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Artplace recently spoke with Prema Katari Gupta, Director of Planning and Economic Development at University City District about desire lines and the importance of observing usage patterns in public space.

What exactly is a desire line?

Is there a more evocative term in the placemaking lexicon? Desire lines are paths created as a consequence of foot traffic and typically represent the shortest or most convenient path from one point to another. We’ve all probably noticed unpaved shortcuts peeling away from paved paths in parks; they are desire lines.

Interesting. But what does that have to do with creative placemaking?

I’d imagine that nearly everyone who attended Artplace’s Creative Placemaking Summit in Miami over the winter has a slightly difference definition of “creative placemaking.” I’m still wordsmithing my precise definition, but a critical component is “design responsive to human behavior.”

I recently had a conversation with a landscape architect that highlighted the relationship between desire lines and creative placemaking. The landscape architect – who shall remain nameless – was particularly proud of a project that featured a jagged pathway which echoed geometric shapes found inside an adjacent starchitect-designed building. I had visited the site a few months earlier and had found the pathways to be irregular and inefficient. Yet this landscape architect seemed to think that it was perfectly appropriate to impose idiosyncratic circulation patterns in the name of an architectural conceit.

In contract, our approach at The Porch at 30th Street Station is iterative and experimental. We humanized a blank stretch of concrete with a relatively modest and fully removable set of furnishings to get to proof of concept that the site was a viable public space. The furnishings have been accompanied by a rigorous study of site usage patterns, using a methodology inspired by urban sociologist William “Holly” Whyte and The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, intended to inform a more capital-intensive, long-term vision. Desire lines are one of the key usage patterns that we’ve observed, revealing how frequently both paths and destinations are used. This is invaluable as we consider adding additional amenities and features to the site.

desire lines

As we consider a more capital-intensive redesign scheme for The Porch, we are cognizant of the fact that we will need to accommodate the heavily traveled paths of pedestrian traffic during rush hours, while also striving to strategically entice passersby, with the hope of converting commuters into guests who make time to enjoy the public space.

Tracking desire lines has been a fascinating way to learn about how The Porch is used and plan for the future. Many of the most egregious urban design and development mistakes of previous decades have been the result of one or a few decision-makers and their designers attempting to impose behavior upon hypothetical users. It’s far more interesting and appropriate to see how people do behave and build accordingly.

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The Porch at 30th Street Station

Philadelphia, PA
AUGUST 30, 2012

The Porch at 30th Street Station

Philadelphia, PA