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Detroit’s lines of desire: Footpaths and vacant land in the Motor City

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Full Publication Date
September, 2019

Informal footpaths known as desire lines crisscross the city of Detroit and are visible from space. Despite their prevalence, especially in postindustrial cities, no comprehensive study of desire lines exists for any urban area. How extensive are these lines, how do people use them, and how are they changing over time? What is their potential to reinvigorate the fabric of neighborhoods and communities? We conducted a spatiotemporal analysis of desire lines in Detroit by combining remote sensing and spatial analysis with physical audits and interviews. Our results show that Detroit has more than 5680 of these footpaths, totaling more than 150 miles (>240 km). Transportation planners may value desire lines for their efficiency, reducing travel time and distance. Urban theorists and community activists, however, view desire lines as a form of resistance and reclamation of space for a public poorly served by urban institutions. The results of our mixed-methods approach demonstrate how these two perspectives can co-exist. Desire lines are creative attempts to expand urban possibilities, enhance efficiency, and reaffirm agency in increasingly regulated cities. Desire lines in Detroit, however, are rapidly disappearing. From 2010 to 2016, the Lower Eastside region of the city witnessed a 70 percent reduction in the total length of these lines. Our analysis shows that this correlates with changes in land ownership, management practices, and population dynamics. The loss of desire lines exposes the limits of informal practices and indicates the need for connections to broader relationships of power and governance. Creative engagements with the state can formalize lines and help residents realize their rights to the city.

Research Areas
Urban Systems and Built Environment
Publication Type
Journal Article
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Full Citation

Foster, Alec, and Joshua P. Newell. (2019) “Detroit’s lines of desire: Footpaths and vacant land in the Motor City.” Landscape and Urban Planning 189: 260-273.