Desire lines are a key principle in landscape architecture

Some desire paths are truly desirable. Others are merely functional.

‘Desire line’ is one of landscape architecture’s most useful concepts. Less romantically, Wikipedia calls it a ‘desire path’ and explains the idea as ‘ the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination’. OK, but as everyone knows, desire involves attractiveness as well as opportunity .  A Flickr group collects photographs of desire paths. Some are truly desirable. Others are merely functional.

The origin of the phrase ‘desire line’ is also romantic. So far as I can tell, the usage comes from the New Orleans Tramway which Tennessee Williams made famous with the name of his play, A Streetcar Named Desire. It was published in 1947 and by 1950 American transport planners were using ‘desire line’ to mean  a straight line from an origin to a destination. To my knowledge, the term was being used by UK town planners in the 1960s and UK landscape architects in the 1970s. It remains a basic concept in site planning and design.

The phrase ‘desire line’ is sometimes, and incorrectly, attributed to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. In a book on The Poetics of Space (1958) he recommended topoanalysis as a counterpart to psychoanalysis and wrote: Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space. But what a book would have to be written to decide all these problems!Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tolanozed on the mode of our inner space. But what a book would have to be written to decide all these problems! Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs.

The Baroque design of Greenwich Park, in the 1660s, did not extinguish the old desire line. It leads to Greenwich Town Centre and is still in use. Geoffrey Jellicoe recommended its removal because it disfigures the grass parterre designed by Andre le Notre. The path is is now an ugly parallel-side strip of blacktop.

The Baroque design of Greenwich Park, in the 1660s, did not extinguish the old desire line. It leads to Greenwich Town Centre and is still in use. Geoffrey Jellicoe recommended its removal because it disfigures the grass parterre designed by Andre le Notre. The path is is now an ugly parallel-side strip of blacktop

Tom Turner

Posted in urban design

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