I had a conversation recently with a design researcher about the concept of desire lines. These are the paths that emerge from human or animal footfall. In an urban setting, they are frequently a shortcut, or an indicator that something is missing, like a viable sidewalk. You often see them in a park or on the shoulder of a road. Desire lines were frequently studied and used to draft transit routes in emerging cities and that practice exists today. In Ottowa, they have been analyzing existing travel patterns by commuters to plan for future growth.
"An important step in developing a future travel network is to look at trends in trip making and the major travel desire lines based on the future (year 2031) demographic patterns, including projected increases in employment and population. A desire line represents the amount of travel between two areas."
In nature, they can create an understanding of safe paths and social behavior, as in this study conducted in 2004 in Boulder, Colorado. In this case, the author referred to them as "social trails" and he mapped the variant paths that were emerging in the mountains surrounding town, particularly along rock climbing routes. There was a debate, apparently, about which trails should be formally designed and maintained by the city for visitors.
Too often design is an imposition of a pattern without enough care as to how people actually operate. I like the idea of seeing the patterns that emerge outside the official structure of planning. I really like the idea that how we honestly function in a space could help define how that space is designed.