08 February 2011


These photos show the conflict that sometimes occurs between what designers think is best and what people, acting collectively and nearly unconsciously, will redesign if they can. And then there is a surprising resolution to the conflict.

The top photo was taken 27 June, 2009. It shows a sidewalk near the Plaza of Benta Berri in Donostia (San Sebastian), in the Basque Country of Spain. Crossing the sidewalk at a diagonal is a well-defined footpath. I'll explain below why people preferred to walk this way, but the gentleman pictured evidently prefers to walk on the sidewalk; and it's not because he is going to turn to the right. I have another photo showing him turning to the left. I took this photo because I have had a long interest in this kind of collective creativity.

About four months later, the city began to rebuild the plaza, and I was amazed to see them tear up the old sidewalk and begin to lay out a new sidewalk, more or less following the redesign made by the feet of the people. The third photo, just below, shows the completed reconstruction; it was taken this month (February, 2011.)

Why was I amazed? I don't remember seeing or hearing of an example where a designer has allowed a mostly unconscious group of non-professionals to collectively lay out a path.

The reason this collective (the public) redesigned the path was to get it to lead more directly to the local fitness center, or, going in the opposite direction, to Calle Matia, the main shopping street. The clipping on below shows this clearly.

The redesigned path is near the center of the clipping. The gray rectangle in the lower left of the clipping is the building housing the local swimming pool and fitness complex. The new path lines up with the sidewalk, just to the left of the smaller green triangle, leading to the entrance of the building, at the bottom of the clipping. To the left of the fitness center one can see the corner of a large set of concrete playing fields. Going in the other direction, the redesigned sidewalk flows into the sidewalk heading toward the trees of the plaza, and, beyond that, the shops. This clipping was grabbed today, even though the concrete sidewalk was torn up sixteen months ago. Google often has a significant lag in updating their maps, and, particularly their satellite images.

It appears that as people approached the sidewalk, they saw their destination and began walking toward it before they reached the concrete. People like to save steps. The concrete sidewalk was at a right angle to the other sidewalks, and in general, people prefer to turn gradually rather than quickly. They may be inhibited from walking on the grass, but once a few people have pioneered this route, the grass becomes obliterated, and the inhibitions drop away. Depending on the terrain, the shape of the path will be influenced by people's preferences not to step too high, wade through plants, or get wet. Depending on the time of year, the path may stay in the sun or in the shade.

I often observe my mind while walking, and most of the time, it seems to function completely automatically; I don't need to think or make any decisions. But when I am approaching a destination and see it, I feel a kind of pull, not literally of course, but as if some hidden part of me is trying to turn my body toward the goal. Once I've left the orthodox path, I find it more comfortable to walk where others have walked before; if my foot is about to leave the collective path, I feel a little anxiety that is eased by keeping to it. At any time, I could start walking in any direction, but it's easier to follow the impulses that seem to float up from the interior darkness. These are transient experiences, scarcely noticed and immediately forgotten.

People decide how to walk in a partly conscious manner. Part of each decision is made unconsciously, by mental processes that deal with the mechanics of walking, measuring distances and heights, looking out for obstacles, and so forth. The rest of each decision is made consciously, by a liminal consciousness that receives information from the unconscious processes, in the form of feelings, emotions, or the kinesthetic equivalents of images; these are weighed and quickly a decision is made of where to step. By liminal consciousness, I mean consciousness right at the threshold of the unconscious, able to receive the output of the unconscious processes but otherwise ignorant of their natures or even their existence. Because of its liminality, this kind of decision-making is forgotten almost as soon as it happens, unless a person makes a special effort to observe it. The kinesthetic equivalents of images are anticipations of where the feet might go, how balance would be affected, how much the leg would need to be lifted to go a particular way, as well as other concerns of the unconscious processes responsible for moving the body. The feelings, emotions, and kinesthetic images, which constitute the data from the unconscious processes are fleeting, occupying part of the attention for a fraction of a second before being replaced by the next set of data. When a person, walking, is also carrying on an interior monologue (perhaps constructing the narrative of his or her life) the experience of attending to the unconsciously derived data and weighing the possibilities of where to walk, is lost in the background.

The conflict between the professional designer and the public is illustrated in an apocryphal story about Dwight D. Eisenhower, while he was president of Columbia University; he headed Columbia after World War II, before he was elected president of the US in 1952. He was approached by the head of Buildings and Grounds with a vexing problem. The students weren’t respecting the sidewalks, and were instead wearing their own paths in the grass. Couldn't the retired general order them to walk on the sidewalks? Ike, instead, is said to have suggested that they rebuild the sidewalks to follow the paths the students obviously preferred to walk. I always liked this story, because it demonstrated a flexible, pragmatic attitude in Ike, that you don't see in many Republicans today. Alas, there is no evidence for this story. It's an urban legend, one of many such stories, each set at a different university, sometimes with a variation: they built a new campus, but waited a year to construct the sidewalks so they could see what the students tramped in the snow.

There is another legend that the twisted, irrational streets of downtown Boston follow cow paths. In fact, early Boston consisted of scattered farms, and, as people walked from house to house, they avoided obstacles-- ponds, marshes, masses of thorns, trees-- that no longer exist today.

I am happy to see this design (or anti-design) idea applied in my neighborhood. Is it part of a new sensibility that younger designers are cultivating, one that might make our cities more livable?