Paths, desire lines and Covid-19: some observations (and pictures)

“Desire lines”, or “desire paths” are, at one level, a relatively straightforward concept in the fields of planning, land management and architecture. The Wikipedia definition will serve:

[A] path created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. The width and severity of erosion are often indicators of the traffic level that a path receives. Desire paths emerge as shortcuts where constructed paths take a circuitous route, have gaps, or are non-existent.

However, the idea of the “desire path” becomes more complex when some of the concepts and assumptions in this definition are unpacked. How are “constructed paths” constructed? By whose authority? What motivators, apart from ease of access or shortness of route, define the course of a desire path? The idea of the desire path, as framed here, would encompass “holloways”, described by the writer Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards, in their book of that name, as “a hollow way, a sunken path. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel roll & rain-run have harrowed deep down into bedrock”: how can we unpick the complex network of historical and archaeological drivers which shaped them over hundreds of years?

Desire paths are intimately linked with the fundamental motivators which govern human interaction with space and place, and they can be intensely political. A significant aspect of the Paris Situationist philosophy, for example, was resistance to the constructed path, and to the bourgeoise banality of the planned urban space. The term “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”; the voice of the people as a kind of collective wisdom, funnelled by a kind of collective interpretation of the moral, cultural or political angle of a particular issue, and equating the voice of God, is a well-worn political trope dating from at least the early eighteenth century, probably a lot earlier. Might there be a similar trope for the “walkings of the people”? “Ambulari Populi” perhaps?

The ambulari populi changes pathways, whether constructed or not. In the example below, a tree has been effectively subsumed by a path as walkers have increasingly used both, rather than just one side of it:

Whiteknights Lake, Reading, 17th May 2020.

There are some big concepts here, but – as Macfarlane et al and others have observed – they are visible in the day to day. I offer here a small, literally pedestrian observation gleaned from 2020’s months of Covid-19 lockdown.  Many of the desire paths we created, and continue to create, have undergone a subtle transformation, as a result of social distancing. The idea of the path has been rethought, as people internalized the need to keep two meters apart to prevent the spread of infection. Our behaviours have changed: when, on path – whether constructed or not – two or more of us approach from opposite directions, the instinct has become to maximize the distance between us as we pass, treading the very outer edge of the path as we do so – and, in some cases subtly altering it.

Earley Lake, Reading, 3rd October 2020

Since April or thereabouts, I have been documenting the way “Covid desire lines” have come to express the desire to socially distance in the fabric of the landscape, and how paths have developed as a result (many of these pictures date from the height of the national UK lockdown, and I hasten to add at this point that they were all taken during my permitted once-daily exercise).

In some cases, as below, where there is an existing track of some breadth, “sub-paths” develop on the opposite sides, as walkers use the width of the path to avoid one another.

Near Sindlesham, Berkshire, 17th April 2020.

In others, the new desire lines have strong relationships with field boundaries. In the very clear example below, clear distance is maintained between the pre-existing path on the left and the new one on the right, until they are compressed together by the gap in the fence.

Thames tow path, Berkshire, 8th June 2020

However, in the stretches where we have the freedom to socially distance without constraint, the evenness of the old and new paths, and the spacing between them, is striking:

Thames tow path, Berkshire, 8th June 2020

Desire paths can be very persistent, and where imperatives such as social distancing are in play, they bely the simple notion that the physically easiest or shortest route must always prevail. Here the bole of a fallen tree is overrun by those socially distancing towards the left:

Whiteknights Lake, Reading, 17th May 2020

In other cases, they append themselves to metaled paths:

Ripley, Yorkshire, 22nd July 2020

There is no real conclusion to draw here, beyond that even surface-level desire paths such as these, imposed only on the very top layer of the landscape by a few weeks of extra-ordinary measures, have different facets, and represent different responses at places where our relationship with the landscape is constrained in different ways. Cost-path reductivness in GIS is all well and good, but it must always be qualified by many, many layers of human interpretation.

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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