Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Don't Go There

Recently, as I was walking across a rather pretty campus, I noticed a more extreme example of what occurs on most campuses:

the mismatch between where the landscape designers (and landscape maintenance crews) want people to walk, and where people want to (and do) walk.

Surely most campuses have little dirt footpaths that cut off right angled or curved *official walkways*. In some cases, these footpaths are allowed to exist, and in some cases these are eventually promoted to official walkways and are paved/landscaped, in recognition that people are going to walk that way.

In other cases, however, there seems to be a never-ending battle between those who want to take short cuts and those who do not want those short cuts to be taken. Short cuts are fenced off, reseeded or re-whatevered, and pedestrians are forced to follow the approved pathways. The grass (or whatever) looks nicer that way. Perhaps if some short cuts are allowed, new ones crop up until you might as well pave the whole campus. And who wants that?

I don't think the issue of short cuts is about laziness, rebellion against authority, or even a lack of respect for turf. I think it is about getting from Point A to Point B, in some cases in a rush between classes or meetings.

In my recent across-campus walk (not on my own campus), I was amazed at how pedestrian unfriendly the campus was, despite the abundance of green space and landscaping. It looked like an appealing place to stroll, as long as you strolled only where the original campus planners wanted you to go.

There were of course walkways between buildings, but it was if the designers only allowed for people to walk easily from Building X to Building Y. If, however, for some unimaginable (to them) reason, someone wanted to walk directly from Building X to nearby Building Z.. forget it.

Clearly, many people do want to go from X to Z, and a distinct (unofficial) path has developed over time. It was also clear that this path is not in favor with those responsible for maintaining the campus landscape. The path is in the process of being erased (and not for the first time), and the X-Z people herded to an official-but-circuitous route.

I am sure it is a nightmare to maintain a campus landscape so that the non-paved parts remain in good shape despite "off-road" pedestrians, Frisbee players, jugglers, and bicyclists, not to mention extreme climate events, crazed rodents and so on. But still: It should be possible to have a pedestrian-friendly pathway system that recognizes the need to get from A to B and from A to C quickly.

Can we classify campuses in terms of the goodness of fit between where people want to walk and where they are "supposed" to walk? Do we need a ratio, preferably a dimensionless number with a cool name? Can we call it the Versailles Number?

I lack the time to develop this idea further right now, but welcome comments and suggestions.



26 comments:

Anonymous said...

As the business owner of a corner lot property, I can say that this phenomenon extends far beyond campuses. People are alwyas looking to cut the corner, and I don't blame them, although it does trample my lawn. In undergrad, my friends and I used to call this the root-two path, when you would take the diagonal (hypothenuse) to shorten your path.

TAC said...

In urban design, they are called 'desire lines'. If you do not provide a convenient path between A & B, people will make it for you.

Anonymous said...

my undergrad institution (a top-tier undergraduate only institution) paved a few of the dirt-path shortcuts through root-two space a few times while I was there. My grad institution (a top-tier science school) found no need to pave any shortcuts since the entire campus was in a straight line, along an infinite corridor...

AScienceUndergrad said...

I can think of two paths that have been upgraded to packed-dirt/gravel status (the official Grounds sanction, without the pavement). One of them still has a shorter alternative, although pedestrians are discouraged from taking it during the months where it is actually a mudpile. The rain and mud tend to keep people on the official paths, unless they're strikingly inefficient or those people are me.

I wonder if one could, in planning a campus, lay down preliminary gravel paths or only *one* concrete path to a building, then build the rest as the commonly-used paths develop. I was trying to connect this to graph theory somehow, but can't think of how to model something with nodes that are in the way of other nodes.

Special K said...

The University of Wyoming decided where to put paths across the lawn outside the student union (called Prexy's pasture) by recording the paths through the snow the students made. http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/tour/

mOOm said...

That must be my alma mater BU?

Here we had a survey about traffic etc. on campus. I suggested paving the dirt paths and getting rid of the awkward ones people don't use.

Anonymous said...

My dad always thought that the next new campus to be built should not build any sidewalks at all to begin with. Instead, let people walk where they will for the first year, see where the grass dies, and then pave there. :)

John said...

This sounds like a graph theory problem. A start might be the ratio of the number of dirt paths between buildings to the number of potential paths. The nodes (buildings) would likely need to be weighted somehow for larger campuses. On-line maps make this computation somewhat doable.

Anonymous said...

I worked at a campus that built a new student center. They poured concrete for the major path immediately to facilitate maintenance access, but then seeded down the rest of the area. Six months later they put in people-sized concrete walks where the "cow trails" developed.

nicoleandmaggie said...

My favorite college comic strip growing up in a university town was the one in which the artist complained about this problem. The solution, in the second panel, was to hire students to figure out where to put the paths. The punchline was that they accidentally had students lay them out on a Friday night after classes (queue picture of empty bottles and paths that made no sense).

I miss that comic strip. To bad it was pre-internet or I could link to it!

Cherish said...

I was reading a book recently (I'm thinking Brain Rules, but I could be wrong) where they talked about relandscaping a college campus. They left things unpaved for a year, and then put walkways where the students had made paths. (Sounds like the example from U of WY.) I think it sounds like a great way to plan a campus so that it accomodates pedestrians rather than vehicles.

BCGrad said...

At Boston College there's two main open-space areas surrounded by academic buildings: the main quad and the "dustbowl."

The Dustbowl is so named because in the 1970's (? Don't quote me on the timeline, but it was around the time my mother was in school there), they didn't plant for a season, making it very dusty. What that did, however, was let the engineers see where people naturally walked between the buildings. That's where they paved, and they planted grass everywhere else.

Simple, happy solution

Anonymous said...

Pave the cow paths.

Anonymous said...

At my undergrad U, when they constructed a bunch of new buildings with a quad among them, they left the quad bare. After a few months it was really obvious the paths people took to get from place to place across this quad. In the spring, they mulched the paths that had formed and seeded the interstitial areas with grass. Voila! The Versailles Number for that quad was 1! (I assume 1=1:1 is the best fit in terms of the newly minted Versailles Number, yes?)

Anonymous said...

How about:

Versailles Number = length of all desire lines on campus / (length of all desire lines + length of all official paths on campus)

Versailles Number = 0 indicates no "Versailles"-ness, i.e. paths where they should be.

Versailles Number = 1 indicates no official paths at all; all paths are created by foot traffic.

Kind of a difficult number to fully calculate, though, but maybe the grounds crews at universities do have those numbers.

Also, this formulation doesn't take into account "useless" official paths -- those paths that never get used. Once could deflate one's Versailles Number by building lots of official paths that don't actually ever get used. Maybe we need a formulation that is weighted by the amount of human traffic...

Matt said...

When the central mall at the University of Maryland was constructed, they held off paving pathways for a while. Then they just paved where people were clearly walking and killing the grass. No matter where you want to go, there is a pathway to there.

http://g.co/maps/m35kr

Anonymous said...

At my undergrad institution, they demolished a decrepit building and turned it into a nice lawn area. But, since it was between two buildings they knew people would cut through the lawn.

Rather than try to predict where people would walk, they let what they called a "path of desire" form and then made it into a concrete path.

A Landscape Designer said...

Where to put paving is one of the most difficult and thoroughly studied aspects to landscape design. Admittedly, some designers care most about how the design looks in plan view and place paths with the assumption that pedestrians will comply. In reality a path's location is subject to a number of factors:

Bear in mind that with most “built landscapes” there is often no professional designer involved, and sometimes the task is given to someone who lacks the appropriate training (a building architect is not equipped to design pathways, for example)…which is why walkways all over the world are so often delightfully inadequate!

Then there is the sad fact that some landscape design firms must operate subordinate to the preferences and whims of another department or project lead, often requiring the person who draws out the locations of certain elements to work with incomplete or biased information.

Even in the ideal case where a landscape designer can personally visit a site with its surrounding buildings already constructed and observe the users in context, things can go wrong with path placement. Even due diligence with respect to research can still result in misunderstandings as to the behavior of that group of users.

Take into consideration that the fact that paths, particularly on old campuses, might have been laid out in support of some extinct habit of use and maintained that way to preserve a sense of history. On occasion a quadrangle design might reflect something that isn’t even happing most of the time, like where a graduation ceremony takes place once a year.

Conversely, campuses are often beholden to a Master Plan that drastically changes the placement of buildings and trajectories pedestrians might take. Sometimes new projects try to accommodate a yet unrealized future layout.

There are precedents on campuses for adding paths through quads after waiting to see where students walk through mud or snow, but you’re not going to find many institutions willing to try that strategy. Funding and scheduling of construction aim to get things done as quickly as possible and not go back in again later.

In a call to science: landscape architects do strive to anticipate human behavior and would welcome new research that studies the psychology of people in public spaces as it specifically pertains to design and planning. It would be wonderful to see these two fields collaborate.

Anonymous said...

They can do what the Cambridge colleges do -- hire guys to stand around in bowler hats and ask people not to walk on the grass (faculty excepted, of course). The locals would appreciate the employment opportunity.

Kea said...

There is a world of difference between dense, urban campuses and the vast open spaces of some campuses I know. In the latter case, the sum of all paths is a miniscule fraction of the green space, and no one is bothered by them. In the former case, they fiercely protect the tiny green patches, but it's a hopeless battle when there are so many people walking every which way. It is more a matter of maintaining the grass quality in the face of heavy traffic, through intensive gardening, and a culture that discourages stillettos and heavy boots.

Charles said...

I recall visiting one campus many years ago (forgot which one) where they had paved over the emergent paths in one location. But, in that same location, new emergent paths had formed. I didn't quite understand why.

Anonymous said...

The Versailles Number LOL OMG too funny!

Rachel said...

My school has been trying to fund replacement of one campus building for several years. I assume this is why the paths leading to this building are cracked blacktop instead of new cement like the rest of the campus sidewalks. Unfortunately, I have to regularly bring a media cart over the old cracked blacktop path.

In winter we have to forge new paths where these walks aren't priority for snow removal.

But my favorite is that to get from my classroom in this building to my office in another building I can walk a zigzag path on pavement or a straight path that intersects 3 different paved paths.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Most of these comments seem to assume a flat campus. On a hilly campus, the paths are often constrained by ADA slope constraints. Able-bodied individuals often take shortcuts that are too steep to be legally paved as paths. (Stairs are only ok if there is wheelchair accessible alternative.)

Anonymous said...

At the Uni where I work the paths went from being reasonable, i.e. straight, minimal distance, to these curvy 'pretty' paths. The worst example of this is a place where there are 3 buildings, which are set up in a triangle formation, and the path there is a circle with short straight paths leading to the doorways. And for some of the people-made paths, someone decided they didn't look 'nice' and donated money for fences to keep people on the paved areas, which now looks very out of place (it's by the stadium which is probably why someone noticed).

Anonymous said...

Trouble is, when the grass becomes dirt and muddy, they whinge about it and there is a perfectly good path there to use. Different if there is no path to your destination. but if you walk 'beside' a path then it shows you have no regard for your environment and it is a pointer to how you will live your life when you leave school, not sticking to the best path but taking shortcuts regardless of others. Poor life lesson.