Friday, September 19, 2008

Paving the cowpaths

For as long as I've been at my institution, there have been two main ways students entered my building, McAlister Hall. It's a long, thin rectangle with four floors, each one consisting of a hallway running the length of the building with classrooms and offices on either side. A staircase ascends the floors on either end. The fourth floor is up in the gables, and it's truncated -- there's no hallways running its length. Instead, you can get to the fourth-floor classroom I often use only by going up the north staircase. If you go up the south staircase, you're out of luck; there's a computer lab smack in the middle of the floor with no way through to the other side.

There's a rather grand front entrance, but it faces nothing but a lawn and the road running in front of the campus; almost nobody enters that way. Instead, people come in at the minor entrances on either end of the first-floor hallway -- on the short ends of the rectangle.

If you're approaching from the campus center, and your classroom is on the south end of the building, you're in luck -- a sidewalk runs almost directly to the door on that end. But if you're going to a northerly classroom, you end up cutting across a lawn to the north doors. If you're moseying, you might feel like going directly north toward the library and then making a 90-degree turn onto the sidewalk that runs east toward that door. But more than likely, you'll hit that walkways square on your way from the student center and proceed right down the diagonal.

Students have been trodding that diagonal ever since I got here nine years ago, and surely at least nine years before that, when the building (which was first a dormitory, then married student housing) was first converted to academic space. In the rain it becomes a mudpit; in the summer it's a dustbowl.

This week I strolled toward my office on my daily walk to work and found workers digging with a small backhoe. The next day there were concrete forms up, and by today someone was scraping debris off the dried concrete of the new sidewalk, directly over that well-worn dirt path.

There's an old landscaping approach to university and corporate campuses: Rather than trying to predict where pedestrians will want to go and herding them onto sidewalks of your design, leave the grounds devoid of paved pathways. It won't take long for people to start wearing paths into the lawn. Then build the walkways where people have shown they actually walk.

It's taken our university quite a while to process the evidence of actual pedestrian behavior, but nevertheless, it's somehow greatly heartening to see the feedback loop closed at last. Somewhere, somebody's paying attention, however slowly.

4 comments:

Brandy said...

They finally laid a sidewalk there, huh? When I was a freshman in the fall of '99, a friend and I decided that by Christmas we would have our own path through the grass there. We actually drug our feet to help kill the grass. I can't believe it took them this long!

Dmanbow said...

This is certainly not a new thing. When I worked for a university in a neighboring state in the late 50s, they built a new student center on campus. Only the barest of sidewalks were put it, but I noticed the last time I was there that there are a bunch criss-crossing the whole green area, all paved where paths used to be.

Ali said...

Maybe they'll finally put one in between the parking lot between Ferris and Augusta and Irby Hall. That path tells a similar tale.

Jenn said...

I always wondered how long it would take for them to pave that...or if they ever would. The U of A is pretty good about having sidewalks where people actually walk, but UCA not so much.