More Desirable Lines

January 06th, 2013 | Category: Essays

As I have written elsewhere, desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them. The folklore of these footpaths says that good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187; and Norman, 2010, p. 126-129) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. The time constraints of an average construction contract wouldn’t allow much in the way of paths (Norman, 2010); however, there are cases of rogue paths being “legitimized” with pavement after the ones in place proved insufficient (see Rogers, 1987, for example). Impressions of desire take time.

The city, as a form of the body politic, responds to new pressures and irritations by resourceful new extensions always in the effort to exert staying power, constancy, equilibrium, and homeostasis.
— Marshall McLuhan (1964, p. 98)

Before they were a blight on the urban planner’s finished project, desire lines prefigured roads and maps. Before the first roads were paved, they were dirt paths worn by hooves and wooden wheels; before that, they were trade routes trampled by footfalls; and before that, they were simply the desire to find our way. In his book, Maps of the Imagination (which I highly recommend), writer Peter Turchi (2004) explains,

Tens of thousands of years ago, before the first trails were etched into mud with the point of a stick, before the first pictures were scratched into stone, and long before the first graphic depiction of places on anything like paper, there must have been something we might call premapping: the desire, and so the attempt, to locate oneself (p. 28).

Traffic Flow Diagram

The road is our major architectural form.
— Marshall McLuhan and Wilfred Watson

In this simple traffic-flow diagram the thickness of the lines illustrates the amount of traffic and the arrows designate the direction of the flow. “Clearly a thick arrow requires a wide street,” writes Christopher Alexander (1964), “so that the overall pattern called for emerges directly from the diagram” (p. 88). Piles of data like this are used to design or redesign urban transit systems. The thick arrows here represent what Mark Rose (1990) calls “more desirable lines” in that they illustrate the path people would rather take given the choice among all possible paths (p. 15). Designers use such information in attempts to accommodate the needs of the users of mass transit. Where desire lines are often a matter of avoidance, leading around obstacles or across expanses toward a shorter path, here they are a matter of affordance.

The 1955 Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) planners define a desire line as “the shortest line between origin and destination, and expresses the way a person would like to go, if such a way were available” (Throgmorton & Eckstein, 2000). To them, these lines are less about desire and more about measurable behavior (Black, 1990; Creighton, 1970). Providing paths and transit in line with city travelers’ wants and needs is better for all concerned.

Chicago City Hall and County Building

One hundred years earlier, a mid-nineteenth century attempt at a public square as a center of “civic engagement” among the tallest buildings downtown ended in messy trails. “Muddy and unkempt, it was a shortcut site in contrast to the grid in whose hypothetical center it was located,” writes Peter Bacon Hales (2009). “Its failure was its success; offering an alternative to the regulated patterns of movement within the built-up blocks surrounding it, the open square increased the efficiency of those who moved through it, while losing its place as a greensward” (p. 167). In 1851, the site was slated for a government building, which by 1871 took up the whole block (Hales, 2009). Putting an entire building in the way might seem rather extreme, but keeping errant walkers in control not only prevents further wear where planners would rather there be none but also keeps other kinds of damage under control. “Broken windows theory,” which states that urban disorder such as litter, graffiti, and broken windows are the slippery slope upon which a community slides into more serious crime (Kelling & Coles, 1996; Wilson & Kelling, 1982). If the neglected aesthetic features of an area indicate one set of bad behavior, then worse crime is sure to follow. Such vandalism left unattended is the gateway to more serious offenses. Though the theory has been critiqued as too narrow in scope (See Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999), it isn’t difficult to see its logic where desire lines are concerned.

Desire lines can be the path we make or the path we follow, wayfinding and wayfaring, making our way in the world. Layers of wear and decay, a patina of age collects and is scraped away. From tools and artifacts, scoring their surfaces with the signs of use, our presence was known in paths and palimpsests. Where our world and its media used to show the marks of footprints and fingerprints, now it’s moving out of our hands, in the clouds, in our heads. Maybe that’s the real difference between old and new media: the way they show use. As Kevin Lynch (1972) writes, “The world around us, so much of it our own creation, shifts continually and often bewilders us. We reach out to that world to preserve or to change it and so to make visible our desire” (p. 1), and artist Richard Long (2002) posits, “I think that the surface of the world anywhere is a record of all its human, animal, and geographical history” (p. 146). Whether designing from the top down or emerging from the bottom up, the texture of that history is up to us.


Alexander, Christopher. (1964). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Black, Alan. (1990). The Chicago area transportation study: A case for rational planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 10(1), 27-37.

Brand, Stewart. (1994). How Buildings Learn, and What Happens to Them After tHey’re Built. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Creighton, Roger L. (1970). Urban Transportation Planning. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hales, P. B. (2009). Grid, Regulation, Desire Line: Contests Over Civic Space in Chicago. In M. Orville & J. L. Meikle(Eds.), Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture. New York: Rodopi, pp. 165-197.

Kelling, G. L. & Coles, C. M. (1996). Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: The Free Press.

Long, Richard. (2002). Walking the Line. London: Thames & Hudson.

Lynch, Kevin. (1972). What Time is This Place? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, Marshall & Watson, Wilfred. (1970). From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking, p. 132.

Norman, Donald, A. (2010). Living with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Rogers, E. B. (1987). Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, p. 35.

Rose, Mark. (1990). Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1939-1989. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Sampson, R. J. & Raudenbush, S. W. (1999, November 1). Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology, 105(3), 603–651.

Throgmorton, J. A. & Eckstein, B. (2000, November 21). Desire Lines: The Chicago Area Transportation Study and the Paradox of Self in Post-War America. Retrieved on October 31, 2012.

Turchi, Peter. (2004). Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press.

Wilson, J.Q., & Kelling, G.L. (1982). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. Atlantic Monthly, 249, 29–38.


This post is another edited excerpt from my book-in-progress The Medium PictureChapter 7, “Disguise the Limit,” discusses desire lines in many forms, linking modern footpaths to the evolution of flight and the ancient “ley” system.

Further Posting: