Would we behave better in nature if trails were better designed?

In 2017, author Robert Moor explored the concept of desire lines in a New Yorker essay exploring how conservationists in New York City approach them. “Some view them as evidence of pedestrians’ inability or unwillingness to do what they’re told; in the words of one academic journal, they ‘record collective disobedience,’” Moor wrote. “Others believe that they reveal the inherent flaws in a city’s design—the places where paths ought to have been built, rather than where they were built. For this reason, desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others.”

One famous example of incorporating desire lines into urban design is the first theme park built by Walt Disney. The story goes that Disney didn’t have any paved paths when it first opened, and, instead, he allowed visitors free reign. Naturally, organic paths emerged, and those were later paved. But Paice and her husband, Ian, weren’t aware of the academic concept of desire lines when they started looking for their customers’ feedback in this way. It just happened naturally. After their first summer of mowing camping pitches into their meadow, a friend flew a drone over the site and they marveled at how the paths created a beautiful leaf-like shape they hadn’t planned. 

Now, they do that intentionally and mow the meadow differently each year to allow the land to recover between seasons. Early on, they tried to enforce people sticking to the paths, by posting signs saying that certain areas were resting, Paice says. Now, however, they realize it’s better to let people redefine the space organically, so they often recut the paths to fit what’s been trampled the previous summer. “When you put a path in place, you expect people to use it,” Paice says, “but it’s been fascinating.”

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