Desire Path Less Traveled

Follow the “Desire Path” Less Traveled

Bold ideas don’t just happen overnight. It took close to 30 years before someone did something to the abandoned West Side Line, the elevated railroad tracks in New York City better known today as The High Line, an elevated park that now attracts 5 million people annually. Chicago’s Millennium Park is only a little over 10 years old. Before it became a world-class destination, with its manicured gardens, architectural landscapes and sculptures by world-renowned artists overlooking the western edge of Lake Michigan, it was a parking lot and a set of train tracks. Buffalo’s Canalside was one of these neglected spaces, too, along with our outer harbor, which is slowly growing into a network of beautifully cultivated spaces for public use.

It takes a bold imagination to solve blight; it’s easy to see only struggle in these spaces, and not also opportunity.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That is what I would think when embarking on a placemaking project. I pass by a few empty lots on my way into the office each morning. Some lots are more beautiful to me than others. I am particularly attracted to ones that have “desire paths” cut through them. A desire path is the consequence of erosion due to human traffic. In other words, a path made by people walking in the same direction over long periods of time, eroding away the vegetation that’s there to avoid a sidewalk or other designed pedestrian pathway. It’s a human-made shortcut.

When I look at these vacant lots with desire paths cut through them I do not see an empty lot, I see an important space. This is a path to a neighborhood. This is an entrance, exit or shortcut home. It’s potential for something more fully realized. The pathway is only being used for one purpose: to get from point A to point B. I understand that some of these vacant lots seem small in the grand scheme of things, but what if we made that experience on the path more than just a shortcut. What else could be lining the path they’ve already created? A small café with outdoor seating on one side and a small farmers’ market on the other? Maybe a dog park or sculpture garden, too. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

There is life in these vacant lots, the evidence is on the ground. The foot traffic is there, it’s just now a matter of bold vision to create around it.