A small path in Delft, the Netherlands, made me think about the role of desire lines in urban planning. It’s a short, almost unimportant path, but it taught me something about our urge to overdo and over-plan everything.
“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them … that we must fit our plans” - Jane Jacobs
Desire lines are “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning. Free-will ways”. In recent years, the interest of urbanists in desire lines has grown, as they offer a unique opportunity for planners to adapt the built environment according to the wishes of people. In this sense, desire lines are “a way that city-dwellers can write back to the city-planners, giving feedback with their feet.” They are powerful when they are seen like this, and when designers and planners use them to improve the public space.
In my projects, my main goal is to create public spaces that reflect the wishes and desires of people. Desire lines, in that sense, are signs of failure. When I see them around the city, I directly think of ways to “fix” them. Formalize them by paving them.
In recent months I pass almost daily next to (or over) a desire line in Delft. Every time I see it, I think about what it symbolizes: the difference between what planners wanted, and how people use it. The “tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.”
Desire line in Delft. Photo by Lior Steinberg.
I’ve already started thinking about the best way to pave this path. How wide should it be? Which materials should the city use? It can’t be standard tiles, I thought, as it would be nice to keep this piece of land natural. And then it hit me: Why should we even pave this path?
What’s wrong with the way it is now? Why can’t we just keep this path as it is? It’s beautiful and natural the way it is, and most people can use it most of the time. True, it’s not useful when it’s rainy, and some people with reduced mobility can’t always use it, but there’s always the already paved, short detour.
Paving this route is the “right” thing to do, but what desire does it satisfy? The desire of people to have a shorter route? It’s already achieved without the touch of a planner. What about the desires of people to have an unpaved path in the neighborhood?
Desires are a complicated mechanism. In a way, my urge to reshape the environment as a reaction to the desire line comes from the same place that created this line. Planners and designers can’t predict everything from the get-go, and desire lines are not always signs of failure. Sometimes a desire line is just a… desire line. And sometimes we should, quite literally, just let people just go.