25.10.18

SPONTANEOUS ORDER TRUMPS SOCIAL ENGINEERING.

I've been complaining about this for years.
The landscape architects at Northern Illinois University have this silly idea that people should walk on sidewalks, even if the sidewalks are laid out with a view toward looking pretty on a rendering than actually being where they are useful. So people take the most direct route. In an attempt to steer people onto the sidewalks and give the grass a chance to get started, the groundskeepers have placed sawhorse barriers to obstruct some of the more useful shortcuts, and their willing accomplices in the English department's building have posted signs exhorting people to use the sidewalks. As. If. Perhaps one of these years the groundskeepers will opt to lay some sidewalks where people will use them.
The pedestrians, predictably, lay out the minimal paths, and the landscape architects supervise the installation of bushes or fences to make people Go The Approved Way.

The good news is, even the technocracy-friendly Guardian sees the value of emergence, or, as they have it, desire paths.
Desire paths have been described as illustrating “the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them”. Because they often form in areas where there are no pavements, they can be seen to “indicate [the] yearning” of those wishing to walk, a way for “city dwellers to ‘write back’ to city planners, giving feedback with their feet”.

But as well as revealing the path of least resistance, they can also reveal where people refuse to tread. If you’ve been walking the same route for years, an itchy-footed urge to go off-piste, even just a few metres, is probably something you’ll identify with. It’s this idea that led one academic journal to describe them as a record of “civil disobedience”.

Rather than dismiss or even chastise the naughty pedestrian by placing fences or railings to block off “illicit” wanderings, some planners work to incorporate them into urban environments. This chimes with the thinking of Jane Jacobs, an advocate of configuring cities around desire lines, who said: “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.”
Too often, though, town infrastructure is all about the lines put on paper in something resembling an orderly fashion, whether they're useful or not.

2 comments:

Dave Tufte said...

Here in Utah, everyone knows that BYU suppresses spontaneous order by an appeal to standards and groupthink. The slogan "Cougars don't cut corners" has been used to encourage students to stick to the sidewalks. I am not an expert on the campus, but in the parts I've seen, it works.

Jeff said...

Around 1994, shortly after my time there, the University of Delaware built a new student center on a site in the center of campus that had previously been a large parking lot and small patches of grass between buildings. Students often tromped through the area to save time and cut a corner—so someone wisely realized that the footprint of the student center ought to reflect the exact "desire path" or "desire lines" of previous generations of students, including my own.

Seen from overhead, the student center isn't flush with the rectangular layout of the surrounding north-south, east-west streets, but is kind of north-northwest to south-southeast. Architecturally, it's otherwise nothing special, but the footprint is smart: It's not a building that requires you to orient yourself when you enter. Instead, it's optimized so that kids pass through it conveniently and grab food, say hello to friends, or pop by a student-group office on the way to somewhere else.