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Raleigh’s “Pathways of Desire”

Well-worn footpaths exist in cities, suburban areas, and even the rural wilderness, but did you know they had a name? I didn’t until reading an article about their prevalence in other areas. They are referred to as Pathways of Desire and represent the shortest path between an origin and destination where no constructed walkway exists.

The topic of dirt paths in Raleigh may seem dry on the surface, but it provides a unique look on demographics and pedestrian movement. In the case of Compiegne Park (above) it represents a flaw in the park’s design. The tiny park is a triangle, and the entry point from the north point gets to Hillsborough Street quicker straight through the middle.

I spent a very modest amount of time (less than an hour) looking at this path and others with Google Maps. I knew of a few from memory near where I live, but didn’t know about any in other parts of town.

I shouldn’t be all that surprised, but most of what I was able to find by air indicated that they were largely clustered in the southeast part of Raleigh:

View pathways of desire in a larger map

The red pins indicate areas that may or may not be a footpath. The map is a work in progress and by no means comprehensive.

It was clear after spending a couple of days wandering through sections of town where they were the most, and it was represented in the map above. At first, I tried to go to specific locations. Eventually I abandoned that plan and found my own shortest route between destinations (paths). This was in the southeast part of the city.

There are many factors influencing the concentration in the area: more vacant lots in this part of town, more pedestrians that are more reliant on public transportation than other demographic areas, and so on.

The footpaths provide an interesting glimpse into the differences in geographic areas within one city. Although mostly unrelated, it is interesting to note that the region with the highest concentration of these footpaths also has the fewest number of sidewalks.

Pathways of Desire are often the basis for many of the roads that exist in cities in which the layout was not pre-planned. The pathways that people carved out by foot were typically the easiest to grade and clear for horses, carriages, and later cars. This wasn’t the case with Raleigh, though, as it was planned from the beginning.

The existence of these paths occasionally seems odd, like in the photo above in which they run in parallel. I believe the sidewalk had existed when the block was originally a set of storefronts, so it was offset from the road a good length.

Although currently prevalent in southeast Raleigh, they will decline in number as infill and urban renewal continue to take place there. The empty lots that save walking travelers a few seconds time will eventually be developed in some form and the time savers will once again return to traveling on the grid.

The pathways of desire will thin out, but will never be completely erased.

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