Are paths the primary component of landscapes?

“Peut-être le paysage n’est-il que cheminements.”                                                                                                  (“Perhaps landscapes are nothing but pathways.”)

―Jean-Luc Brisson, Cheminements

Post 2A. World as network.300Paths loom large in our thinking about the out-of-doors in part because they lead us to everything out there. We call something a landscape because we have been there, that is, because a path led us there. In another light, everything we call a landscape is a place that has been trodden upon by human feet, even places now filled with roads or buildings. This view of paths as the landscape may have prompted Jean-Luc Brisson’s comment.

Beyond that, since we see everything from a path, it should come as no surprise that we see landscapes as constructed around paths. That’s what Kevin Lynch reported in his book Image of the City after asking urban residents to describe how to reach local destinations or to draw maps depicting their neighborhoods: “For most people interviewed, paths were the predominant city elements….”  The first reason for that pre-eminence was that “people observe the city while moving through it, and along these paths the other environmental elements are arranged and related.”

Paths also predominated because they were not simply one of the five kinds of landscape elements along with nodes, districts, edges, and landmarks that respondents commonly identified, but they stand in for or contribute to each of the other four elements. Paths—“streets, walkways, transit lines, canals, railroads”—sometimes serve as edges, and intersect to form nodes.  They make districts accessible and often define them, forming spaces, as in “inside the Beltway.” And finally paths help determine what becomes a landmark: “Location at a junction involving path decisions strengthens a landmark.” Of course, all of those path roles are more universal than simply urban.

Kevin Lynch found that in the fundamental structure of cities, walkways are not simply paths, but they can also create edges and nodes, define and strengthen landmarks, and serve as district boundaries.

Kevin Lynch found that in the fundamental structure of cities, walkways are not simply paths, but they can also create edges and nodes, define and strengthen landmarks, and serve as district boundaries.

For their part, professionals pick up the lenses of their particular specialties to view the roles paths play in the landscape. The architect uses the lens of physical structure, thinking of a path as an outdoor hall with windows and doors into adjacent rooms. The ecologist sees a path as a landscape corridor for the movement of soil, water, air, energy, and humans or other creatures. The mathematician thinks of a path as a segment in a network, of lines, axes, nodes, loops, and the shape of spaces formed between.  Psychologists think of paths as ways to satisfy needs, means to ends, and the fields in which the human psyche operates.

Each of these divergent views of landscape structure, however incomplete, has proven useful as an analytical tool for designing and assessing paths. And each confirms that paths are a primary, if not pre-eminent, player in conceiving or deconstructing landscapes.

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