Snowfall can be beautiful and informative from 80 meters altitude. With snow on the ground, we can see how people travel through their environment, shaping it along the way.

View the whole scan area (13 MB, hosted on box)

After a UMBC snowfall on March 5th, the EcoSynth octocopter took flight to reveal the most popular shortcuts crisscrossing campus. From these images, we can learn how paths arise from and change the campus environment.

Pedestrians and bicyclists tend to choose the most efficient route across a landscape. When this route doesn’t coincide with existing sidewalks, it creates a “desire path,” which can be visible after as few as 15 people travel along it. (1)

The bane of landscapers and campus planners alike, “goat paths” can compress the soil and lead to erosion if they’re traveled thoroughly. With a map like this, campus planners can design walkways that serve the needs of the campus community, and prevent erosion.

What can we learn from paths at UMBC

The clearest path connects Erickson Hall to the Commons. Since the constructed sidewalk is completely perpendicular to the direction of travel, no walkway goes even a little bit towards the destination. Many people took this social trail despite the drawbacks: snow, and the steep hill at the end of Erickson Field.

Desire paths at UMBC seem to form tight lines when the distance is short, and diffuse when the distance is long. Look at the tight from the Commons’ left side to the sidewalk towards Erickson, compared to the diffuse path from Chesapeake Hall, crossing Erickson Field, to Academic Row. A tight path may be more likely to compress the soil.

When a constructed path travels partly in the same direction as the destination, people seem to diverge at different times. Pedestrians made at least six different paths from Susquehanna to Academic row, diverging from the sidewalk headed to the Library.

There are even lightly traveled routes visible on this image! A path from UMBC’s West Hill and Walker apartments crosses the snow in the upper left corner of the image by the water tower, continues down the service road to the library, and follows the chain link fence bordering the construction through the forested area, emerging from the trees by the Fine Arts building.  A path like this emerges solely as a result of the pond renovation, yet shows how fast students develop new ways of traversing the landscape.

Benefits and Limits

There are benefits to seeing a whole day of travel in one image.

“The results were rather striking! While footprints look rather chaotic when viewed from the ground, when viewed from the air they look like the palm of a hand,” said Stephen Gienow, the undergraduate working on the EcoSynth project who took this photo.

There are a few limits to using a snow study like this to track where people go. While the snow makes footpaths visible, it certainly affects how people travel the landscape -- fewer people are likely to stray from the sidewalks on a snowy day. Also fewer people may be walking outside in general.

The snow paths also don’t give any information about how many students traverse the constructed walkway, since the snow is shoveled away. A time-lapse video of the area of study might provide insight on that.

What else can an image like this show us?


View the whole scan area (13 MB, hosted on box)

1. Hampton, Bruce and David Cole (1988) "Soft Paths" p 27. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-8117-2234-1, via Wikipedia.


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