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07 December 2005

Follow your desire lines

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Desire_lines_1In the park where we play, there are nicely laid out concrete paths, leading from the swings to the picnic tables, from the castle to the soccer field, from the water fountain to the bridge, from here to there, from A to B.

And then there are the real paths, the dirt ones, the ones that shoot out from the concrete to connect where people really go, to memorialize the real actions of children playing, to acknowledge the real patterns of living, of human purpose, of some honest destination.

Last year, my friend Anita cut an article out of the L.A. Times for me, with a note: “I thought you might like this.” Indeed I did.

The article, Robert Finch’s “Purposefully straying from the path,” was about those paths people make when they cut across a grassy area instead of following the prescribed walkway—those dirt paths that take us where we really want to go. 

In the business of landscape architects, it turns out that these impromptu, unofficial, renegade paths have a poetic, wonderful name. They’re called “desire lines”:

“…those well-worn ribbons of dirt that you see cutting across a patch of grass, often with nearby sidewalks ignored—particularly those that offer a less direct route. In winter, desire lines appear spontaneously as tramped down paths in the snow. I love that these paths are never perfectly straight. Instead, like a river, they meander this way and that, as if to prove that desire itself isn't linear and (literally, in this case) straightforward.”  —

Desire_lines_leavesSome landscape architects actually design walkways to accommodate these emergent designs, tracking the usage by waiting to see where people prefer to go and then building their official paths there. (Would this create more unofficial paths, I wonder? Is the desire to be outside the lines, to forge our own path, so strong?) Desire lines indicate yearning, according to John La Plante, the chief traffic engineer for T. Y. Lin International, an engineering firm. Indeed they do. A yearning to go our own way, to forge through the brush of life, to make a new path, to ignore the concrete in lieu of the feel of our foot on real earth, to see the results of our own agency through space.

A paper by Carl Myhill examines how companies can be successful by focusing on the desire lines of their products and customers:

“Desire lines are an ultimate expression of human desire or natural purpose. An optimal way to design pathways in accordance with natural human behaviour, is to not design them at all. Simply plant grass seed and let the erosion inform you about where the paths needs to be.”

How hard this is! Don’t we know best? Aren’t we the experts? Shouldn’t we set the path in stone and have them follow us? Perhaps, my friend, the answer is no, no, a thousand times no.

SnowpathsMyhill poetically calls desire lines “the ultimate unbiased expression of natural human purpose—a perfect expression of natural purpose.” Natural human purpose. What is mine? Yours? Maybe if I look at the paths I’ve worn, over and over again, I’ll see that purpose show itself, like corn fields create patterns only when I’m flying over them. Perhaps it takes some distance to see that path; at the very least, it requires a different vantage point.

Marica Sevelj, a blogger from Wellington, New Zealand, goes further to explore if and how desire lines connect to learning:

“Desire lines are linked to urban planning…I immediately started thinking about how this might apply to learning and teaching… Is the curriculum itself an example of a desire line created by a group of experts who wholeheartedly believe this is what the learner needs to know, or is the curriculum an example of a concrete path which learners are expected to use but don't necessarily want to? Could we take this approach in learning? Would mayhem ensue if we just planted seeds and waited to see what happened?”

When we teach, whose desire line are we teaching to, following, demanding? Mine as teacher, or my students’, as learner? Am I willing to follow them?

As Sevelj notes, The Walking Project is extending the concept behind desire lines to uncover the stories those paths tell.

“The Walking Project uses the paths people make across vacant lots in Detroit and across fields in South Africa — desire lines — as springboards to explore the paths we walk and how they are formed through culture, geography, language, economics and love. It looks at how people make their own paths; how and why people’s paths cross; and how changing patterns of movement can alter perceptions, attitudes and lives.”

Paths crossing, creating patterns and another layer of complexity. This image (I imagine Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and that invisible thread that ties her to friends across London, snapping only when she jolts awake—or falls asleep, one forgets which, they are so alike) creates spider webs of connection, like so much emotional longitude and latitude, except more random, aren’t they? Or not. How insanely random and yet how right, all those paths I’ve crossed around the world, accidental juxtapositions—and yet paths I cannot imagine not having crossed, as if the crossing were the destiny. Patterns I can’t see because I’m not high enough, but there I am as part of it, believing I am forging a new way, but perhaps not. Feeling I am defining my human purpose, but perhaps tracing a pattern already lightly penciled in? Feeling the renegade, but truly just being my own real self—in what kind of world is that being deviant?

Berkeley_before_croppedBarrier_at_berkeley_1(Click each photo to enlarge) In the left photo, look at the curve in the road. You’ll see a thin sliver of footpath connecting the bend in the road to a concrete path that mirrors its curve. The barrier in the second photo was put in place to discourage that desire line. Now, people just walk around the barrier.

Several years ago, Peter Merholz wrote an illustrated essay that demonstrated how Berkeley tried to circumvent rather than accommodate desire lines it found on campus. Rather than allow a new pattern to remain and become an established purpose path, they created an oddly out-of-place metal barrier to keep people on the “real” path. As the second photo shows, people now just walk around the barrier. When the official path makes no sense to how we actually live or use a product, we create our own path; we won’t be thwarted. (Sometimes, though, it takes most of a lifetime to create that new, real path, our very one, our own, doesn’t it?)

When faced with a bird’s eye view of my own desire lines, measuring in quick paces the decisions I’ve made or not made, do I allow them to become the real path, or do I put up a concrete barrier to redirect myself back to the “official” road? And what is that process of creating our own path? What feelings does it entail, engender, cause?

As Finch said,

“Sometimes, following unknown paths, we find ourselves in a maze of growth, in failing light, unsure where we are, flailing through jungles of stiff, impenetrable shrubs and sharp briars in deceptively benign-looking woods. All at once we realize we are lost, unable to retrace our steps. Then, suddenly, we come out onto a paved highway, far from where we thought we were, feeling a gratefulness and a relief we are ashamed to acknowledge.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we come upon a new and unexpected clearing, a magical place unanticipated in our daily thoughts or even our dreams; and when we do, we are so amazed that we cease even to wonder whether we will be able to find our way back home, or, perchance, whether this might in fact be our new home.”

Why do we stray? Finch asks:

 “What is it that urges us to create, or follow, desire lines in our own lives? To forgo or depart from the approved or laid-out tracks in our landscape? To stray not only from the straight and narrow, but often from the broad and winding as well—though taking such paths can, on occasion, lead to destructive conflagrations?”

What is it that has pushed me to create this new desire line in my life? More importantly, where is the new line headed? Or do I need to know that now?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Desire_lines2Plant grass seed and see what the erosion tells you about where the path should be—where do you keep going? What path are you wearing bare? Take an aerial “photograph” of your desire lines; only with that perspective can we clearly see them.

Where are they coming from and where are they going? Or are these desire lines a representation of your real intention in life, a sturdy setting forth? What landscape are they crisscrossing? Why not make them the real route for your life, since you obviously yearn to go there?

Also, ask yourself the tough question: are those really desire lines, or am I just lazy, looking for the quickest way from here to there, not the real way? Are they just for convenience, or a real marking out in the world? Can I tell the difference between a shortcut and a desire line?

Make your own way. Blaze your own sure path. Find the ultimate expression of your human desire or natural purpose. Leave a trail.   


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Wow. Wow. WOW. I don't even know where to begin...other than to re-read it several more times. I've just linked to it...I really want to share it with my readers. I'm going to share it with some of the staff at the school where I work, too...especially the part about curriculum. Thank you for this.

oh, i just love how these paths are called "desire lines." something about that just tickles me.

came your way thru marilyn, what a wonderful idea for a website, 37 days. and a great post! thank you!

What a great post. Thanks!

wow. thanks for sharing an amazing post, it made my heart flutter. now i'm going to reread it again and savour every word.

Patti, look at what I found this morning:

Case in point - I worked at a building that had two entrances. A side entrance and a formal entry. Of course we all used the side entrance - it was much more expedient and direct. But doing do wore a path across a tiny 3-foot strip of grass - so the building owner put up a hedge. Didn't stop us; people pushed their way through the hedge. One guy suggested poisoning it. I don't think he was kidding. It became a battle of wills. Finally - the building people relented, and cut a hole in the hedge for people using the side door. Everyone was happy. The moral of the story is to put the path where people will use it - not where you think it looks best or is most logical. The same theory applies to automated sales and support systems, which are often inexplicable to callers.

From another Patti, actually Patricia Keefe who writes at

Great post!

Also came here from Marilyn. Very well written post, lots of food for thought. Like Marilyn the most prevailing question for me is the one you ask at the end: when is it laziness, when is it a true desire line, a path of purpose?

I have never looked at the roadmap of my life from this angle and I am intrigued because the issue of laziness has been looming large at the back of my mind. I have taken plenty of shortcuts, if I had to create them amongst the paved paths, then so be it, I would find and make an easy way across. I have often thought to myself that I ought to have taken the path that's already laid out leading to the given destination. Did I not miss essential things alongside the path by taking the shortcut?

Mmm, I shall have to ponder all this a bit more ...

Many thanks for an inspirational piece of writing :)


Desire lines yes Laziness - maybe so, but life's too short not to take short cuts. How about a desire line path as a metaphor for new words and expression or new meanings for old words at first used by one then a few and if it makes sense by many all the way to the dictionary. The same could be said for any new idea.

How is it possible that you wrote this post almost a YEAR ago?? Re-reading it today, the resonance bells rang most loudly when I got to this: "But sometimes, just sometimes, we come upon a new and unexpected clearing, a magical place unanticipated in our daily thoughts or even our dreams; and when we do, we are so amazed that we cease even to wonder whether we will be able to find our way back home, or, perchance, whether this might in fact be our new home." One sentence uttered by my mate this morning...and I was already carving out a new desire line... I take away something new every time I read this post.

I love this post (yeah - I know I'm a little late... I only discovered your site a few months back and I'm still catching up!)

I love this post because I *think* about this all the time. However... I will catch myself stepping off the path and immediately correct myself right back to the pavement.

Grown in Michigan we really really like our lawns! I was raised on a farm where we had a lot of lawn beside the acres of corn and fenced pastures for the ewes. My Dad always fussed about staying off certain areas of grass... as if a lawn is for display, not play (dis-play). Other areas were alright.

Years later when I was in Basic Training at Lackland AFB one of the multitudes of rules we had to follow was to always take the shortest path BUT "STAY OFF THE GRASS". That's what sidewalks and prescribed paths are for. I didn't find this hard to follow. As with most of the rules, restrictions, and commands they barked at us, I thought of my Dad. Coincidentally, it was during that time that I thought maybe my Dad picked this anal retentiveness from his own time in the Navy. Not that they delt with much grass while at sea, but I assume they wanted to go tot he grass when they docked, but weren't allowed except in designated areas.

So even now, I respect a beautiful lawn or a landscaped park and for the most part, I stay on the prescribed path... and off the grass... but in MY yard... on MY lawn... I tell people "feel free to take off your shoows and socks.. the grass is here for the feeling!"

It's not so much anout lawn, grass, or landscaping... just my very own strange angle on desire lines ;)

What an interesting little side-track to find myself on. I was looking for a picture of Cheerios to show to a Danish friend I chat online with. (He didn't know what a 'Cheerio' was.. and somehow I ended up here.
I'll definitely be back to peruse and savour your thoughts and ideas. Thanks for sharing, you brought a bit of sunshine into an otherwise dreary day!

this is great. I read it before (? month ago) and I have stumbled upon it again as I searched for a post I lost and hoped that I would find....

I read an article in a local magazine a couple weeks profiled a man ...landscape artist interested in natural landscaping...following nature and I am sure there was mention of this idea there....

if you see this comment, please know how far reaching it has been...still there for someone like myself to learn from...

I've enjoyed discussing this with family and friends. Patti's words strike a chord within everyone I've shared this with. It's an amazing, thought-provoking collection of essays, but this one is by far, my favorite.

I am a graduate of the University of Toledo, in Ohio. Thought you might find one of it's "points of pride" of interest after reading this particular post. During the Blizzard of 1978, the land in mid-campus, which used to be a faculty parking lot and Army barracks, was completely covered by snow. Graduate students in the university's geography department conducted a study and, from the Bell Tower, photographed the paths on the snow made by students walking to class. The design of the sidewalks in Centennial Mall was then constructed using the layout of those paths. The link below has a wonderful view from a bove.

Thank you for your writing here. It has helped me to focus more on what I think is important..... Implementation? Well as it is said - every day is day one!

Wow, Patti! I'm new to your blog and am reading, reading, reading... trying to digest it all. This post hits very close to home, as I have been trying to find MY path in life for the past year or so. I've found that I'm on my most natural path when I close my eyes and follow my instinct. It's very hard to do, actually, considering the rest of the world incessantly is trying to redirect me, tell me where the REAL path is, and that my path is not valid... This method takes me through hoops and loops, and back around again, but it is MY path and my Self knows it to be true! Sometimes I progress slower than others, often I feel lost and wonder when I am going to pop out into familiar territory... but you know, the most satisfying times have been when I end up somewhere completely new and realize "this is my new home!"

Lots of food for thought, thanks for this!


Gorgeous post. I'd heard about desire lines. Loved the concept and the way the words rolled over my tongue. But never read such expanded thoughts about them as yours.

I often speak of desire, as it is the perfect expression of human natural get from point a to point b.

Thank you for this post

=Kevin Leversee

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