Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Desire Lines: Incipient, Thriving, Extant, Extinguished

Desire line - Spa St. into the Denburn Valley
 According to Paul McFedries' delightful Wordspy website, a "desire line" is:
An informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route.
[Edit - also check out McFedries' definitions for "green skeleton" and "meanderthal". Brilliant - just our kind of stuff.]

McFedries goes on...
Desire lines (or natural desire lines, as they're also called) are those well-worn ribbons of dirt that you see cutting across a patch of grass, often with nearby sidewalks — particularly those that offer a less direct route — ignored. 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 to cut a corner at School Road.
Splendid! We remember watching an Open University architecture module transmission many, many years ago. The design and construction of a university campus extension was being examined as a case study. The architects/planners decided that the best policy for pedestrian circulation infrastructure was, for the first few terms of the campus' operation, not to provide paved pathways at all. Rather, they waited several months to see where footfalls eroded natural desire lines, and only then - once natural patterns of pedestrian circulation had been established - were those desire-line delineated paths paved with slabs or asphalt or whathaveyou.

King Street

Thistle Court

Thistle Court

Desire Arch!
Great Southern Road

Desire Stairs!
Cornhill Road
Unfortunately, today, in our urban landscape, the desire lines of pedestrians are frequently subsumed, usurped, supplanted and extinguished by the tarmac-expressed desire lines of motorists. So travelers on foot are herded and corralled, folded and forced - contra to their natural desire lines - into patterns of movement which planners have forced upon the townscape to unquestioningly serve the doubtful exigencies of motor transport over the convenient, sustainable and pleasant experience of walking.

Know your place!
We are thwarted and frustrated by barriers placed across our routes 'for our own safety'. And yes, it's true that motor transport presents a grave danger to pedestrians. But is that the pedestrian's fault? Must we pay the punishment price of curtailed movement because of the inattentiveness and lack of empathy of the motorists who are infantilised by the infrastructure and street furniture which is provided for their convenience (dressed up as our safety) only? Is it not the proliferation of that very 'safety' infrastructure, signage and barriers which further infantilises the motorists, absolves them of responsibility for their own actions? The pedestrian "just came out of nowhere", and so the victim is blamed. The more the pedestrian is corralled behind barriers and directed exclusively to designated light-controlled crossings, the less the motorist considers the needs of the pedestrian - if the pedestrian's place is safe behind the barrier, the motorists need not concern themselves with those on foot at all. As long as they are behind the barrier, the pedestrian does not threaten the motorist's no-claims bonus.

Gray St. No direct route for those on foot.
Woolmanhill. Know your place.

Crown Terrace steps.
You may not continue your journey.
One might be tempted to think that today's urban planners don't want us to walk at all. When pedestrians are catered for it seems like an inconvenient afterthought - second best after the 'needs' of the all-important motorists are dealt with first. Tutting, shaking his head and raising his eyebrows, the planner puts in barriers to protect the motorist from having to think about unpredictable pedestrians.

John Street.

College St/Guild St/Bridge St.
Not even a light-controlled crossing
for pedestrians!
Broomhill Road. No way through for you!

Indeed some recent road projects have been forced through our town centre with no provision for pedestrians whatsoever. We find this bizarre.

No provision for pedestrians whatsoever.


Mick Miller said...

Another excellent piece - pedestrians in Aberdeen are 2nd best - virtually always. Caging those on foot in this way encourages motorists to speed up as they no longer have to look out for those not driving. It's why a blanket 20 mph speed limit in the city centre is farcical - it will never be adhered to unless motorists, by their shear weight of numbers, slow themselves to standstill. In so many ways Aberdeen has the potential to lead in the "small city for 21st century living stakes" but the backward approach of planners and politicians will never allow the nerve, panache, or joie de vivre required to do so; exemplified by their myopic 'visions' for Union Terrace Gardens.

Debra Storr said...

I tend to think of the railings erected as failings: even one tells of a design failure.

uair01 said...

You underappreciate the railings. I live in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and you cannot imagine how very "urban" and "authentic" those railings look. Especially the Crown Terrace and Woolmanhill ones. I wish we had them here!

Doug Daniel said...

Some of those photos are a bit disingenuous - that railing on the corner of Broomhill Road and Gray Street is only on the corner, which someone unfamiliar with the corner wouldn't realise from looking at your photos, which slyly make it look like a continual barrier. Not to mention the fact that the railings are there for a very good reason - Broomhill primary school is on that corner. As a former pupil, I can remember children having to be reminded numerous times in assembly not to run across the road when cars were coming, something that would have been much less frequent had the close-by residents not kicked up a fuss when the school tried to erect the tall fences they wanted to, in order to stop footballs going over the fence.

In the end, of course, they just told us to stop playing football. And we wonder why children don't play sports any more...

Other Aberdeen said...

@Doug, Thanks for the comment - much appreciated. What you say about the railing at Broomhill School is illuminating.

There was no intent to deceive in the choice of photos we've used. What we'd hoped to point out is that the railing extinguishes a desire line - it is not now possible for a pedestrian to cross corner to corner, as is natural.

Rather the barriers now force the pedestrian off the desire line and to make several right-angle turns. The solutions you mention: bigger fences; telling kids not to play, all reinforce the point that everything is done to accommodate the convenience of motor traffic, while impinging upon the convenience of pedestrians and the right of children to behave as children. Perhaps a better solution outside the school would be a 'home zone' or woonerf type installation, not the alienating solution of barriers and restrictive 'rules' which pre-punish potential victims, rather than address the issue of irresponsible and uncivilised motorist behaviour around schools.

The street-furniture set up at his school teaches children only that being outside is dangerous and that walking to school is second-best, all the while infantilising the motorists who will continue to assume that the safety of others is nothing to do with them. We do not think that this is a "very good reason" at all.

We think this is appalling. "Railings are failings".

They'll be insisting that kids wear high-vis tabards next... Oh.