Whatever you call (or aren’t sure to call) them, chances are you’ve contributed to more than a few informal shortcuts that veer off the prescribed concrete path.

Desire paths — or desire lines, as they're more formally known in urban planning — are the well-worn pedestrian pathways formed by simple erosion and a successive line of people deciding: “Nah, I’m going to go this way.”

Generally, desire paths (I grew up referring to them as cowpaths) branch off from, run parallel to or connect sidewalks and other established walking paths to provide a less circuitous route from point A to point B. They can also be found where there is little to no existing pedestrian infrastructure. Most of the time, a desire path shaves off travel time (even if just a few seconds) or leads to a place — a scenic overlook, for example — lacking a formal means of access. Sometimes, they’re even borne from local superstition.

No matter their intended purpose, desire paths can develop pretty much anywhere people want to walk. You see them in parks big and small. You see them in cities, small towns, the suburbs and crisscrossing a variety of public spaces. You see them in parking lots, along the sides of roads and creeping between buildings. Walking along one is the pedestrian version of veering off the highway and taking an alternate route that will get you to your destination faster, although you might risk mucking up your car — or in this, case, your shoes — in the process. With desire paths, tromping through grass, dirt and mud in open areas where you perhaps aren’t really supposed to be is preferable to limiting yourself to the sometimes inconvenient constraints of the built environment.

Why stick to the sidewalk when you can cut through a sorry-looking patch of grass and get there 10 seconds sooner? Why not deviate, especially when it’s obvious by the ground beneath your feet that countless other people have done so before you?

A desire path being paved A relatively short desire path in Chicago that's about to graduate to a proper sidewalk. (Photo: Paul Sableman/Flickr)

'The paths that humans prefer'

As noted in the always-fantastic podcast 99% Invisible in 2016, a desire path can start to form after “as few as 15 traversals.” That's not a whole lot of foot action by any means. And unless an entity in an official capacity — a parks department, for example — steps in early to block access to a desire path, once one gets going there’s often no turning back. The people — via their feet — have spoken. Democracy in action! And that’s the beauty of desire paths. As a wildly popular desire-path-documenting Reddit community with more than 140,000 members puts it: These are “the paths that humans prefer, rather than the paths humans create.”

Erode it and they will come.

There are myriad reasons why some might see desire paths as anything but desirable. Sometimes they meander off of established trails and into ecologically sensitive areas where erosion caused by foot traffic as well as habitat destruction is a legitimate concern. Sometimes they can be dangerous, dodgy and detrimental to wildlife. And more often than not, desire paths are simply willfully disruptive to the orderly flow of movement established by city planners and landscape designers.

“The desire lines, while they’re expressive of people’s interest in being in the woods, they also damage the ecology,” Jennifer Greenfeld, assistant commissioner for forestry, horticulture and natural resources with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, explained to Robert Moor in a 2017 New Yorker article examining the curious phenomena of renegade tracks that can be found "scarring pristine lawns and worming through forest undergrowth" across the globe.

"Some view them as evidence of pedestrians’ inability or unwillingness to do what they’re told," Moor writes. "Others believe that they reveal the inherent flaws in a city’s design — the places where paths ought to have been built, rather than where they were built. For this reason, desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others."

Desire path in Oakland Sometimes it takes just a little light foot traffic to form a widely used shortcut. (Photo: Kai Schreiber/Flickr)

And as Moor points out, even if a desire path is obstructed (usually with a fence, railing, very large bush or polite but firmly worded signage) due to safety or ecological concerns, more often than not any access-blocking obstacles will be breached, trampled, pushed aside or completely ignored. And if that doesn’t work, an entirely new desire path might form leading to the very same destination.

Sometimes, however, cities submit to the will of the people instead of blocking it.

Take, for example, a heavily trafficked (former) desire path that cut across a plot of land in an area of St. Paul, Minnesota, where pedestrians were forced to contend with a busy four-lane road and a smattering of freeway on-ramps and off-ramps in order to access a local shopping center. The desire path provided a quicker, less dangerous route. As Minneapolis-based nonprofit streets.mn reports, not only did improvements undertaken by the city’s transportation department in 2017 make it safer for pedestrians to navigate around the roadways and access the shopping center via the long way, it also later converted the time-saving desire path into a proper sidewalk.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a meaningful improvement that affects the lives of people who frequent this area,” writes Jenny Werness for streets.mn. “It’s currently in the running for my favorite sidewalk, even though there’s nothing scenic or attractive about it.”

A fenced-off desire path A fenced-off desire path that cuts through a grassy swath of parkland in London. (Photo: Alan Stanton/Flickr)

Unsanctioned paths as useful planning tools

In addition to occasionally transforming long-established desire paths into legit sidewalks, planners will also often quietly encourage pedestrians to organically form new paths in areas that aren’t necessarily ecologically sensitive. They'll intentionally make an area somewhat cumbersome to navigate (read: completely sidewalk-free) so pedestrians are forced/invited to tromp across the landscape and create new desire paths, which in turn, will be later turned into sidewalks.

As 99% Invisible puts it: “While these unsanctioned shortcuts can be frustrating to landscape designers, some urban planners look to them as they map out and pave new official paths, letting users lead the way.”

And this makes perfect sense. If pedestrians are going to ultimately choose where they will or will not walk, formal sidewalks be damned, why not start with a blank slate and let them choose the preferred routes well before sidewalks are put in?

In addition to cities and municipalities, colleges and universities with campuses that feature expansive, turf-covered quads and other wide-open spaces have employed this tactic. Virginia Tech and the University of California, Berkeley, are just two institutions of higher learning identified by 99% Invisible that have “reportedly waited to see which routes students, faculty and staff would take regularly before deciding where to pave additional pathways across their campuses.”

a short desire path Why walk around a patch of grass when you can cut corners? (Photo: George Redgrave/Flickr)

In a recent article about the mysterious pull of desire paths, the Guardian describes the campus of Michigan State University, which also waited for students and faculty to blaze their own trails before committing to paved pathways that connect newly built buildings, as being “a pleasing etch-a-sketch board when seen from above.”

As "people-centered" urban planner and architect Riccardo Marini relays to the Guardian, when desire paths begin popping up they should be taken seriously.

“Somebody has spent a fortune putting in granite steps with a piece of landscape next to it, and people have gone up the slope because their brain tells them that’s the quickest way to do it, even if they get muddy,” he says. “Desire lines present evidence about movement, which is important.”

Marini, who notes desire paths are all about “listening to a place,” goes on to explain that one of the most iconic streets in North America, New York City’s Broadway, started out as a desire path used by Native Americans to avoid the island of Manhattan’s more treacherous terrain. It’s the only former path in the city that “wasn’t wiped out by the European grid being overlaid on it,” he explains.

It’s well worth taking a gander at the aforementioned subreddit to marvel at hundreds upon hundreds of desire paths in their full glory. In just the past several days, long ones, short ones, ridiculous ones, sad ones, ones that come in multiples and "absolute whoppers" have all been shared. Who knows ... you might even recognize a desire path near you that your own two feet have helped to create.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Desire paths: The unsanctioned shortcuts crisscrossing public spaces
Spontaneous by nature, desire paths are the most optimal way to get from point A to B as decided by pedestrians, not planners.