Desire Lines: How We Pave Our Own Paths

Turning the corner onto Powder House Boulevard as you walk from campus to Davis Square, you will have two options: the continuation of a paved road or an extended dirt curve. This curve slopes up a non-uniform sprawl of hill right into the center of campus. It is one of the many desire lines that marks the Tufts grounds.


Desire lines, a term used in urban planning, are the paths that form naturally from human foot traffic over popular shortcuts off of paved walkways. You see them as juts off sidewalks where the grass has been decisively worn down, set by communal movement patterns. For urban planners, desire lines have become a useful tool for designing ideal public spaces that let the public set their own paths. The modern Boston Commons is an example, according to Tufts Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) professor Christine Cousineau. She explained that the architects followed the existing human-made footways during the Commons’ reconstruction to pave the present-day walkways.


Desire lines cross the Tufts grounds as well, forming a sort of alternative map of campus, dissecting social spaces and living spaces alike and even morphing the borders of Tufts and the surrounding communities. They are a visible way we imprint our desires right onto the spaces here at Tufts and a way of looking at how we interact with those physical spaces. The formation of these autonomous routes is also a commentary on the administration that designs the campus spaces in their crossings. Desire lines spur the question: What do we desire from the Tufts campus as we walk and shape its paths?


A dirt path leads you off of Talbot Avenue and across the plot of grass to the lower Campus Center. It is one of the clearest desire lines on campus. Right in the crossroads of several major social hubs, it is wide enough for a group to move across together, the way in which students often travel through this part of campus. The path both quickens the route between popular destinations and allows for a new way of exploring each space as you pass diagonally through the tree cover. You’ll notice that this desire line has curiously been filled in and shaped, appearing to be an official walkway.


“Students just started jumping over shrubs and bushes to get where they needed to go, so we started to open it up,” explained Steve Nasson, Tufts’ Senior Facilities Director. He described how Tufts Facilities began to maintain the originally student-made path. “They are things we can’t really control or maintain, especially in lower campus where the soil is acidic and it is difficult to sustain grass.” Nasson commented that desire paths are very common on a college campus where students tend to move socially and seek out the most efficient routes.


The lower Campus Center desire line now forms a part of the “legitimized” campus landscape. In this sense, it serves as a register of a form of productive dialogue between students and faculty, as well as an instance of students literally shaping the Tufts campus. “They are a way we can learn from students. We are always open to hearing their thoughts and suggestions––if a student wanted to make these lines their project, we’re here,” Nasson added.


Moving towards Davis Square you likely traverse a sprawling, thin dirt path drawn from the Latin Way apartments and ending at the mouth of Powder House Boulevard. A student-made exit from campus, the dirt desire path connects students to the shortest, most common route to Davis Square.


The path’s aesthetic is one of efficiency—dirt marked by fast, deliberate footsteps. The shape allows for little consideration of your surroundings or of which route to take as you enter Medford-Somerville. According to a Google survey, it is the path that the majority of nearly 400 Tufts students use to get from Davis Square to continue onto Leonard Avenue and all the way to the center of town. In the same poll, nearly half of the participants reported never changing the route they take to the Davis, following the same path each time they plan to leave campus. What this means is that the majority of students at Tufts do not stray from a singular, student-made path as they enter the city, which says a lot about the way in which our student body interacts with the surrounding community.


Emma Kahn, a senior majoring in Anthropology with a focus on Placemaking Studies, believes these paths encourage a greater line of questioning. “You can look at these paths and think ‘Oh, people were just trying to be more efficient with their routes,’ but I think it’s interesting to push further and ask where large quantities of people are moving to and through that hasn’t been formally designated for walking by our campus planners and landscape designers and why.” Kahn noted, “These unofficial paths really raise questions about how Tufts decides to designate pedestrian paths to begin with, and what assumptions about [and] suggestions for human movement on this campus are fundamentally embedded in those plans.”


Desire lines along campus borders have greater implications in the way they reflect the University’s presence in the surrounding community. The Davis Square desire line falls along one of the most precarious areas on Tufts’ grounds in terms of gentrification and development debates, as reported in an article by Tufts Observer in April of 2015. As the article noted, the University continues to expand its borders along Powder House Boulevard, paying a minimized sum on its properties to the city as a not-for-profit Pay in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) organization. Meanwhile, local legislators have proposed over the years to increase Tufts’ payments to the community. The University’s development parallels the way in which students travel through the Medford-Somerville community—both groups forming paths that seem to run in a singular direction.


As a student body, we are a formidable presence in Medford-Somerville, but it is important to question the extent to which our contributions are spatially conscious. How much exploring do we genuinely do beyond the paths of our central campus and the bee-line out of it?


Forming another border on campus along College Avenue, there is a fence, within which you can find an irregularity in the geometry: several openings where bars have been forced apart. Portal-like bends along the periphery of the athletic field, shaped just the size of a college-aged body––they are desire lines of sorts.


“Fences!” remarked Lydia Collins, a fifth year UEP student, are the most definitive feature of campus design. “The fence is very important to the image of Tufts as a ‘Light on a Hill,’ but we have to think of what a fence means.” The grounds at Tufts are definitively, yet subtly, enclosed by the fences that run the length of College Avenue and mark the entrances to main campus. The fences along Professor’s Row, for one, lack sidewalks on parts of the fence-baring side—a way of sealing out outside pathmakers and corralling students along a specific path inward.


Desire lines are not exclusively formed for the sake of efficiency. In public parks, desire lines are often extensions of walkways that let people see beyond the paved road. In this way, they represent our visual desires, how we wish to see spaces, and most importantly, our sense of wandering. The fenced-in design of campus is not conducive to wandering, despite the emphasis the University’s educational values place on “curiosity.” Think of the fascinating views and natural spaces within the Tufts grounds: the Tisch rooftop’s panorama of Boston, the large skyline below Wren and the Hillside Apartments, the gardens at lower campus. They all are stationed within an elaborate grid of pedestrian ways and then by even more fences.


The “desire breaks” in the College Avenue fence are a way in which students have forcefully redesigned the architecture of campus to reflect their desire to wander. It is interesting to ponder the sheer physical exertion that went into pushing apart the iron bars of this fence. It represents a strong-willed act of desire and also serves as a visual reminder of a certain frustration and sense of containment within the space of campus.


The German art critic Siegfried Kracauer once wrote, “The value of cities is measurable with the number of places they reserve for improvisation.” The paths students make throughout campus are an exercise in improvisation, of using deliberate erosion as a tool for curiosity, commentary, and questioning. In their physicality, they evolve to reflect faults and values of the administration and the student body alike. Passing by the desire lines on campus should remind us as a student body that our institutional spaces are more malleable than we realize.


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