When people modify landscapes, their interventions often reflect ideas about what to reveal and what to conceal. Beautiful vistas prompt the construction of scenic overlooks; drainage ditches cue the strategic planting of trees. It’s no secret that landscape architects structure environments in ways that achieve certain behavioral, social, and ecological effects. But people who write about landscapes do this, too. A description of a place is also an argument about how to experience that place. What has the author decided to say—or not say?
I live near a shopping mall complex, and sometimes I feel like there’s not much to say about my local landscape. But the other day, I saw something that reminded me people don’t stop interacting with their environment just because it’s planned and suburban:
Students of landscape architecture will recognize this eroded trail as a desire line, or desire path. These paths appear when pedestrians (or cyclists, cows, etc.) establish alternatives to constructed routes, usually in search of a shortcut—or a path where none exists.
Desire paths may exist in physical space, but they also represent flows of information. Some landscape planners interpret desire paths as evidence that an existing design has failed to meet human needs. Others celebrate crowd-sourced routes as the best way to begin designing cities and public transportation systems. Even in the digital world, our desire for efficiency drives us to scan webpages in distinct patterns. No wonder that desire paths are a touchstone for architects, web developers, and others interested in user-centered design.
In suburban and urban areas, however, certain pedestrians can create paths that halt movement and reflect more aesthetic—or self-absorbed—desires. Matthew Tiessen writes that the “Meanderthal” who frequently stops to text, take a photo, chat, or admire a scene is “a new species of urban flâneur … the proverbial stick in the spokes [that brings] the urban dweller’s expectations of mobility to an abrupt end.” Meanderthals trace individualized desire paths when they obstruct the flow of traffic, oblivious to the wants and needs of fellow pedestrians. They also pose a special design challenge: their paths aren’t always visible or consistent. The Meanderthal only halts routes when there are other people to halt.
How might urban designers anticipate and divert these Meanderthal paths? And should they? For me, Tiessen’s article also raises a broader set of questions: which desires do we physically inscribe on our landscapes, which ones do we keep hidden, and why?