Pathways of Desire: Detroiters carve their own streets out of the snow

Using photos and satellite images, the Sweet Juniper blog documents the "pathways of desire" in Detroit -- the streets and sidewalks that Detroiters carved out of the snow indicating where they'd like to go, rather than where the city expects them to go. I read somewhere (I think it was Peter Ackroyd's incredible London: A Biography) that after the Great Fire, Christopher Wren tried to lay out the city in a regular grid, but that Londoners continued to walk along where the old winding streets had been, using the old, unburned stone church-spires to navigate them, walking through the construction sites, forcing the streets back to their old places.

This past winter, the snow stayed so long we almost forgot what the ground looked like. In Detroit, there is little money for plowing; after a big storm, the streets and sidewalks disappear for days. Soon new pathways emerge, side streets get dug out one car-width wide. Bootprints through parks veer far from the buried sidewalks. Without the city to tell him where to walk, the pilgrim who first sets out in fresh snowfall creates his own path. Others will likely follow, or forge their own paths as needed.

In the heart of summer, too, it becomes clear that the grid laid down by the ancient planners is now irrelevant. In vacant lots between neighborhoods and the attractions of thoroughfares, bus stops and liquor stores, well-worn paths stretch across hundreds of vacant lots. Gaston Bachelard called these les chemins du désir: pathways of desire. Paths that weren't designed but eroded casually away by individuals finding the shortest distance between where they are coming from and where they intend to go.

Streets With No Name (via Making Light)


  1. Dartmouth University used this system to place paths on campus. One winter they dug up all the paths and left the grounds bare, they then built the paths where the students had walked.

  2. Way too many years ago I attended an oldish university in Canada. It was originally laid out around a huge grassed “quadrangle” with rigidly geometric sidewalk layouts… & which students routinely shortcutted, much to the regents dismay. Snow fences controlled this behavior, but only until it snowed, at which time the fences were trampled. (It is darn cold in winter there!)

    A consultant was hired. His recommendation? map the routes in the snow… and in spring replace all sidewalks with ones that match what people really want. 30 years later and people are still “on track” with those snow shown paths, even though the surrounding university has grown tremendously.

    By the way, the width of the paths was also adjusted to mirror the width of the tramped snow routes… a very accurate measure of traffic load at peak periods!

  3. A very old rule about deciding where to build sidewalks is to plant grass the first year and the second year lay sidewalks where the grass has been worn down.

  4. sad times when these lots sometimes are developed with causeways carefully observed in the same location as the paths, only to have the new owners erect heavy gates and high fences. make the common road one of privelege, that’ll show the plebs.

    interesting also how, for the most part, people have no trouble with the visible boundaries of property vanishing for a while.

  5. I tried to suggest this methodology to architects and planners here in Queensland. I suspect its too sensible to be easily adopted by those of a structured mindset. After all, if you believe people SHOULD only go where you put the path, then definitionally, only where you put paths is where people SHOULD want to go.

    Whats quite wonderful is that rather than churning a field into a muddy morass of competing paths, there actually is a reasonable centroid-path that collective masses preference. The wisdom of crowds..

  6. I know these as “Desire Lines”. I recall such a path that cut across the corner of a field that formed mine and other kids route to infant school. The field was an undeveloped plot that divided a once troublesome highrise council estate (where my school was located) from my own private housing area. The reason for not connecting the two together with a proper path was a social/political one but we kids cut our own desire line. The field still exists some 30 years later, as does the school but googlemaps shows only the faintest trace of the desire line. I wonder if that is because ages 4 to 7 no longer walk to school?

  7. I’m a GIS consultant and did some work for Western Michigan University. They would use yearly aerial photos to decide where to put new sidewalks, based on worn paths in the grass around campus.

    If you look at the linework for their current sidewalks, its a crazy patchwork of lines, zig-zagging around campus, but it works.

  8. I recall an anecdote from a friend of mine that when Michigan was designing their campus they didn’t pour sidewalks right away, but waited until the students made their own paths and just poured the sidewalks based on that.

  9. I find it very intriguing that the lines aren’t always straight, but instead seem to meander and arc from one sidewalk to another. I see them as more of paths of laziness than paths of desire, when the pre-existing paths that aren’t that far from the created paths.

    It could also be a product of the abandonment of properties, if no one lives there, no one is going to yell at you for crossing their lawn.

    1. @cymk I remember talking with one of my colleagues about this topic and he claimed that people will not choose a direct line of sight. He cited (well not cited, since he couldn’t provide a source) that for example simply putting a public fountain will steer people from the direct line due to how humans navigate.

      1. I had a class in college that worked on a social experiment project, in which we took visible pieces of twine and broke up the walking space of a large hall. After wards we watched how other students and teachers navigated around or avoided the twine, some times ducking underneath if it was high enough, stepping over if it was low enough, or going around it the twine was roughly waist high.

        You could duplicate this idea by putting a cardboard box in the middle of a busy square or sidewalk ( or even several boxes) and watch how people navigate around them, much like water finds the path of least resistance.

  10. My father, who went to snow-ridden Dartmouth in pre-plowing/salting days, says the campus dogs were generally the first ones out on snowy mornings, and thus broke trail and determined the courses of winter paths.

  11. Not to be a nit-picker, but I believe it was Robert Hooke who attempted to re-arrange London after the Great Fire, not Christopher Wren. At least, I have heard the exact same story, but with different protagonists!

    I’m not an architect, but I spend a lot of time with them, and Desire Paths seem to be something controversial with them. My campus is a pinnacle of Modern design, with a square grid of sidewalks laid out between the cubes of glass, but the landscape crew has to keep erecting barriers and re-sodding over the Desire Paths that students keep making.

    I would also argue that the Paths are crooked not because of laziness, but because humans simply don’t walk in straight lines! Minor variations in the ground and legs being different lengths make walking a perfect straight line something that has to be learned. (This is the reasoning given in discussions of why people tend to walk in circles when they get lost in the wilderness)

    1. Its also interesting to note that a lot of these paths are essentially straight, but not quite. I think the reason for this is because humans make incremental adjustments to their direction. So instead of thinking subconsciously that we need to go 37 degrees left, we think “more left, more left, more left, more left, oops too much, more right”. But also, we tend to follow the paths that other people take. Watch people walking diagonally across 4 way intersections. When someone walks diagonally from corner 1 to 3, people follow them, but not so many people start walking from 2 to 4 even though the traffic must all have stopped for a diagonal walk to be feasible. (assuming the adjacent corners are 1,2 ; 2,3 ; 3,4 and 4,1)

  12. @#5 Yurko

    I graduated from U of Michigan (Ann Arbor campus) and I would completely buy that story. If you look at the campus on google maps’ satellite view you can see the evidence very clearly. The sidewalks all over central campus are nothing but diagonals at weird angles, often changing direction slightly at the intersection of two paths.

    If anyone else is interested in looking: the southwest corner of central campus touches the intersection of state st and south university in ann arbor, michigan.

  13. i usually take shortcuts in the snow too. it’s typically cold and i like to quickly get where i’m going.

  14. I went to school at the University of Illinois, and they would just pave the desire paths once they became…. desirable enough

  15. interesting double standard: people’s choice good, gummint’s dictates bad, unless of course the people choose something un-pc, like driving cars, living outside of cities…

    and then there’s the complaining about how hard navigating is in non-gridded cities…

  16. in the design business, we refer to these as “cow paths”. the goal is to either divine where these may appear and pave it or place planting to prevent it.

  17. This principle is so old that English Common Law recognizes the doctrine of the well worn path.

    Basically, if you don’t stop people from walking though your back yard then it become a public right of way.

    No one has ever followed the grid of a city.

  18. I love Sweet Juniper. He has a number of posts about urban exploration he’s done in Detroit, which I find fascinating (being from Lansing, just an hour or so away by car, but thousands of miles away in mindset).

  19. Also, with snow paths, once one person blazes the trail most people are going to stick to the cut path.
    The straightest path may also not appear so from the air – remember that the ground has hills and depressions, and in winter there is drifting and piled snow to move around, and people even alter their path to stay in the warm sunlight. The one pic (second row, far left) looks like the path avoided snow piled up from the sidewalk.
    Navigating around my old city (Winnipeg) changed entirely once the river froze. Of course there was little trace of those paths left in the spring.

  20. Here in Texas we call those “texas offramps”, or as the internet likes to call it, “texas exits”

    Not too common in urban areas, but 10-20 miles outside of the city they’re pretty common. People get fed up sitting in traffic and cross the grassy patch between the highway and the service road. After a few months the “dirt road” becomes apparent and never ever goes away.

  21. I don’t think it’s necessarily that “the man” wanted to tell people where to walk, but when “the man” put his streets and sidewalks where they are, the intent was for the blocks to be filled with houses and businesses. Now that Detroit is being depopulated, it’s quite possible to carve a lot of new pathways. But that’s because many buildings (and fences) have been torn down, not because of a revolt against bureaucratic oppression.

  22. When my wife and I visited Tokyo, we saw that that most streets are winding and in no grid-like form whatsoever. We were told that after the massive bombing strikes during WW2, there were paths carved through the rubble. These then became the present day streets. I don’t know that they could be accurately called Pathways of Desire – though may be technically – but rather Pathways of Necessity.

  23. A similar situation to what others have written. I attended college in the prairies of the midwest, and likewise, we created our own path diagonally across an intramural sports field to get from the dorms to classes. In the winter, said path would ice over and become extremely treacherous, especially when the wind was in your face, forcing you to walk leaning into it. If, no, WHEN the wind died, good bet you fell face-first onto the iced over path. And since many of us wore those bulky snorkel parkas, it was nigh impossible to cheat the wind.

  24. I work at an elementary school near Detroit. Today we had a meeting about snow removal. Our walkways will be clear but once again Detroiters will have to pick their way through the drifts and along unplowed streets. And people wonder why we Midwesterners like 4WD SUVs.
    I’m trying to get the grounds department to fix several muddy areas around the school where kids walk off the pavement, make mud holes and track the crap all over the building. Obviously the muddy areas should be paved because that’s where they want to walk. But that would be a construction project requiring many approvals and lots of dollars. The best I can hope for is to have the muddy areas cordoned off so walkers will go around them, allowing the grass to grow for a while.

  25. This definitely happens on our campus as well. Especially considering even the paved pathways tend to get covered in potholes and develop puddles many feet wide and long, while the “illegal” pathways are merely muddy. They keep putting up these rock garden things in the way to keep us from following the paths, so it’s even funnier to see how people have worked the paths around them. I’ve only got a certain amount of time to get from A to B, so just pave the damn things and rip up the unused ones!

  26. Michigan State University (then Michigan Agricultural College) also waited a year before laying their sidewalks. Obviously worked well, and makes for pleasant stolls on a beautiful campus. The organic,–or as Rudy Rucker might put it: the gnarly–, wins out in the end!

  27. Georgia Tech tried this strategy when they remodeled their campus back in the 60’s. I was a student there in the mid 70’s and got to observe the results first hand.

    Didn’t work out quite so well as other places.

    The dorms were concentrated in particular parts of campus, on the west edge and along I-75. People would set out along a common path and then scatter to the four winds as they set out for their individual buildings. This led to several paths that went out into the middle of a field and stopped. The construction crews dutifully poured concrete on top of the path and stopped where the path stopped.

    The campus was full of sidewalks to nowhere.

    To give them some apparent purpose, someone in grounds later came around and planted bushes at the ends. Then we had awfully long sidewalks that went out to a bush and stopped.

    The campus remained like this until the 2000 Olympics, when it got another major makeover as Olympic Village.

    But I miss going out to look at those bushes.

  28. I would dearly love it if someone can confirm the origin of “desire paths,” “desire lines,” “chemins du desire” or similar language in Bachelard’s work. I’ve read The Poetics of Space looking for a variation on the phrase and do not see it anywhere in this particular work.

    I do know from research for a book on urban literature that “desire lines” is a phrase used by American transportation engineers as early as the 1940s (and perhaps earlier) to refer to ‘efficient’ distances as measured between home and place of work. Since then, the phrase has been rehabilitated by both planners and poets to refer not only to ‘efficient’ pathways but also those leading to more frivolous pursuits. Its use by engineers also reflects an early use of phenomenological methods in the engineering world.

    It’s really fascinating that the concept has these disparate meanings. Still, I’d appreciate it if someone could confirm Bachelard’s use of this kind of language.

    My sources referencing the use of “desire lines” by transportation engineers:

    Fagin, 1960. Improving mobility within the metropolis. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 27(1): 57-65.

    Throgmorton, James A and Barbara Eckstein, 2000. Desire Lines: The Chicago Area Transportation Study and the Paradox of Self in Post-war America. Proceedings of the 3Cities Conference, Birmingham, UK.

    Myhill, Carl, 2004. Commercial Success by Looking for Desire Lines. 6th Asia Pacific Computer-Human Interaction Conference, New Zealand.

    If anyone can help confirm (or deny) Bachelard’s use of “pathways of desire” / “Chemins du desir” I would be most grateful.

    1. I don’t think the reference to Bachelard’s The Poetics Of Space is valid either. Page 11 (Beacon Press, 1994, paperback edition) has “What a dynamic, handsome object is a path! How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our musuclar consciousness!” and so on. But I can’t recall any discussion of “desire lines” as defined here and elsewhere, and the majority of the book is, after all, concerned with interiority, with intimacy.

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