“Lines are created by being followed and followed by being created.”
A DESIRE LINE NEAR BREMNER BAY. PHOTO: KAT HEAP
THE LINE ABOVE IS A LINE BY SARA AHMED, AND SHE’S WRITING ABOUT LINES CALLED DESIRE LINES. YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD OF DESIRE LINES, BUT YOU’VE PROBABLY SEEN ONE OR WALKED ONE IN YOUR LIFE.
Desire lines, sometimes called desire paths, rat tracks, elephant tracks, game trails and a whole heap of other wayfinding word combinations, are not official roads. Rather, they are the paths we take between places when we are looking to make our own way. In physical terms, if enough people take a desire line, it becomes marked by a constant footfall of feet, and becomes a more obvious option for other walkers to take.
When I lived in Wānaka, my most local example of a visible desire line was the shortcut across the grass where the track loops wide between the beach at Bremner Bay and the turn-off to Roto Place. Every day that I walked, jogged or zombie-ran along the track, I could choose whether to take the track itself or the short-cut already marked across it. It seemed like the path of least resistance to cut off the actual path and I am clearly not the only one who found this to be true. The grass doesn’t grow any more where so many of us have walked.
I noticed the clear markings on a return visit last month as I sidestepped the small boulders newly lodged at the start. French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard is recorded as the first person to write explicitly about desire lines, though of course humans and other animals have been walking them as long as we’ve been walking.
In The Poetics of Space, published in 1957, Bachelard wrote “each one of us, then, should speak of his roads, his crossroads, his roadside benches, each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows.” When we notice and record these movements, these tracks, “thus”, he writes, “we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.”
That’s poetry. It’s also very smartly exploited and marketed in terms of resource planning. New York’s Broadway is a much- cited ex-desire line example, built on a Wecquaesgeek trail. Add paving and bright lights and who is going to question how we know to walk that way?
At Ohio State University the pathways across the Oval grasslands on campus were only paved after the authorities had noticed and studied student desire lines. I found a picture of the before and after on a Reddit thread. r/DesirePath: Dedicated to the paths that humans prefer, rather than the paths that humans create. And just like that my desire was to scroll all the other examples and yes, absolutely, online designers use our desire lines to create us a better customer experience / get us faster to the things they’d like us to buy.
Walk. Scroll. Stop. Smoke. Tuscan-born Riccardo Marini was able to advise London planners where best to put rubbish bins along Regent Street by making chewing gum and cigarette maps of the area. “Remember”, writes Marini, “that ultimately it does not matter how sophisticated we believe we are. We are all still walking animals – that is what made us and not recognising this has led us to the place where we currently find ourselves.”
Sometimes, though, we find ourselves outside of cities. My dedicated scrolling of Reddit found exclusively urban examples of desire lines. In a built rural setting, going off track can have more serious consequences than a city short cut.
But then we also need the skills to be able to find our own lines, or seek out those made by others, since they’re often not as explicitly laid.
In hills, on mountains, these consequences are magnified. I think often about walking up to Liverpool Hut with my son, then nine, and being told by the DOC that we’d get to the top and see the hut over to the left, and not to be tempted to take a shortcut because of the massive drop that we couldn’t see from the track. Follow the orange triangles. We went. We saw. We followed.