Urban legends, cow paths, and switchbacks

Wonderful photos and text here demonstrating the trouble with running sidewalks in different places than where people naturally want to walk: they’ll walk elsewhere and create paths.

While the piece is interesting in itself, it is also a nice way of approaching the whole subject of design and architecture in a roundabout, eyes-averted fashion. After all, many designers operate in the same way, creating products that work the way they would like people to function, not the other way around.

There is an urban legend about this sort of thing. It is attached to various places, but it goes like this: When University X was created they didn’t put in any sidewalks. Instead, they just waited for a year to go by, and then paved all the paths people had created from walking around campus.

It is a nifty story, even if it’s not true. Certainly it didn’t happen at my former employer, the University of British Columbia. There I often used to wonder at the attempts to cordon off and re-seed areas of grass beaten down by those determined to take the most direct route. Why fight the natural flow?

I would, however, attach one caveat: the idea only applies in urban settings. In wilderness, for example, letting people walk where they want to can come at a high cost, as anyone who was hiked up a switchbacked mountain trail can tell you. Wahoos almost invariably cut the corners, creating erosion, that will, almost inevitably, degrade the trail for all concerned.