A Case of Desire

A mosaic of desire paths in Detroit, from the excellent Sweet Juniper blog

Minneapolis is not Detroit.  There are downsides to that, but in general I’d guess that most of us are fine with it.  We don’t have Motown, but Prince mostly makes up for it in his weird way.  We don’t have a People Mover, but Hiawatha is more useful anyway.  We don’t have 40 square miles of vacant land, and – here’s the real downside – neither do we have intricate laces of desire paths through our neighborhoods.

Maybe it comes from our pioneer subconscious, or maybe it’s just a reaction against the relentless squareness of our omnipresent grid, but there’s something that feels really good about following a track made by shoes in the dirt* rather than a hard strip of concrete.  For a good description of desire paths, check out Bill’s Sidewalk of the Week on Hamline Ave; in this post I’m going to look at one block in Minneapolis where conditions are ripe for excellent desire paths.

View North Loop Desire Paths in a larger map

If you’re looking for vacant land in Minneapolis, first look North.  You don’t have to go far north to find the lot on which we’ll focus today.  It’s just barely inside the official definition for Downtown, bordered by Plymouth Ave and 2nd St with help on the east from the last remnant of the vast field of train tracks that used to lead to Great Northern Station.  This lot has all the ingredients for a potent batch of desire paths:

  1. It’s neglected, allowing tall grass and weeds to be beaten down into a path – if a lot is mowed, everyone goes their own way.
  2. It’s missing sidewalks on at least one side, freeing us from the temptation to go the way of concrete.
  3. It’s on the corner, giving people a reason to cut across it.
  4. It’s odd shaped, creating weird fun angles.

And this combo has brewed up three major paths:

  • Desires cross

    The Ghost Walk roughly follows 2nd St, much like an official sidewalk would.  This is unsurprisingly the most deeply worn path, extending even into the Mown Zone.  However, the feet populi have placed the Ghost Walk at a greater distance from the street than most sidewalks, which is evident when compared with the skimpy, symbolic boulevard across the street.

  • The 10th Extender continues the sidewalk of 10th Ave N across the lot to Plymouth Ave, a connection that seems to have never actually existed.  Interestingly, this path continues the sidewalk that doesn’t have an official crossing at the signal, and further ignores the stop line (this being Minneapolis, the stop line is usually faded anyway).
  • The Secret Walk hugs the back fence of the lot and seems to be the least used of the three, judging by how easy it is to lose track of it.  This path serves the legitimate function of connecting 2nd to Plymouth in the shortest way possible, but because it is somewhat screened by the topography of the lot, my guess is that it serves some illegitimate functions as well.
  • The Mown Zone covers a small southern tail of the lot, and actually part of another lot under separate, less neglectful ownership.  Because it is regularly mowed, the paths have less of a toehold (ha ha) here.  Only the Ghost Walk is deep enough to be evident here in the form of a gash of dirt through the scrubby but short grass.

Why should we care about desire paths?  To be honest, there are more important things in the world.  But besides being fun, desire paths can be an important design clue.  For example, the developer who wants to build a strip mall here is putting his building directly in the way of the 10th Extender.  Judging by the parking lot, he’s not concerned about foot traffic, but there are some pedestrians that will likely find a new route and not patronize the Subway that will certainly fill one of the spaces.

But maybe the most important thing about desire paths is the signal they send to those of us who feel imprisoned in this gridded, auto-dependent world that we are not alone.  Other people are out there walking, and to save time or just to follow their desire, they’re cutting their own paths.

Ghost Walk to the city in the sky

*it takes as few as 15 people to create a path, according to wikipedia’s otherwise uninformative article on desire paths


Alex Bauman

About Alex Bauman

Alex enjoys blogging on his iPhoneDroid while stuck in traffic on his 90 minute daily commute to Roseville from bucolic Staggerford.