Desire Line

The shortest distance between two points; a spontaneous mapping of our use of public space; evidence of an ongoing crime, committed by the masses; a pure expression of democratic will, the people manifestly having voted with their feet: a desire line is all of these.

Most simply put, a desire line is a shortcut. It is an unofficial rogue trail carved into the ground by the passage of numerous pedestrians dissatisfied with the sanctioned routes on offer. A lone walker flaunting the conventions of civilization and the restrictions of garden design cannot on his own create a desire line. Such a path is visible only because the grass that once grew there could not survive the busy traffic. The earth is compacted, the exposed rock polished. This takes time, repetition, and the participation of the multitudes.

Sometimes, where it meets the sidewalk, a desire line spreads wide like the bell of a trumpet, indicating that here short-cutters have converged from various directions to follow it. In this way it becomes a cartographic representation of its own use, in much the way that Ed Ruscha's Sunday-morning aerial photographs of empty Los Angeles parking lots serve as graphs of the preferences of the drivers who park in them, legible in the density of the oil-stains dripped onto the pavement from the pans of innumerable automobiles.

Depending on your perspective, a desire line is either a scar marring the symmetry and tidiness of a park, plaza or lawn, or it is the organic biproduct of maximized efficiency. I'm grateful to Laura for introducing me to this basic concept from the field of landscape architecture, for the desire line has almost unlimited metaphoric potential. Is it the result of taking the easy way out, or of standing up to convention? Are desire-liners lazy and lawless, or are they visionaries who think outside (or inside, or across the corners of) the box? Should society value individualism, or conformity?

Resistance to the desire line is futile. The disgruntled groundskeeper should not argue with the commuters hurrying home, ignoring his admonition not to walk on the grass; his quarrel is with the designer, who failed to do necessary research and tried to erase tradition with the rigid geometry of his ego. What hope is there that a fence and a handful of grass-seed can counteract the imperatives of desire?

A desire line serves as its own demonstrative proof of its benefit to the commons; its utility is rendered undeniable by its very existence.


Jody said...

I will forevermore look for desire lines wherever I go... and continue to make my own, whether yet visible, or not!
: )

Unknown said...

Just came here via Karl & Henri's blog and loved this post. I had never heard of the term previously, but 'desire lines' sounds infinitely better than 'social trail' (let alone 'shortcut').

Have you seen this post on desire lines cutting across vacant urban lots in Detroit?

They say it's a cold world said...

Incidentally, in attempting to identify the origins of "desire line" as a term, I found on the internet countless suggestions that it was originated by Gaston Bachelard in his "Poetics of Space." This seems to be a book which many people are happy to pretend to have read. Or, to be charitable, perhaps they are far more careful readers than I, for nowhere in that volume could I find mention of any desire line. Nor did any of these many mentions of Bachelard ever include a page number or actual citation.

This appears to be a case of the internet proving itself to be an exceptionally powerful tool in the spread of wrong information--the Bachelard-desire line connection was at the time even being propagated in the Wikipedia entry for "desire path".