Blog posts reflect 3 stages in the life of a path

Neither in pavement nor in a moment are paths born. To evolve to maturity a path requires three different operations using three different sets of tools applied at three different times. Paths are conceived in the mind, enter the world during the walking of a route, and mature when christened with paving. As a result, a path has three distinct meanings that reflect its three stages of development: the route intended, the route taken, and the route constructed. This plurality of meanings has helped mask the complex demands of good path design. Few have noted, for instance, that on any site a path’s three divergent meanings almost always lead to three differing routes.

In the first stage, a person looks out across a landscape—a lawn, a field, a valley—and, before taking a single step, forms an intention, a mental map of “the course or way which is to be traveled,” as Webster’s puts it.

In landscapes, path means three different things—the route envisaged, the route taken, and the walkway built.

We intend to walk to satisfy needs, to stroll, exercise, or reach a destination. The kind of need and its intensity forms our intention and determines its importance. In satisfying that need, our brain figures out the route that will best orient us and help us find our way. Understanding the kinds of information the brain processes to form the intended route is critical to designing a walkway that will meet walkers’ differing expectations.

Upcoming blog posts will consider more than a half dozen types of walkways that result from our varied intentions. Further posts will examine five forms of wayfinding walkers use to guide themselves and features that help orient them during the journey.

The route taken following the plan becomes “a trodden way; a footway.” This is the second meaning of path. After the first person’s passage, the route becomes bent grass or footprints meandering across traversable land. After later passages, the route becomes a beaten track; indeed, it becomes all the vernacular tracks that have come down through the ages to this day.  As Rebecca Solnit noted in Wanderlust [2000. 68], this kind of path is “a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape.”

This second path regularly diverges from the first—the intended route—because it is experienced at first hand moving across the terrain, revealing obstacles and attractions that weren’t seen at the outset. Future posts will consider how walkers react to their surroundings, in particular their reactions to slopes, surface drainage, and other impediments. Like almost everything else in life, the predetermined ideal plan changes to conform to the less than ideal realities encountered in route.

From second to third stage path. The University of New Hampshire grounds crew hardened a social path with turf blocks, a low-tech, low-cost way to confirm the path’s route and prevent erosion.

A path changes again when it is mulched as a hiking trail, bricked as a residential walkway, or paved as a city sidewalk. It becomes “a place designed …; arranged or paved for walking.” This third path—the designed and constructed surface and the supporting mass beneath—is often neither of the earlier kinds of path.

This third version often tries to accommodate more than one kind of walking—both goal-seeking and strolling, for example. It addresses issues—like ease and cost of construction, land ownership and regulation, aesthetics and adjacent land uses ecological impacts—that are not part of a walker’s intentions or reactions to the landscape.

Meanwhile, each path we walk belongs to small and large networks of paths. Network size and form and the position of the walked segment in it help determine the segment’s popularity. So do the number and kind of nodes that attach the segment to the network. Networks have characteristic forms that are affected by topography and cultural history and in return affect path usage.

Beyond those topics, blog posts on this site will also examine highlights of a comprehensive walkway-design process, and the latest responses to issues typically arising in sites ranging from urban alleys to campuses and back-country trails. In short, this blog intends to pursue design issues through the three-phase life of a path in all settings. Please join us in this fully elaborated pursuit of attractive places to walk and linger.

One thought on “Blog posts reflect 3 stages in the life of a path

  1. I like the approach to path design since it delineates the phases from conception to completion. Am anxious to learn more about your path design process. As an avid hiker – including 54 of the NE 4000 footers- I’ve seen a lot of trails, both good and bad. Good meaning a clear destination, minimizing erosion and disruption, vista along the way and at the destination. Bad includes overuse before re-routing with excessive damage/erosion, dangerous and lack of a clear route causing confusion, disorientation and frustration.
    I look forward to learning more about your process. Graphics always help conceptualize. Thanks Peter!

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