No path is an island, or a tale of two paths

A job shortly after graduate school involved designing a front walkway for a suburban house. A friend asked me to replace a row of slates that had become just dimples in her lawn.

Occupants and visitors of this house used a side door easily accessible from the driveway instead of this slate front walk.

The issues at first seemed small, like the site. Make the new walk follow the slate route to the street, or to the driveway, if my friend preferred. Make the new walk out of brick or concrete or paving stones. Or gravel, for that matter. Who would really care?  After all, the slates had disappeared under the grass because almost no one—neither myself nor my friend nor visitor—used the front door.

In this particular instance, the issues tilted toward the aesthetic: the walk would serve more as the house’s visual welcome than as a treadway to walk on. Still, the walk’s location on a slope only a couple hundred yards from fresh and saltwater meant erosion could cause real and immediate harm.

For a week, I thought only about the front yard.

In the second week I began thinking about the side and rear yards. Did walks originating in those yards pass through the front yard? Indeed they did.

In the third week I began thinking about neighbors’ front yards. Shouldn’t my friend’s front walk echo, if not mimic, theirs?

How about the social path in the adjacent field? We often walked there. How could that path be connected to the front yard while steering away unwanted visitors? What did the gentle, natural meanders of the field path have to say about the ideal shape of this, or any other, new walk? And why did the field path for a while veer away from its obligatory goal, the earthen dam at the head of the small pond where we all ice-skated in the winter?

The answers were slow in coming and turned on factors I had seldom considered in relation to paths: the history of land on the far side of the pond, the path’s original direction, and the attraction of existing paths. Based partly on those learnings, I did replace the line of slates in the front yard that in some ways echoed neighbors’ front walks and in other ways reflected the sweet curvature of the field path.

Over time I came to realize the issues here were large and perhaps even universal. That short, seldom used suburban walk raised the same functional, aesthetic, and ecological issues as the longest trail or the busiest city sidewalk.

Nearly every landscape design project I’ve undertaken in the 25 years since that one has rewarded digging into what supports walkways. The mass of research and interest in walkways that has developed in these intervening years has not been unearthed by those most often charged with constructing the walkways we all follow. It’s high time for that to change.

That’s the mission of this blog: To unearth and display findings about how humans choose routes, how we adjust our routes in the walking, and how, as a result, designers should construct walkways.

The thinking about walks, like walks themselves, never stops telescoping outwards. That new front walk connected to the field path, which reached a coastal road where, as you read this, a walking and cycling path is being constructed. That walkway will bridge the harbor to Portland, where it will join U.S. Route 1, already part of the Eastern Seaboard Trail, running hundreds of miles north to Fort Kent, Maine, and thousands of miles south to Key West, Florida. Connections will soon be made to the Appalachian Trail.

The countless other offshoots, trails, paths, and sidewalks fingering outward from these lengthy spines form a network throughout the Western hemisphere and, through port cities, to the rest of the traveled world. No segment of that hemispheric and planetary pedestrian system is an island, and none should be designed as such.


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