I have always been fascinated with urban planning, as a discipline. I’ve only ever designed and invested in digital design (and more recently, hardware and industrial design), but I’ve found that many principles of good urban planning are also universal truths of good design.
One of the challenges of urban planning is that it is difficult to strike the right balance between structure and serendipity, structure and lack of structure. Ideally, design has just enough structure to encourage a community to behave in an optimal way, without trying to dictate too specifically how something “should” work. The key is that the optimal way should in many cases be decided by the community rather than the planner.
One example where urban plans break down is a “desire path,” a pathway that emerges through the wear and tear of use over a long period of time. I was reminded of this recently while visiting UC Berkeley’s campus, where I came across a grass lawn with a dirt path cutting through the middle of it. The dirt path was the fastest path from one side of the lawn to the other, but there was no official path across the lawn, so students created their own. In fact, there is a whole Flickr group of photos of desire paths.
In Two Degrees West, Nick Crane writes about a walk he made across England:
"Claire was photographing desire paths… the imprints of ‘foot anarchists’, individuals who had trodden their own routes into the landscape, regardless of the intentions of government, planners and engineers… They were expressions of free will, ‘paths with a passion’, an alternative to the strictures of railings, fences and walls that turned individuals into powerless apathetic automatons. On desire paths you could break out, explore,’feel your way across the landscape’."
In any sort of design, there needs to be just the right balance between structure and serendipity.
Maybe the campus planners would benefit from creating no paths initially, and seeing where the optimal paths should be placed. Let the customer tell you what they want and what makes them happy. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know the answer initially.
Will you build what people actually want, or stay dogmatic in the face of desire paths?