Our latest blog post by Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).

Shortcuts are good, or so we assume. In planning they are celebrated with the name ‘desire paths’, and held up as a victory of user experience over planning. Having cut the corner on umpteen footpaths, I understand the joy.

Desire paths are celebrated as markers of spontaneity, or creativity, and even empowerment. An image much circulated via social media fetes desire paths as encouraging us to see design as better when it follows the path of least resistance.

I used to believe that unequivocally, until I noticed the kerb in the picture. Empowerment is yours if you can get over the kerb. Walk up or down the stairs. Navigate the cracks in the concrete or the uneven paving stones. Get your wheelchair through the mud. User experience is not universal design. It reflects what a lot of people can do, but not everyone.

When you plan a building, paths, or landscape design, accessibility is not just a must have, it is a desirable path. I have written before on our need to take a more positive view on universal design, seeing it as a benefit for everybody rather than as an obligation with penalties for noncompliance. I have not changed my mind. If anything, working on a major construction project in which outside spaces—the ‘public realm’—are included has strengthened it.

The aspiration is simple: to make it possible for all people to travel paths, enter buildings and move around classrooms with ease. That means removing stairs, moving earth, designing accessible entryways and providing at least one large classroom—over 300 seats—with a flat floor. It’s not user experience by majority, it is fair design for everyone.

Our inspiration for this is not new. The Griffins thought a lot about desire paths in their plans for Canberra. They didn’t just think about them as surfaces that we traverse by foot, bike or car. They also saw them as punctuated or enclosed by significant markers like buildings or towers. It was a smart idea to help people to find their way through space as well as over surfaces. It was about making navigation easier for everyone.

Most people know about the Canberra axis line that is bookended by the Australian War Memorial and Parliament House. We also have an axis line running through our campus, the fractures in which will be repaired in our construction project. Current and proposed elevation diagrams highlight the level changes which form barriers to cyclists, wheelchair and motorised scooter users alike. They need to be removed to make it possible for everyone to enjoy the straightest route through campus, to our libraries, shops, services, student hubs and places where students and staff meet. It will also mean that they can see more of the axis line that runs up to Black Mountain tower, helping people to see where they are and how far they are from their destination.

This means moving a fair bit of earth. Fortunately, our site has a gentle slope, so deep digging is not needed. It’s more that we have to scrape back the accreted results of single building additions over half a century, pulling out different floor levels, stairs and ramps only a wheelchair athlete could conquer. The flow on effect of that is needing to demolish a number of buildings in relatively quick succession.

That’s a challenging idea to confront because campus construction is normally one building at a time, one path at a time, or managed precinct by precinct, with groups ‘decanted’ to other buildings. If you need a universal design reset for a large site from the ground up, that’s not really possible without prolonging demolition or construction in ways that could mark the whole enrolment experience of a student.

So we are pressing the reset button, quickly. That’s inconvenient for quite a few people in the short term, but beneficial for everyone in future. That’s worth the trouble.

This blog’s shout out is for Julie Harrison and the ANU Access and Inclusion Team, and for my nephew Alex.