Lytton Advisory

Two Paths

I have an enormous amount of respect for planners – infrastructure planners, economic planners, financial planners, city and town planners – anyone that has to marshal huge reams of data, distil the essence of need and come up with a future path for all of us.  Planning is one of the most difficult and contested activities around infrastructure.

Common to all planners is the need to look ahead and determine what investments are made when.  More importantly, planners are front and centre in determining why these investments occur in the first place.  Often, planners are actively shaping a ‘why’ that communities eventually embrace (or not).

It is often said that plans become obsolete upon first contact with reality.  In the sense that a plan is an abstraction of reality, this may well be true.

Recently I completed a short course in behavioural economics that really helps economists understand we live in a world of people, rather than stylised profit maximising agents.  And I am seeing how this affects the kinds of investments we make.  Toll roads that are hardly used, dams that we barely drink from, office towers that lie vacant.  It is sometimes difficult to reconcile perceptions of future use with the use that occurs.  It often feels no one is accountable for the herd of white elephants that choke off better investments.

I was reminded on a recent walk to remain humble and remember the whole point of public infrastructure is to serve the needs of the people.  Irrespective of drawing a seductive curve of path on a map, sometimes people simply want the utility of getting from point A to point B.  The challenge is knowing when function must dominate form.  My aesthete is always looking for that balance.

One reply on “Two Paths”

The photo is spot on. It’s called a ‘pedestrian desire path.’ It is the end judgement of the users about the infrastructure provided.

The designers thought that on thier plan drawings, looking vertically down, a nice geometric path following the kerb would look and work well. On the ground the pedestrians thought the shortest and easiest route was a straight line.

Here is a great example of theory over function. The end result needs to be fit-for-purpose. Risk averse practitioners shun this term in contracts, as it’s seen as too difficult to determine the actual definition. Personally, I disagree. The photo shows that the original path, while technically “fit-for-purpose” was not desirably “fit-for-purpose.” That desire defines the user’s expectation and assessment of the path.

We always need to get out of the “project” mind space and focus carefully on what the “end user” wants and needs. Compromise will always be an element. Where the “end user” is given insufficient consideration, the result is, as demonstrated in the photo, substandard.


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