In honour of winter, I would like to re-post an essay I wrote in 2009 for Spacing Montreal while I was going to McGill University for Urban Geography. It was a very snowy winter that year. Kind of like this one, in Toronto.

Are there any natural paths along your walks this winter?

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When walking through Montreal, we cannot deny the usefulness of the shortcut. Shortcuts that are used a lot demonstrate  the lovely chaos that occurs when a side walk doesn’t quite meet our pedestrian needs.

Most pedestrians share one goal: to get between two points in the city as fast as possible. Ideally, urban planners would design paths that meet our needs perfectly, with major routes that bring the maximum number of people to the places they want to go.

Well, the utopian city in a planner’s mind does not exist.  We all have different orientations toward the city. We all have different ideas what we need to do and where to go, with different preferences for transportation. Ideally, a city is flexible enough to accommodate that.

Though planners couldn’t possibly provide sidewalks wherever you would want to walk, the city makes itself available for some crafty self landscape design. A simple example is the phenomenon of natural paths.

The most common example of natural paths are the ones that form at many street corners. Cutting every corner makes a walk much faster. So, inevitably, corner sidewalks are often usurped by a pythagorean line from A to B.

Living in a winter-city gives Montrealers a unique perspective on the natural path phenomenon. Every winter in Park Jeanne-Mance, the city ploughs paths that trace the perimeter of the park, the slowest route for someone who wants to walk across.

Having to walk through the park daily, I’ve found that shortcuts through the snow appear every winter in the same place. A path that initially manifests as a narrow track of boot prints, meandering past trees and picnic tables, slowly evolves to become wide and navigable.

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We can read these indexes of movement as evidence of Montreal’s collective unconscious. The natural path through the snow also shows me that ultimately, I rely on the actions of others in urban space. It’s angle shortens the walk for the most number of people, and is a beautiful instance where natural human behaviour manifests in collective rationality and the logic of a city can be easily read.

Another example can be found on Ave des Pins, just west of du Parc. When the city redesigned the intersection to fit a more human scale, a large fence was built separating the north and south sides of Pins in order to prevent pedestrians from jay-walking through the fast-moving traffic. Despite these efforts, a path has formed directly through the seemingly indestructible steel fence. We can again appreciate the organic and collective nature of our negotiation of Montreal’s urban space and realize that ultimately, our city is formed by its citizens: our actions, our behaviours and our habits.

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