I came across a phrase the other day that I had not encountered before; “paths of desire“. Although sounding poetic and perhaps even esoteric, it turns out to be a very practical term used by landscape architects. It denotes the route that pedestrians will usually take in order to reach their destinations, often with no respect to how the architects have laid the route out for them. What we often call ‘corner cutting’.
Corner cutting is not something that is often viewed positively. Throughout urban areas we find those unsightly dirt paths that many people have made in attempts to shave seconds off their journeys. But I wonder how many law abiding types, seeing these alternative routes, decide to take them instead of sticking to the laid out path. I’m certainly guilty of this. (Except when hiking on highly trafficked trails ; cutting corners in order to avoid mountain switchbacks eventually results in irreparable damage to the natural environment.)
People who cut other types of corners, particularly if they work in fields such as academics, training, health services and public safety – are usually in store for some serious troubles. But lately, in business and in government, corner cutters have been lauded; those who know how to cut through the red tape, bypassing bureaucratic chicanery in order to more effectively ‘get the job done’. So there is good corner cutting as well as bad.
Civic architects must consider safety, destination and traffic congestion when desigining maps for walkways and paths. Even so , when it comes to laying them out most planner will draw up their plans with aesthetic consideration s in mind, sometimes resulting in unnecessary meanders and impractical right corners. The addition of these subjective goals are of little interest to the average pedestrian, and it isn’t long before people are regularly leaving the ordered routes and finding new ones that are more practical and expedient. When this happens, planners will typically respond with attempts at impeding any further anarchy with ordinances, signs and barriers. In most cases the laws and signs are ignored (who can enforce them?) and the barriers are easily circumvented.
Here are some photographs for the purpose of illustration:
It’s interesting in that, rather than helping people on their journeys by incorporating their desires into the landscape, more resources are used trying to keep them on the “correct” paths. In this process the authorities generate little sympathy, cooperation or respect among the pedestrians. Instead they expose themselves to ridicule in their obvious comittitment to a ‘plan’ rather than people and their goals.
This must be human nature; it’s common to business, academics, government and even the local garden club. We shouldn’t endorse anarchy, but we should take into account the human dynamic before we establish rules and procedures. Traffic engineers used to establish speed limits by monitoring new highways for a period of time and then setting the limit at the speed that 75% of the drivers were doing. They knew that to disregard the reasonable desires of the typical driver would result in unnecessary congestion, safety risks and rampant scofflaws.
I think that the ‘emerging conversation’ taking place within the church is about just this: Rather than compelling people to comply with a rigid set of ecclesiastic or doctrinal guidelines they are suggesting that we might consider the ordinary Christian’s ‘path of desire’ first. If the desire is to respond to God’s call, through Christ, then the goal should be to allow or even help that person find their path. That doesn’t mean we should encourage people to become individualistic. Not at all. The corporate entity of the Church (which has been fragmented for so long) could be enhanced when we encourage each other on our journeys. Instead of having millions of Christians wasting energy on a tug of war over who has the ‘correct’ plan for the journey, we may now find the time and the inclination to concentrate on the common goal, which is Christ.
Each of our paths may be subtly (or radically) different in how we worship, celebrate, study, gather and pray. No path should be so far afield that we cannot see each other and we should lovingly pave each of our paths with the Gospel.