Desire lines are the informal paths that people take as an alternative to a formal path or provided infrastructure. They come about where the users of infrastructure such as pedestrians deviate from the route provided (such as a paved walkway) to take a more direct route or avoid obstacles. These become entrenched when a significant number of people regularly choose the detour. These lines can be seen in public parks, at universities, and in your neighbourhood.

The image below shows an example of a desire line, where hundreds of people have deviated from the path provided and eventually created a well-worn, yet informal, path across a park.

Desire lines tell us a lot about how people interact with the world around them and how we make decisions.

Importantly, desire lines also tell us a lot about how our infrastructure fails us, where better infrastructure is required, and where new or improved services are warranted.Taking the example of a park, a desire line can come about because planners miscalculated how people would use the park or navigate across it, or because planners foolishly wished people to stick to the path they thought was best, or simply because a change in land use around the park has meant a change in the way people use the park. For example, a new school could open up across from a park and lead to children walking across the park in a direction where there is no path. No matter how these lines came about, their existence should be carefully studied in order to better respond to the needs of those that use them.

The image below shows one patch of veld in the suburb of Algoa Park in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.From this satellite view it becomes apparent how many different paths people take across the veld. In Algoa Park, like in much of Nelson Mandela Bay, most households do not possess their own cars and rely on walking and public transport in order to get to work, to school, or to the shops.

At first these desire lines look like a tangled web of different paths with no apparent sense to them, but with careful inspection the situation becomes clearer and we can begin to understand where people are going to. Here are a few observations I have made:

  • Paths tend to point towards major roads where people can access public transport and minibus taxis.
  • A good portion of the paths tend to terminate at apartment blocks.
  • Many of the lines meet roadways and intersections where there are no pedestrian crossings, or traffic lights to allow pedestrians to safely cross the road.
  • There appears to be significant traffic across the veld and south across the small river valley between Algoa Park and Stanford Road.

It is important to note that there is precious little pedestrian infrastructure on this patch of land, despite it being so obviously well used by pedestrians. Paths such as these don’t emerge overnight, and they take a large amount of foot traffic to become so clearly visible.

The only pedestrian infrastructure that does exist, is on the perimeter of the veld alongside the road. While I’m sure that a large number of people use these pathways every day, it is clear that a great number of people cut through the veld on a daily basis. Should they not be provided with adequate infrastructure?

Upgrading existing public spaces or developing new ones is often seen as a luxury in South Africa. Money would be better spent on housing, or schools, or hospitals… But viewing investments in public spaces as spending money on recreation misses the important role that such spaces play in the mobility environment of our cities.

With better maintained paths, people of this community would be able to get where they were going quicker. Providing paved paths, or well-prepared dirt paths with adequate drainage would mean that people in this community wouldn’t get to work or school with dusty clothes, or muddy shoes when it rains. Providing lighting would dramatically increase the safety of these paths in early mornings and evenings. And investing in appropriate pathways would help to eliminating some of the smaller informal paths and in so doing help to preserve the landscape. This is all in addition to the social and economic benefits that arise from investing in an urban green space

Algoa Park is not unique, across our cities there are countless examples where desire lines and other signs of human activity exist that we can look to in order to improve accessibility, safety, and more.

So what can be done, and how do we get our municipalities to embark on such projects? After all, it is only the municipality who can undertake such projects.

  1. Firstly, communities need to become more engaged in municipal processes. Every ward has regular public meetings where issues such as the above can be raised, and where ward councillors can be requested to raise the issue to the municipality.
  2. Communities need to become more involved in the discussion on how infrastructure is designed, and what measures are put in place. We as residents need to change the way we look at our communities and become more engaged in collecting information, looking for areas of opportunity, and issues to be addressed. Tools like Liveable City’s ‘Map My City’ can greatly assist communities to gather data.
  3. Organise! Get your neighbours on board, form local street committees. Working together we can speak with a louder voice.
  4. Actively promote ideas for positive change in our communities, become involved in local community groups, or join the Liveable City community and become part of a growing community of people interested in making our city better.