Desire Paths

May 23, 2024

6/24 6:32:58 UTC
Vote with your feet.

We love the packed-together energy, creativity and ingenuity of the city and yet we are never far from a yearning for the simplicity, sublimity and ‘empty’ space of what is increasingly awkwardly called Nature. 

Spend too long traversing urban environs and a feeling dawns: a lack, a nebulous, shapeless loss, cut off from our animal, biological reality. Where almost anything organic has likely been shipped or craned in, greenery so trained and managed like uniformed school children ready for picture day.  

Navigate addresses in the financial district of a world city, for example, and you will find that although the designation ’20 Fenchurch St’ or ‘1 Vanderbilt Avenue’ sounds almost homely, the scale, mass and proportions will screw with your inertial guidance, reality-bending vertical cities-within-cities.

Unlike the feeling of freedom in insignificance the wild brings, Homo Urbanis is made a fungible unit to be processed - whether for leisure or labour - through concrete, glass and steel monuments to global capital flows and the power elite. Structures, incidentally, capable of melting cars and generating winds which can knock over pedestrians and cyclists.  

But nature always finds a way and into this scene can appear 'Paths that have Made Themselves'. Desire Paths, also known by a variety of other animal themed prefixes (cow… elephant…), are created by travellers’ feet - and indeed cycles - taking a preferred route to that which has been designed.    

In our increasingly built environment where ostensibly public places (often amounting to a 2 square acre sized city block) turn out to be anything but, the sight of a scruffy dirt strip across manicured green has more than something of the anarchic and the rebellious about it. 

In its most simple form, a Desire Path is just the shortest route between two points. Yet, it could also be the most meaningful. It might enable travellers to avoid - or experience - aspects unseen, unappreciated, or uncared for by urban planners and officialdom. 

We see beauty in these paths, a slow-motion imprint, a human murmuration. They symbolise a persistent, ineradicable tension, and provide a crucial counterweight: the spontaneous over the planned; grass-roots over top-down. Ultimately, the irrepressible, ungovernable blind force of [our] nature. 

Where will your Desire Path take you?


A few of the images used to illustrate this essay come from the brilliant photographer Jan Dirk van den Burg, who has documented the Desire Paths or so-called 'Olifanten Paadjes' in the Netherlands for many years.


Others were sourced from the sub reddit r/DesirePath where lovers of desire paths unite.