People ignore the design that ignores them

Image to illustrate Desire Lines book piece

Architects leave communities out of the design process at their peril, says Lesley Malone

Elephant tracks, fox paths, pedestrian’s revenge, desire lines… There are a multitude of names for the human-made paths that gradually form when people reject designed routes and make their own way from A to B.

It’s argued that these paths symbolise the all-too-common failure of designers and planners to appreciate how people navigate their surroundings, as the designer Frank Chimero’s maxim, “People ignore the design that ignores them” implies.

More than this, they speak of a general lack of communication or care on the part of built environment professions, and design practice that routinely overlooks basic human needs.

Historically, formal training for design professionals tended to neglect community engagement, so the traditional top-down “we know best” attitude is unsurprising. Designers designed places that they and the client thought appropriate, with little idea of what the people who would use and live with the space might actually want or need. Fortunately, practices now increasingly look to create authentic engagement and bring local groups into the design process more meaningfully. But there is still a long way to go.

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