To Pave the Cow Path or Not


I remember hearing about the following anecdote several years ago, and here is a web version retelling of it:

A new college campus was being built, and the question arose, “Where should we put the walkways?”

Some felt the walkways should be around the edges, to leave the center green and untouched. Some felt the walkways should cut diagonal, connecting all buildings to all buildings.

But one professor suggested: Don’t make any walkways this year. At the end of the year, look at where the grass is worn away, showing us where the students are walking. Then just pave those paths.

And that’s what the college did.

(Here’s another version of the same story.)

I’ve heard this referred to as the cow path theory of design, perhaps after the story of how the streets of Boston were originally laid out (allegedly).

The streets of downtown Boston are characterized by byzantine windings that seemingly defy logic — until one realizes that they trace the original cowpaths that cattle trod to skirt fields when ambling home from pasture in early colonial times. In downtown Boston, the streets are, indeed, paved cowpaths.

(By the way, here’s a link that says that this was not the case.)

I’ve always had a problem with this approach to design; it seems analogous to the expression “letting the inmates run the asylum”.

I think good design should certainly take into account what users want, but I also think it should reflect what the planners and designers originally envisioned for the project.

If a college would like a wide open, grassy quad in the middle of campus for students to play Frisbee or to work on their tans, would you really want to put a walkway right through the center of it because that would represent the shortest path between two buildings?

Or would you prefer that the open space is maintained, and that the walkways are designed in a way that encourages student use?

The cow path theory of design doesn’t just apply to college campuses and city streets.

I just read an interesting article that looked at this concept in different settings, and suggested that paving the cow-paths implies giving up on idealism and embracing pragmatism.

One example used was of speed limits on highways. Should states raise the speed limits on virtually every highway, simply because everyone is already exceeding the existing speed limits? That could potentially lead to people driving even faster, as well as an increase in accidents.

The second example had to do with drug laws. In The Netherlands consumption and possession of small quantities of the drug are not offenses. Decriminalizing the use of the drug transformed The Netherlands and particularly Amsterdam in a drug tourism destination. Basically, the Netherlands accepted that it can’t be a drug-free society. It chose to pave the cow-path for the consumption of marijuana and to focus the law-enforcement’s resources towards tackling the trafficking and use of more dangerous drugs. The outcome was a decrease in crime related to drug trafficking.

The author concludes by stating that in the end, ideal situations might very well be utopic. Paving cow-paths can be a solution to minimizing undesired behavior and freeing up resources that can be directed to more serious issues.

My take is that there are times when it is OK to use the cow path theory of design. But from my perspective, a good designer should already know where those cow paths should be, and incorporate them into the design from the start. But the designer should also have some knowledge about traffic flow and landscape design that the average person does not possess, and use that knowledge appropriately. You shouldn’t just let something design itself willy-nilly.

The other area where the concept of cow path design is often discussed is with software design and corporate reorganizations.

Many firms just find it easier to layer new technology on top of the old way of doing things, without thinking about whether the old way is still the best way.

Paving over an existing cow path is the easy way out, but not always the best way.

Not paving over a cow path takes a commitment to a different way of doing things. It also requires educating those affected by the change as to the benefits associated with the new design.

And by the way, do we really want to be comparing people to cows?

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