Crowd-made Walkways

I took the photo above at Commons Park in downtown Denver. Years ago, this space was a rail yard. More recently it was converted to an open space park with handsome landscaping and an irrigated grass lawn. This particular part of the park has a nice, wide-open space with paved sidewalks circling the parameter. It seems the sidewalks were designed to form a circuit that people could walk on their lunch hour. As you can see, most people choose to cut through the open field than to walk around it on the sidewalks, so much so that they’ve actually worn trench into the earth that runs from one entrance to the other. The parks people responsible for maintaining the place must have decided that foot traffic was beginning to damage the grounds because they’ve posted a sign reading “PLEASE USE SIDEWALK.” Of course this has succeeded in nothing more than splitting the path at its one side. The allure of the more direct route just proves too tantalizing for people.

Obviously the circuitous sidewalks in Commons Park were a miscalculation on the part of the architects who designed this space. People walk through this park to get to work. It’s the one of the only ways you can enter the downtown area by foot from the Highlands neighborhood. Certainly there are plenty of people who visit the park to relax and will stroll from walk to walk, as they were meant to do. But there are also thousands of people who are just trying to pass through the area as quickly as possible. The designers forgot to account for this prime use scenario of maximum expedience..

It’s a shame that you don’t get to find out how people are going to use a park until it’s already built. You can’t blame the architects for failing to account for every individual demand placed on the park by its visitors. But now that the path has been trodden and the new route an emergent reality, I think you can begin to fault the city for insisting that the plan continue to be followed rather than accommodating the wisdom of the crowd when it turns in another direction. There’s really no good reason not to install paving stones into the footpath and maintain it as an alternative path. Either the grounds people responsible for Commons Park are too thick to reinterpret the space, or they are stubborn and refuse to adjust their original plan. A better idea would have been to leave the whole place unpaved for a year and then observe how the foot traffic distributes itself across the landscape. That’s actually how public ways were planned before the age of mechanized transportation and our modern predilection for pavement. When Dartmouth College first opened in the late 18th century, the school did nothing at first to demarcate paths from one building to another. When winter came, the school gardener marked the paths students tracked in the snow as they went back and forth to classes. Then the following spring, he cut trails from the tracks. Consequently, Dartmouth today has a terrific snarl of paths and walkways. While the arrangement may not appear symmetrical, it has plenty of practical purpose.

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