Cutting corners

Do urban planners care about natural patterns? The immediate answer, when looking around at the designs or the “designs” of pathways, walkways and crosswalks is of course that in most cases they don’t. More often than not the paved paths are complemented with paths trampled on grass, more often than not masses of people cross the street where they shouldn’t and so on. But jaywalking is not really always the fault of the individual doing it, nor are the self-organized paths through the grass really the fault of the individuals. They’re the results of faulty urban planning.

One obvious mistake is trying to force people to use ludicrously long detours to a destination that is clearly visible and reachable much more easily.

Let’s take a simple example of this from near our home: in the map on the right, B marks the entrance to a building and A is the bus stop, an obvious place where a lot of people go to / come inside from. On the map, the green path is the “official” one that people should take to walk there. Is it any wonder that they instead take the red path?

To get a better idea of the distance, the photo on the left below is from the bus stop looking at the direct self-made path; the one on the right below is the official, paved route (click on the thumbnails to see the full photo).

But curiously, people do not always take the most direct route. In fact that rarely happens when larger systems are looked at. But still, when designing paths for masses, their behavior can actually be predicted. Crowd dynamics is a fascinating subject that I won’t get into here. The bottom line is that a lot of research has gone into the swarm movement, group motion and how masses of people behave and it turns out it’s actually quite predictable. It could be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy how people will want to move.

So why isn’t this being done, at least as far as I can tell? Don’t urban planners know that such modeling is possible, feasible and even recommended? Of course one option when planning a large park would be to cover everything uniformly with grass at first. Then wait a few weeks to see where the paths start forming, then pave (or build otherwise) the paths to their newfound natural locations. I wonder if this low-cost, ultra-natural approach has been tried anywhere.

In any case, next time you’re out and about, check out how many corners you cut – or would want to cut – outside the prescribed paths.


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