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What Manmade Footpaths Can Tell Us About A City

Footpath in a field
A desire line carved by foot traffic in Detroit.

You've seen them all over, every time you go into an urban area. But you've probably never thought about the psychology or the socioeconomic factors at play underneath.

We're talking about informal footpaths, or shortcuts—those manmade trails that cut across open lots and grassy fields.  

Alec Foster
Credit Courtesy
ISU assistant professor Alec Foster.

Illinois State University assistant professor Alec Foster has been studying these footpaths.

“It is kind of an esoteric topic,” he mused. “But we’re hoping that (my research) gets people excited and more interested in desire lines. As an urban geographer, this issue of mobility is such a huge one for us. How do people get from point to point across a city?”

It's a big issue in cities like Detroit, where Foster and his research partner Joshua Newell studied where footpaths emerged—and where they disappeared. Going back to 2010, they spotted 5,680 individual footpaths totaling 150 miles in length. They tracked a portion of those footpaths over time, finding almost 70% of them had disappeared by 2016 in the city’s lower-income lower east side. There’s a lot of vacant land on the lower east side, Foster said.

“They’re areas that are marginalized, where there’s poor transportation infrastructure. They don’t get frequent bus service. There are very low levels of income, high poverty. There are cracked or non-existing sidewalks,” Foster said.

“So you can see (the desire lines) as a reflection of residents trying to make their way in the face of this marginalization, to find out how to make it to work, to school, or get the necessities of daily life, trying to chart their way across the city,” Foster said.

Another prime example of desire lines: The Illinois State University Quad. Its crisscrossing sidewalks represent paths students walked or would walk—even if the sidewalks weren’t there.

Learn more about Foster’s research in this Sound Ideas interview:

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.