Desire Paths & Any Ways

For many years my local park was really a big open space left behind from WW2 bombing of the local industrial complex. It had become overgrown and cleared out here and there to become a park by default. As such, it is was the people and the ways in which they used to the park that made it what it was. This was quite a poor area of London and the park was surrounded by high-density social housing. I’ve lived close to the park for a long time and I recall that I’d often be kept awake on weekend nights by the sound of police cars and helicopters chasing joyriders around the park. When I went out for a morning walk I’d often find a burned-out hatchback and/or crashed moped as the kind of sacrificial wreckage of the night’s urban rites.

Later in the day I’d see very well organised football matches taking place, organised by local South and Central American families. There was also what I believed to be a Ghanan soccer league. As above, the people had just claimed some territory and organised this all for themselves. They had full kits, a whole league, and even trophies, and whole families used to come out in support, bringing food and music with them. It must have been a great respite from the week’s hard work for these poor migrant populations.

One day I received a hand-out through my letterbox saying the council were planning to refurbish the park at great expense and that I, along with other locals, was invited to contribute suggestions as to how they should spend the money. I believe I did chip-in my ‘two pennies worth’.  A few years after, after we suffered from the complete closure of the park, it re-opened, proudly displaying the results of a six-million-pound investment.

The lake had been greatly enlarged, small man-made ‘hills’ installed, and a wide range of different tracks and paths and ways instated. However, the football areas had been irretrievably obliterated by the new planning, and the park had really become a joggers’ and cyclist’s paradise, though probably better than ever for families, with new loos, a cafe, BMX track and a playground (though it could be argued that all of these presume and prescribe and inscribe particular perspective on what a family is and does, wants and enjoys).

Sadly, the Ghanan and South and Central American football leagues, and the whole wider Pueblo community that once used the park so much – even holding huge Pueblo festivals every summer – ceased to exist.

During this period most, if not all of the social housing (one of the biggest estates in Europe apparently) was demolished and new private housing built in its place. There may be some ‘affordable’ or social housing built into the new cityscape, but the overall tendency seems to have been to replace the social housing and its tenants with first time apartment buyers, buy-to-renters, foreign property investment, or retirees snapping up a London base.

Nevertheless, engineers and architects never fail to impress me with their transformative powers, and the new park is unarguably a wonderful asset to anyone lucky enough to live nearby. Interestingly, the progressive landscapers made allowance for what I believe are called ‘Desire Paths’ i.e. paths that are not prescribed by a designer, but which evolve naturally as the users of the new park decide for themselves which routes they want to take. Gradually and organically, paths began to emerge and soon became clearly established.

I always liked this phrase ‘Desire Paths’. It seems so evocative and suggestive. And I’ve also admired the beauty of those paths, with their slight wobbles and bends determined by the ‘lay of the land’. The grass has been worn away back to wet or dry mud or dust (depending on the season) by the feet of many strangers who simply chose, intuitively to go in the same direction.

Recently, with the so-called ‘lock-down’ however, I’ve noticed that the Desire Paths are broadening, according to ‘social distancing’ rules, and that people are just avoiding the paths and walking, well basically anywhere, as long as they are not close to others. This is starting to result in what I have come to call ‘Any Ways’, i.e. arbitrary areas of perambulation that can’t really be called paths at all, and which reflect only a desire to go where others are not, where others do not go and have not been. the Any Ways therefore become the very antithesis of the Desire Paths. They also threaten to turn the entire park into one big ‘Path’ or ‘Way’.

I’m aware that I’m writing a longer post than usual, but thank you for staying with me if you’ve come this far. I just want to conclude by saying that I feel that there is something profound and interesting about this distinction between Desire Paths and what I’ve called ‘Any Ways’. The former are interestingly organic, ‘bottom-up’, progressive, and ‘democratic’, and yet the latter seem to suggest an even freer society, one in which people might also be interested in never and in not following what others do and have done. The emergence of the Any Ways thus seems to instate a new sense of arbitrariness, a kind of ‘wayward’ anarchy, about which planners and designers just might have very little to say.



2 thoughts on “Desire Paths & Any Ways

  1. Something very sad about the footie provision. Perhaps there should be an *any ways* reinstatement of the pitches and get it restarted. It is salient that parks originally arose due to the health problems with density of houses and some notable 19thC reformers such as Elizabeth Fry who advocated their expansion, in some cases land donated. The public space has been commodified and what remains are push spaces to stimulate motion solely for consumerism. We must wander of that path too. Hope your well Paul.


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