Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

Desire Paths

Footpaths are, to state the obvious, established routes for walkers between two points.

But paths are born.

First one, then two, then more people decide that a new route is needed and set out bravely across a terrain.

At first these early forays leave little trace, except to seasoned trackers.

If enough people follow the same shortcut, soon marks will be left and a line can be seen on the land. This is the ‘desire path’.

A desire path is just the forerunner of a path – its ancestor.

They are evidence that existing paths don’t cater to the needs of the walker. They are proof that several walkers believe that there might be a better option and have voted with their feet.

Desire paths are typically shortcuts and are most common in the following similar situations:

a) landscape designers think they know best where a path should be and are wrong, and/or

b) planners suggest a route they want a walker to take and fail to convince them.

c) Things change. People need to travel in ways they didn’t before.

Paths that evolve naturally over decades or centuries know the needs and wants of the walker better than the best ideas of the smartest designers.

The photos above and below show the same desire path in the Victoria Embankment Gardens in London. We can see that a garden designer has suggested a curving route and many people have decided that a straight shortcut across the grass is a better idea.

The straighter route is certainly quicker. But is it better?

If you study this desire path carefully you might notice something intriguing. The walkers opting for this route are happy to come off the hard path and onto grass to shorten their route. But they are not happy to step off the grass into the mud of the bed to make it even quicker. There is a small kink around the mud. These are walkers that want to save time and footwear.

Based on this evidence, my guess is that this desire path is seasonal, much more popular in summer than winter.

Here is a nice example of a desire path I spotted in New York’s Central Park recently.

Where a new path is created that is longer than the original path and navigates around a blockage or hazard, this is not called a desire path, but a ‘smile path‘.

You might also enjoy:

The Smile Path

Shortcut Clues in the Clwydian Range

The Sneckdown

How to Cross a Park Like an Explorer