The path to hell is paved with good intentions

Although paths are everywhere and walking is critical to living, reasonable doubts persist about the need to give much thought to designing walkways. These doubts take several forms, but just about anyone who hadn’t considered issues carefully might insist that walkway design is fundamentally child’s play.

For example, since even youngsters can see that paths take up little space in the landscape, pedestrian pathways should be able to fit into any leftover strip of land. Unfortunately, roads and buildings often fill the best places for walking, or fragment the best routes, causing paths to detour or dead-end.

As walkers most of us can clamber up almost any slope and can turn on a dime. Constructing walks on that premise ignores the reality that most of us only seek and use routes that are attractive and convenient end to end. Assumptions about mobility also ignore the truth that most of us are TABbies, Temporarily Able Bodied. Able-bodied or not, we avoid any route with nuisances, a major impediment, or a single spot of danger.

A third wrong-headed notion, often repeated, is that a designer can just put paths where people walk. This idea has had at least one impressive supporter. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked in the late 1940s as president of Columbia University where to put sidewalks, he suggested planting grass, waiting to see where beaten tracks appeared, and paving those routes. This was, perhaps, a practical and sensible-sounding response, but think about it: where would we be if the herd determined the landscaping of an Ivy League university. What about safety? Symmetry? Scale? I could go on.

Should we pave over the quadrangle, here at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, to reach all destinations directly? (Photo by ilove2run)

Despite its good intent and ring of common sense, this follow-the-flow approach has serious flaws. An immediate problem is that it provides no guidance to anyone proposing new development. Meanwhile, walkers cross ground dedicated to other uses—athletic fields, sacred sites, sensitive plant habitats—and they deviate from direct routes to avoid wet or uneven ground a constructed path would easily overcome. Studies also show that social paths evolve, moving and combining over time. At exactly what point in a path’s evolution should the paver intervene?

Another convention for laying out paths in both existing and proposed developments suggests merely connecting the dots. Make paths go from point A to point B, from one destination to the next, from parking lot to office, street to store entry, back door to garden.

There are several problems with this thinking. We don’t walk through impediments or over hills, we curve around them. In fact, we tend to meander slightly at all times. And if all destinations were connected by paths, direct or not, we’d pave even more land than we already have paved.

Consider Ike’s Columbia University setting: four buildings forming a college quadrangle each with two doors disgorging students onto the greensward. Over time students would head for every other door and the openings between the buildings. Connecting those 12 destinations requires 46 different paths (do the geometry!). They’ll crisscross the quad like a cat’s cradle.

Paving all the direct desire lines of walkers in a simple college quadrangle might leave room for a few blades of grass.

Paving all 46 routes to any reasonable width would cover pretty much every square inch of grass. Instead of a campus park with a handsome canopy of trees, quads would become paved plazas. Bring out the awnings and the cafe chairs! But forget about the groups of students lounging on the grass, reading or chatting, and the visual pleasure of a field of green.

Paved with good intentions though they may be, sidewalks to nowhere, sidewalks that detour around buildings, sidewalks that skirt roads for hundreds of yards without a crosswalk, sidewalks that pave over parks, sidewalks that are too steep for every fourth person are hellish walks.

Constructed walkways thus require, not the play of children, but the attention of informed adults. The blog posts on this site will be directed to those charged with designing trails, promenades, and sidewalks. Although I’ll aim to keep the tone conversational, some matters necessarily will be technical. Still, welcome everyone! We all have a vested interest in irresistible places to walk and linger.

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