Of 10 path types, only 8 are for walking

“My walking is of two kinds: one straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond. In the latter state, no gypsy on earth is a greater vagabond than myself; it is so natural to me, and strong with me, that I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.”

– Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveler

It is understandable to think as Dickens does that walking consists of two kinds of mutually exclusive pursuits, of either seeking a destination or strolling for leisure. Those two do encompass most walkers’ intentions. However, careful reflection suggests there are other intentions requiring other types of paths with distinct sets of design considerations, often ignored by walkers and designers alike.

I’ve come across 10 distinct path types, of which only eight are intended for walking. Besides Dickens’s two categories, the walkables are:

  • Exercise paths, designed to maximize exertion and to end the workout where it began.
  • Display paths, which often employ small mesh networks to maximize edges for exhibits.
  • Narrative paths designed to tell stories and which often must be directional to be read.
  • Sacred paths, the basis of pilgrimages and labyrinths.
  • Perimeter paths, around a lake or mountain or a piece of property, for inspecting, claiming, or enjoying.
  • Hidden paths, made to be walked but not seen, of which the best examples are garden maintenance paths and routes into secret gardens.

The two types of unwalked paths are:

  • Aesthetic paths, which are designed solely to add to the landscape composition, and
  • Blocked paths, former routes now stoppered due to erosion, new owners, change of destination, and the like.

Purposeful walking—whether for goal reaching or for exercise—shares the need for a safe route with all other types of walking, but it differs significantly from strolling and the other more leisurely kinds of walking in not demanding thorough comfort and diverse interest in route. Leisurely walking extends to lingering, which involves standing, leaning, or sitting along the route. The kinds of comfort and interest we seek when lingering or walking leisurely requirements are diverse and are based on the human senses. In preparation for considering the several different types of walkways, let us first discuss attributes of safe routes and of comfortable, engaging walkways.

 Most paths are designed with these kinds of distinctions in mind, from the broad graveled walkways at Versailles for strolling in full costume and watching others doing the same to city sidewalks for conveying people to their destinations. Still, we know each path can serve the other’s purpose, what with contemporary tourists at Versailles heading for le Potager du Roi or le Petit Trianon while window-shoppers stroll along city streets.

The distinction between paths that serve many functions and those that support a select few is the difference between strong and weak programs.

Strong program paths, such as a steep hiking trail, support only their intended users. On the other hand, campus walkways have weak programs because they will support those hurrying to destinations, strollers, and exercisers.

Designers must pair breadth of user types to strength of path program. The width of a city sidewalk, for instance, calls for a weak program because it will only support prevalent strolling if it also provides adequate width for its expected traffic of goal seekers.

Users’ differing outlooks became apparent during one family’s outing in Acadia National Park. The parents had thought their young son would enjoy sauntering along the wide, gently graded carriage roads, but within minutes of their start, he announced, “This is not my style.” His style, it turned out, involved clambering over rocks and climbing steep, narrow trails. In short, while they had strolling in mind, he was thinking instead of challenge and exercise.

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