Desire Lines are urban democracy in motion. The path in Medellin was legitimized by the City. The others… nope.

I have a dream.

In a world of urban baby steps, where municipalities and their planning and/or engineering departments largely edge along with incremental developments and — if they’re lucky — improvements, I have a vision for handing back the job of planning to the experts — the people.

Here’s the good news: they have a bit of experience after having lived for 7000 years in cities and they are hardwired in their urban DNA to do the job. I’m talking about Desire Lines — the most beautiful expression in urban planning and the most informal, democratic and useful method for planning urban spaces in the history of humankind.

In my most perfect world, I would employ citizens to map out their Desire Lines in a vast space with the goal of creating an entire large town from scratch. Exactly like cities first were formed. In my purest, dreamiest urban self I would start with shepherds plodding along with their flock, carving out their most desirable paths in the earth on their migrations. Following the contours of the land but also just mapping out their A to B routes. Until one of them decides to set up camp and that initial sleeping bag next to a firepit evolves into a tent and then morphs into a solid structure. Others would follow, realising the value of the location — next to a river or lake perhaps — and deciding to become neighbours. Home by home, a neighbourhood — neighbourHOODS — would take shape as more paths are carved out and buildings follow. In tact with the necessary services such as plumbing, sewers, electricity and what have you.

I lament the fact that this idea has hardly left the gate before reality peers down its nose at me. I know, I know. I need to scale back the vision to something feasible enough to actually happen. So I did. I made it doable, realistic and no less dreamy and visionary. It might just become the boldest urban planning experiment in recent times.

You may not have heard of the idea of Desire Lines before now, but you follow your own on a daily basis. You make subconscious navigational choices all the time. Heading through that train station or across that plaza you scan your route and pick a trajectory in order to find the most direct route. If you only need one item from the supermarket and are keen on a quick in-and-out, you’ll spontaneously plan your route and end up making a choice about which queue is shortest — all to expedite your journey.

In such situations, you will leave no discernable trace of your route on the concrete floors or plaza tiles. Unless of course your route is popular with other humans with similar urban origins and destinations and ever so slowly lines are imprinted on the hard surface from the soles of thousands of shoes. It is on the softer natural surfaces that Desire Lines come into their own. Landscape architects plan pathways — or make qualified guesses about placement — through a park and yet you will see grass trodden down as Desire Lines head off to other destinations, hammered out by the feet of humans with other plans and other places to go. Even in places where a pathway presents us with a 90 degree turn, shortcuts through the grass are visible. Despite the fact that there is little time saved and sometimes only marginal gains in travel times are won. These shortcuts just feel quicker and we ruthlessly exercise our urban democratic rights by using these trajectories.

A company like IKEA know all about your hardwired, anthropological-transportational desires and put great effort into thwarting them with their store design. As a person who is borderline obsessive about studying Desire Lines, IKEA is my hell on this earth. The long, snaking lines at airport security or passport control may be an issue of space management but your irritation is due to your being restricted in following your inherent desires.

I call it A2Bism, to describe this part of our brains that make us choose the quickest routes. Homo sapiens are like rivers — we’re always scanning for the easiest path. The vast majority of citizens in Copenhagen and Amsterdam choose the bicycle as transport not because it’s cheap, healthy or environmentally-friendly but simply because with an well-designed network of bicycle infrastructure, the bicycle is the quickest way to get around. We marry our A2Bism, to seeking out navigational improvements on our routes.

Copenhagen Airport combines their understanding for a direct route with wayfinding once you hit the baggage claim area. A wide, blue path declares that it is the fast route to the exit if you don’t have bags to claim. On the other hand, after a recent expansion of their terminal to include more shops, they sucker you into a detour from the A gates to the exit — one that takes you past the new shops. Once I realised that, my irritation was soon replaced by smug pleasure that I had hacked their system and my shortcut is less populated with other travellers. Don’t get me started on airports. All Desire Lines tangle into huge plates of spaghetti rendering straight trajectories useless as people amble along like bumble bees.

There are some respectable examples of cities and planners observing the Desire Lines of the citizens and planning — or re-planning — sidewalks based on them. Some university campuses have had a go at it. In my own neighbourhood there is a great example of a citizen-led Desire Line made permanent by the City and readjusted several times.

Google street view of a pedestrian rejecting the car-centric pedestrian barriers and crossing the street true to their seven thousand year old urban instincts

Generally, however, most Desire Lines remain informal and ill-regarded by authorities. People find a way around pedestrian barriers, through parks and across railways. On Kensington High Street in London, there were pedestrian barriers lining the curb and people would still hop over to cross the street. When they were removed, the number of crashes involving pedestrians fell drastically.

Desire Lines through Halifax’ main park in the snow (left) and through an empty lot (right)

In the Canadian city of Halifax, I watched in fascination two mornings in a row as citizens carved Desire Lines straight as arrows through the snow, from the neighbourhoods to the city centre — avoiding the pre-existing pathways. (see photos above)

Since 2012, I have been filming intersections in cities for twelve hours at a time and having my team at Copenhagenize Design Company map out the Desire Lines of every cyclist moving through. In order to understand how cyclists react to the car-centric design of such intersections. Comparing the Best Practice design in Copenhagen to the more chaotic network design in Amsterdam and then again comparing to cities with substandard infrastructure like Barcelona and Montreal.

I can’t unsee them, these Desire Lines. Don’t start looking for them because you’ll never unsee them either.

Below is a film about Desire Lines in general and in Copenhagen in particular, as part of a series about the Top 10 Design Elements in Copenhagen.

A film by the author about Desire Lines

My idea for a bold and visionary application of Desire Lines in urban planning started with filming cyclists in intersections but went to a whole new level filming my tv series about urbanism, The Life-Sized City. It started in Montreal, a city in which I spend a lot of time, when I was filming the pilot episode and we explored the park Champs des Possibles. A post-industrial empty lot crisscrossed by pathways so established that citizens convinced the City to allow it to become a park. The park is bordered by a wide swath of railway lines. When the railway was built in the late 1800s, it was at the far edge of anything urban but now it is a formidable barrier between two densely populated neighbourhoods — and extends to large parts of the city, including the riverfront. The citizens have regularly cut holes in the fences in order to follow their A2Bism instincts and carve Desire Lines across the tracks — and to avoid a massive detour. They aren’t scofflaws. They’re just urban citizens with lives to lead and places to go.

The railway north of Mile End in Montreal that divides communities

Canadian National Railway, with headquarters a couple thousand kilometers away, have so far refused to collaborate on level crossings, even though there are only a few trains a day. They cover up the holes in the chain link fence and patrol the rails, handing out fines if you’re caught crossing. The citizens have a Facebook group informing each other where new holes have been cut and this cat and mouse game continues. Urban democracy vs corporate indifference. I know which team I’m cheering for.

Barriers to urban growth and accessibility in six cities

Copenhagen has railyards slicing through the urban landscape, as well, as do many cities. Municipal airports pose similar barriers. They are often longer and wider than railyards. A couple of cities that come to mind are Reykjavik and Medellin. Both have small airports from another age occupying valuable urban space. Reykjavik’s is a large blob in the centre of the city while Medellin’s is one long strip.

Filming in Cape Town, I spent a lot of time in informal settlements — aka shantytowns — talking about their challenges in not just gaining permanent status from the City but just getting access to basic services like water and electricity. From the air, Desire Lines in and around these settlements are highly visible when carved in the dry earth.

Aerial images of Desire Lines in Cape Town by the author

As you can see in the previous graphic, the main railway station in Cape Town is a huge barrier to accessing to the harbourfront, forcing people on a lengthy detour — at least those who don’t follow the lead of their kindred spirits in Montreal. In Copenhagen, the railyards behind Central Station are much less used these days but still block access for tens of thousands of people each day. Filming in Milan I learned that there are seven railyards that are no longer used. A lot of freight transport by rail has succumbed to truck transport and the city has expanded beyond the periphery where these railyards were originally placed, rendering them virtually unused.

It was these railyards that triggered my vision — my dream — of a bold urban development project. Milan had an architectural competition where companies envisioned a complete redesign of some of these railyards. Nothing interesting to write home about — minor tweaks on other architectural ideas. No urban revolution, just the same old, slow moving academic evolution and the typical architectural misunderstanding of the importance of urban design.

The Porta Romana railyard is a massive barrier between neighbourhoods

So here we go. I selected one railyard — Porta Romana — as a test case for rethinking how to develop the space. Porta Romana is about one kilometre long and between 200–300 metres wide. Getting around it on foot or by bike is an epic journey to the end of time and the space is fenced off on all sides. The neighbourhoods of a modern Milan that are on either side of this great divide are densely populated and the railyard stands in the way of the natural route to and from the city centre.

You can see preconceived trajectories that predate the railyard (left). The people would form their own Desire Lines, if given the change (right)

Imagine if the City just removed all the fences. Wham — just like that. Allowing the citizens free access to the space — and more importantly for the purpose of this idea — to cross it. From one day to the next, people would start to carve Desire Lines through the long grass and over the rusty rails. There are preconceived trajectories visible on the map. Streets look like they were originally designed to connect across the space. Perhaps Desire Lines would form here. Perhaps not. I can visualize where I think they might appear but I’d be happy to be wrong and let the people using it daily be the experts they are. There is a Metro station at the top right, a big supermarket off to the left next to a cultural venue on a street with trams. In an area like this, with the density it has, the people would make quick work of it.

Okay. I’m just using Porta Romana as an example and I’ll be looking for a city or developer with a similar development anywhere in the world to make this happen. Yes, there are still two tracks with trains cutting across the railyard between east and west. Yes, if I actually did this project here, we’d have to figure out how to cover them up. Perhaps with pre-fab, inverted, concrete half-pipes along the length of the exposed tracks. We would have to pile earth on either side along the length to allow people to get up and over and to ensure that we don’t nudge people into this or that trajectory. Or maybe a scaffolding-type structure with stairs on either side — again along the full length. But hey. We’ll figure that out.

Once we’re ready, with the walls torn down and whatever other barriers dealt with we let the people have their wicked urban way. What would it take? Eight months from, say, March to October? We would allow for some organic influence as well. Maybe someone would see the foot and bike traffic and decide to park a food truck there. Or maybe a group will start a little concert venue in the middle. This might cause some of the Desire Lines to veer and swerve and change. Great. Maybe some lines would form and then fade, as people switch to other trajectories. We would watch closely, observe everything we can observe and mark the emerging paths on a map. Something on this scale as never been attempted before. There will be a gold mine of observations to be gathered and analysed. I’m giddy at the very thought of it.

Pre-streets would form the patchwork of plots for development

Some of the Desire Lines will be more well-established than others and wider “streets” would form along with narrower “lanes”. Which is exactly what we need for the next phase. We would end up with a network of pre-streets that mark the routes the citizens want and need. In between those lines we’ll end up with plots of land. Oddly-shaped, I will assume, but that just makes it cooler. Grid systems are engineer porn. Cities are organic.

The people were not asked their opinion up until this point. They were just given the freedom to move around as they see fit. Once the network of pre-streets is mapped we can certainly engage the community and harvest ideas about what facilities to include. There will probably be a confluence of streets somewhere around the middle or thereabouts. A natural location for a square. Playgrounds, football pitches, amphitheatres — they can all have space. Let the people have their say.

This part of the process will be fueled by citizen engagement but I dare to assume that we’ll have to go in with some modest professional considerations. If we end up with too many tiny plots of land we might need to merge some. Whatever city and developer ends up working on this with me also has needs. Some cities have rules about a certain percentage of new apartments needing to be social housing, for example. Maybe a tram line could run through it. But we’ll stay as true to the Desire Lines and ideas from the people as possible.

Imagine the creativity architects would exhibit if they had to design on predetermined plots in odd shapes

The plots of land? Time to build. Instead of handing over entire railyards to one group of architects to churn out the previously seen, let’s get young architects on board. The creativity involved in having to design a structure on an odd-shaped plot of land would be far greater than working with a huge area. Let’s make it a showcase for young, global architects. I can’t be the only one tired of the self-important hierarchy of the established architecture industry and their continued ignorance of how to design good public space around their shiny buildings. Here, the urban space would be at the forefront and the buildings would have to work with it, not the other way around. Just like city development for millennia.

We’re going back to the future with this project but we’ll keep an eye on the future as well. We’d have strict guidelines for architects to design fully-sustainable and even self-sufficient buildings. Of course all the buildings and facilities would be bike-friendly. No car parking in the entire area, except for disabled spots that are required by law. This is already happening so no great leap of faith is required. Micro-distribution depots can be located on the edges and trucks could drop off packages there, for pick-up or delivery by cargo bike. Deliveries to shops and restaurants can be done by cargo bike and if we need access for truck delivery, we’ll design it well and limit it to off-peak hours.

I’m looking around, making calls, sending emails, meeting people after keynotes. I want this to happen somewhere. It is time for it to happen. Like I said, let’s force the urban revolution, and leap deftly over urban evolution.

The name of the development? Desire.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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