Elephant Paths: Paving the Way for a Human-Centered Public Space at Michigan State University

Public space designers on the new campus of Michigan State University intentionally allowed spontaneous elephant paths to emerge in order to create a pedestrian infrastructure that's much more logical and human-centered.

Elephant path
An elephant path (also known as desire path, game trail, social trail and herd path, among others) is an informal path that pedestrians prefer to take from one location to another, rather than using a pavement or other official route. Photo Dan Keck

Design by Use

The public space of Michigan State University’s renovated campus in East Lansing initially consisted only of grass. Footpaths were missing. This was a conscious choice by the designers. Students walked on the grass from building to building, naturally choosing the shortest and most logical route. This created countless elephant paths criss-crossing the campus. A year later, this spontaneous pedestrian infrastructure was asphalted and formalised.

There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city. People make it, and it is to them (…) that we must adjust our plans”

Jane Jacobs
Elephant paths on Michigan State University's campus
The network of elephant paths on the campus of Michigan State University. Photo Maxar Technologies, USGS

A More Logical Public Space

Anyone who now sees an aerial photograph of the university campus will see a beautiful network of playful paths that do more justice to users’ needs than the average rectilinear pavement. Elephant paths all too often illustrate the tension between design and use of public space. By putting users in the designers’ chair and using their use of public space as a starting point, the designers succeeded in creating a much more human place.