17. A couple of years ago, an Israeli general talked about psycho-geography at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. He had made a study of how to disrupt ideation and demolish culture in Palestinian territories by cutting through walls instead of doors and windows in order to interrupt the normal flow of perceptions in the victims…more effective than sexual violation. However, when the “official” lines are anti-human, this can be turned around. The first Riel Rebellion in Manitoba sprang initially from the fact that Indians and Métis laid their communities out in a democratic community circle, like spokes of a wheel, but army engineers were dividing up land in businesslike and counter-intuitive strips and rectangles. The same conflict essentially made Schefferville unliveable for natives in the 70s and 80s.

  18. We are no more able to see the pictures. It’s a pity because what you write is very interesting.

    Kindest regards

    Nicole

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