Natural Paths / Desire Lines

Below is a short piece by the Urban Geographer discussing the idea of short cuts —marks/traces of movement by people that create new paths. These are also called desire lines / desire paths.

Matthew Tiessen explains: “Conventionally, desire lines are defined by architects and urban planners as those trampled-down footpaths that deviate from official (i.e. pre-planned and paved) directional imperatives.” These lines are not just the products of our movement that desires a quicker/different route, but also “the product of a natural environment that desires and beckons to us, and that offers to us new pathways and potential circuits that expand the interconnected network—the interdependent relationship—between us and itself.” Psychogeography depends on these kinds of movements (which includes: the dérive). If you engage in this subjective movement through an environment you are doing phenomenology!  Remember: Phenomenology is the study of lived experience! Merleau-Ponty argues that our lived experience/our behaviour “has its roots and its ultimate effects in the geographical environment” (The Structure of Behavior, 1965, p. 133).

What are some of the desire lines in your neighbourhood? at Concordia? How do they change your relationship to space? This might be useful for your mis-guide.

Natural Paths

montreal desire lines

by Daniel Rotsztain, a student of Urban Geography at McGill University.

When walking through Montreal, we cannot deny the usefulness of the shortcut. Shortcuts that are used frequently by many people show us the lovely chaos that ensues when urban design fails to consider our pedestrian needs. Many pedestrians share one goal: to get between two points in the city as fast as possible. Ideally, urban planners would design paths that meet our needs perfectly: major routes that bring the maximum number of people to the places they want to go.

Fortunately, the ideal of perfect planning is rarely a reality.  Each of us has a separate orientation toward the city, a separate idea of what routes are important, and a different concept of effective and efficient negotiations of the urban space and, ideally, the urban fabric is fluid enough to accommodate that. A simple example is the natural path that forms at many street corners. Cutting a corner makes your walk only slightly faster yet, inevitably, sidewalks at 90 degree angles are happily traded for a quicker trod through the soil.

Living in a wintery city gives Montrealers a unique perspective on the natural path phenomenon. Once the snow arrives, our mobility through large open spaces is considerably hindered. Every winter in Park Jeanne-Mance, the city ploughs paths that trace the perimeter of the park, the slowest route for someone who wants to walk across. Having to walk through the park daily, I’ve found that shortcuts through the snow appear every winter in the same place. A path that initially manifests as a narrow track of boot prints, meandering past trees and picnic tables, slowly evolves to become wide and navigable.

We can read these indexes of movement as evidence of Montreal’s collective unconscious, instances of unorganized agreement by the community to subscribe to a more efficient path than that which has been offered by the city. The natural path through the snow also shows me that ultimately, I rely on the actions of others in urban space. The path’s angle shortens the walk for the most number of people, and is a beautiful instance where natural human behaviour manifests in collective rationality and the logic of a city can be easily read.

Another example can be found on Ave des Pins, just west of du Parc. When the city redesigned the intersection to fit a more human scale, a large fence was built separating the north and south sides of Pins in order to prevent pedestrians from jay-walking through the fast-moving traffic. Despite these efforts, a path has formed directly through the seemingly indestructible steel fence. We can again appreciate the organic and collective nature of our negotiation of Montreal’s urban space and realize that ultimately, our city is formed by its citizens: our actions, our behaviours and our habits.



  1. I just thought I’d share one interpretation of desire lines from a film I really enjoyed.

    I came across this screenshot from Donnie Darko on Tumblr, and it made me think of this concept. *Donnie Darko spoiler alert below*

    I couldn’t find a Youtube link for the scene, but essentially the ‘blob’ in the image coming out of Jake Gyllenhaal’s chest represents his future. I always liked how this part of the film was a bit ambiguous and never fully explained (one could argue that most of the film isn’t really explained). Anyway, the “blob” that you can see in this image essentially Donnie around his house and leads him to a handgun (which Donnie holds on to).

    I think it could be argued that the “blob” represents the desire line of Donnie’s “Frank” (unconscious) personality. Instead of having Donnie’s conscious character follow a “traditional” path in the film- avoiding committing crimes/social taboos- the “Frank” character takes Donnie’s body off the traditional path prescribed for him by society with help from the “blob”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is such an astute observation! Thanks for sharing. Now that you explain it, it makes a lot of sense. I’m trying to recall the film but all I remember is Drew Barrymore.

      It’s also fun to read media texts in many different ways, and through many different frames. That is why Barthes calls for ‘the death of the author’ it is the readers experience/interpretation that makes a text alive.

      And thanks for the spoiler alert. 🙂


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