A city’s reputation is a complex idea in its own right, with hundreds of variables impacting both WHAT we think about a given city (from first impressions all the way to deep-rooted convictions) to WHY we think what we think. To leave all this complexity aside for a moment, let us focus on just one, very simple example, and yet, one that speaks volumes about inclusion and diversity being part of your city’s DNA, or not quite yet.

It’s always refreshing (and often thought-provoking) to see how locals create paths, passages and shortcuts, in parks and open spaces, as opposed to how urban designers, architects and city planners would rather have them follow.

Ever heard of desire paths? Instead of allowing your imagination to wonder into uncomfortable territory, let me explain the meaning of the phrase right away, or, better still, here’s the wikipedia entry.

Kraków’s many desire paths

Designing a city that is truly user-friendly takes not only expertise, the right educational background and a sense of aesthetics to match, but – above all, perhaps – the necessary humility to recognise and take into account the (many possible) users’ needs and expectations.

Look at the photo above, for example. It shows a well-trodden (or ridden) path, right next to an old, dilapidated staircase. In the photo, an electric scooter enthusiast is trying to reach the upper alley running along the river banks and to avoid having to lift the scooter (at least three times) on the way. Quite predictably, he chooses the shortcut. And he’s clearly neither the first nor the last one to do so.

You might think that at the time when these stairs were being designed, there were no electric scooters around, but it would be a rather lazy cerebral desire path on your part, would it not? After all, it’s not difficult to imagine that a cyclist would also appreciate a safe and comfortable passage, without having to compromise the quality of the greenery around. Not to mention the many fathers and mothers pushing their prams on during a Sunday afternoon walk. In short, poor design! Full stop.

Come 21st century and…

Just like in about everything else, when it comes to urban space design, old habits die hard. The staircase below was officially inaugurated on 3 October 2019, after a major revamp. It now officially commemorates one of Poland’s most famous Nobel prize winners, hence, an official “staircase opening” ceremony.

What struck me when I first went to see the commemorative inscription, beautifully located as it is (right opposite the Wawel Royal Castle), was the fact that, again, decades later, it never occurred to anyone to “upgrade” the original design and make it disability-friendly (+ pram-friendly!) not to mention hundreds of cyclists forced  to switch to “desire path” mode, unless their unrealistically overblown sense of order tells them to carry the bike up and down each flight of stairs.

The Czesław Miłosz Stairs (with a view to the Royal Wawel Castle)
The Czesław Miłosz Stairs (with a view to the Royal Wawel Castle)

Now, this is not to say that urban planners should always follow user instincts. Quite to the contrary, in some cases. But there is a difference between talking about disability-friendliness and making it part of your city-management DNA. And so, when you see a staircase built in an area used predominantly by  cyclists, parents and (potentially) people with disabilities, it is probably fair to say that not making their needs part of the original design is…poor design, at best. More realistically, that and lack of imagination.

Notable exceptions

The Błonia Meadows below are one of Krakow’s favourite spots. Located in the heart of the city (10 minutes from Main Market Square), they are among Krakowians’ favourite sports-and-picnic sites. The 48 hectares of open space and flowery green meadows are surrounded by a 3,5 km ring, very popular among cyclists, roller-skating fans and runners, not to mention thousands of students living in the nearby university dorms who like to spend their time here from early morning to late evening hours, whether it’s reading a book, talking to friends or walking a dog. Looking at some of the desire paths they have created (or re-create every year!) is perhaps the best illustration of what we like to call “human nature”. After all, who says a perfectly straight line isn’t boring compared to how creative we can be in that department 😉

The Błonia Meadows (Kraków)

This might just be one of those few places in Kraków where nobody really wants any permanent fixtures or perfectly flat pathways. That’s where Krakowians come to relax and escape from the noise, without having to go outside the city. Once they have reached the Błonia Meadows, it’s only a short walk away from the picturesque, 200-years-old Kościuszko Mound, overlooking the city (Kopiec Kościuszki).

And one last thing

It is perhaps wishful thinking on my part, but I strongly believe that two decades into the 21st century, urban planners should really spend a day or two in the area where they want to introduce some kind of new functional design and see if the change they are about to bring doesn’t ignore the needs of multiple users, past, present and future.