Friday, 20 January 2017

Desire lines: Well-trodden paths unearth what pedestrians desire

My Turf is a new fortnightly series that aims to tell the untold stories in our neighbourhoods. In this first instalment, we take a look at desire lines - unofficial shortcuts - around Singapore.
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 19 Jan 2017

Every day, as church cleaner Goh Lian Huay walks from her workplace to Plaza Singapura for lunch, she eschews the concrete paths that the authorities have meticulously laid out across Dhoby Ghaut Green.

Instead, she treads on a strip of dirt, worn thin by frequent footfall.

It is simply the fastest route, noted Madam Goh, 61, who works at Orchard Road Presbyterian Church. "As long as the ground isn't wet, it makes more sense to cut across the grass. Otherwise, we'd have to walk here, walk there," she said of the more circuitous, concrete paths.

Some call these informal routes shortcuts; others, man-made paths.

But another more romantic term exists: desire lines.

Indeed, a sense of yearning infuses the concept of desire lines, which a 1959 Chicago Area Transportation Plan described as "the shortest line between origin and destination, and expresses the way a person would like to go, if such a way were available".

In urban planning, desire lines are stark reminders of the gap between what planners believe is the ideal route, and what people think actually serves their needs.

Here in Singapore, desire lines are common, with ribbons of brown across patches of green.

The authorities have done a better job of anticipating people's desires and becoming more citizen-centric in their designs since the late 1990s, said Mr Donald Low of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy who researches behavioural economics in public policy.

That said, they can do better, he added. "The traditional idea that urban planners can be armchair planners - where they don't even have to be at the site - doesn't work any more."

He suggests that land planners and architects observe how people interact with a building or piece of infrastructure before building a path. This could take place digitally, via simulations and models. Or it could be done the old-school way, by seeing where a dirt path pops up and then formalising it.

In Finland, city officials reportedly document where people walk in parks after the first snowfall of the year, then integrate their data - and build sidewalks - into their plans. Copenhagen conducts similar observations when demarcating cycling lanes.

Singapore is not resistant to responding to such needs. A joint statement from the Land Transport Authority, Housing Board and National Parks Board said that considerations before a footpath can be built include studying pedestrian usage patterns, public safety and whether it enhances walkability in the area.

But, "on occasions where such man-made footpaths are unsafe, the area will be re-turfed and the public will be encouraged to use the designated footpaths instead", the statement added.

After treading carefully over a field of intertwined roots for years, Lutheran Towers resident Janet Heng, 75, was delighted that a long-time desire line was replaced by a paved path, built by the Building and Construction Authority, in 2014. The icing on top? It is illuminated by three street lamps - so no more stumbling in the dark.

It is a more direct route to Bukit Timah Road and makes Cluny Court's Cold Storage much nearer, said Mrs Heng. "It's always a pleasant feeling when you get something good, even if it isn't entirely necessary."

However, not all desire lines can be turned into official footpaths.

Sometimes, pedestrians intrude into areas dedicated to other uses, such as athletic fields or sensitive plant habitats. Or they might carve up a field with multiple desire lines, turning a patch into an eyesore. Other times, they put themselves in danger by taking the shortcut.

On such occasions, the Government is forced to block a path.

This was the case for several desire lines emerging on a slope outside The Cathay mall, which next-door School of the Arts students would take to get to school, despite a traffic light just 10m away. The LTA erected a barricade along Zubir Said Road last August.

Barring such cases, however, some say that desire lines should by and large be left alone, without intervention from the Government.

Dr Chong Keng Hua, an architecture academic at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said too many paths, ramps or railings may "kill the urban landscape".

"Leave the desire lines to grow organically," he added. "They are a little messy but such untidiness is a reflection of how we overcome constraints in life. It's a living example of social resilience."

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