Cow paths, illicit trails, desire paths, and other urban trails

March 15, 2019



“We say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors.”


Boston, one of the earliest cities in British North America, was founded in 1630 on the Shawmut Peninsula that jutted out into what was named Boston Harbor. The city prospered, grew (at first by ‘making land’ along the shores), and today stands as the capitol of Massachusetts, one of America’s busiest ports, numerous world-renowned universities, and . . .  a seemingly incomprehensible network of narrow and crooked roads in the heart of the modern city. It has long been said that Bostonians essentially just paved over cow paths when they needed roads.


In many cases, regular use by pedestrians resulted in designs of pathways that did not always conform with the pathways preferred by urban planners. These “illicit trails” – also known as “desire paths” – can be found throughout some of the world’s best designed cities.  Today, getting around in older, historic cities may be difficult by car, but by foot it may be easy to design your own historic tour that features old houses, churches, cemeteries, and other important historic sites. Historical and tourism organizations have taken things further by establishing well-designed, and well-marked, urban heritage trails to make it easier for visitors. This article by the National Trust for Historic Preservation highlights 12 historic urban trails in the United States. (The 2014 photos above shows the Leith Walkway in Edinburgh leading from Dean Village to Stockbridge, Scotland and is shared here by the IHN Network).



Take a Hike on These 12 Historic Urban Trails

By Lauren Walser

Preservation Magazine

March 2019


Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy urban planners

By Ellie Violet Bramley

The Guardian

October 5, 2018


One Last Question: Are Boston’s Streets Really Paved Over Cow Paths?

By Matthew Reed Baker

March 6, 2018

Boston Magazine

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