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  • Aba Amihyia

Trampling Tradition: How Elephant Paths Are Secretly Co-designing Your Neighbourhood....

Ever wondered why so many of us always cut across that grassy patch instead of using the pavement? It turns out, elephants have the answer…

Elephant Paths, Cow Paths or even Beast Trails (to those who aren’t so keen on elephants or cows) - these terms refer to the desired lines or informal trails that people create in public spaces through their everyday movements, often diverging from the paved walkways provided by urban planners.

Before I stepped into the world of Social Infrastructure and Co-Design, I always felt like a rebel when I opted for the  ‘road-more-travelled’, down the ‘Social Path’ that had formed, ignoring the perfectly paved concrete strip intended for me. This ‘social path’ was a reflection of a community’s free will & common sense, a 'less-than-subtle' nod to the planners suggesting that a better understanding of the pedestrians and community they are designing for could have been beneficial.

Taking pride in navigating my way across a public space in a manner that suited me - I asked myself “Why should I take the long way around?  My act of rebellion wasn’t random or unique, inspecting the imperfect & patchy trail ahead, I noted that countless people before me have taken this path too, making me think deeper into the design or lack of Co-design within public spaces and housing developments - why aren’t residents/communities, their behaviours and requirements taken into consideration when an area is being developed?

Like a herd of elephants, we gravitate towards the simplest and quickest way to get from Point A to B.  A well-known example of when ‘Elephant Paths’ have been embraced into design is the 1st Disney World theme park. Disney didn’t have any paved paths when it first opened, unwittingly the visitors designed an integral part of the theme park as Walt let them roam around freely. Those paths were later paved and the public’s contribution was cemented into history.

An extreme example of an Elephant Path is the story of Dashrath Manjhi - affectionately known as ‘The man who moved a mountain’ or  ‘Mountain Man of India’ who, over 22 years carved a road through a mountain to shorten the distance from his village to the nearest hospital from 70km to 1km in the name of love.


So what do these Social Paths tell us about our environment and its design? They serve as a testament to the instinctive human desire for convenience and efficiency and offer valuable insights into how people interact with their surroundings - one could see it as unsolicited, non-verbal feedback for planners and developers. This natural, human behaviour has contributed towards a rethinking of urban planning and public space design, leading to the concept of Co-design, where communities are actively involved in shaping their environments.

By involving the local community in design processes, residents are able to contribute their perspectives, preferences, and needs. This collaborative approach acknowledges the invaluable understanding that residents possess about their own neighbourhoods, giving them a voice and fostering a sense of ownership and pride in their public spaces.

Co-Design: Integrating Community Input

At Neighbourly Lab, Co-design is at the heart of what we do; with a dedicated mission to increase social connection, our focus is on engaging communities, modifying environments, and providing tools to enable more social connectedness to occur. We’re actively collaborating with housing developers to ensure that new developments are not just structures, but vibrant communities where residents can connect and thrive.

Within our Kickstarting Social Infrastructure Programme, we want to work with councils and developers  to create spaces that truly serve the community.

Rather than telling people how to get around, Neighbourly Lab and its use of Co-design asks, "How do you fancy getting around?" By involving those who actually use these paths everyday, (when they take their kids to school or hurry for the bus to work) we can create developments, spaces & places that don't just look good, but feel right too.

We view Co-design as an ongoing, iterative process that responds to the changing needs and rhythms of a local community, building relationships and sustaining engagement with residents by immersing ourselves in their local areas by going to people in their places (e.g. cafes, warm hubs, pubs etc).

The outcome of one example of our Co-design collaborations can be seen along Glasgow’s mural trail. As part of our Essential Mix project, funded by the National Lottery Communities Fund, we asked young people in Glasgow what they wanted in their community that was missing. They noted a lack of art and culture and expressed a desire for four community murals to celebrate the area’s 70th birthday.

Hip Hop Marionettes at John Street, Neighbourly Lab’s Community Development Practitioner Iain Corbett w/ Peter Divers (G15 Youth Project) and David Bowie's album cover.

Why is our unique approach so important?

As specialists in deep-listening & participatory research, our collaborations with housing developers and councils embody a commitment to community-centred design. By engaging with local residents and understanding their needs, preferences, and behavioural patterns, we can facilitate the creation of spaces that align with the genuine requirements of the community. This approach transcends the conventional model of top-down planning, fostering a sense of belonging and social cohesion within the developments. Looking at the bigger picture, we understand that when the built environment doesn’t cater for social connection, residents are at risk of isolation, leading to missed access to vital services and a lack of belonging to their local place.  

Our engagement with communities is driven by mixed-methods approaches that combine exploring place based data with deep listening and participatory approaches with textured qualitative insights in order to cultivate high quality community engagement. 

A one size fits all approach simply won’t do, our approach must be bespoke and tailored to the demographics and needs of a particular place. 


By facilitating the integration of community insights and preferences into public space design we, as a collective, can develop spaces that reflect the actual patterns of human behaviour, just like how the organic creation of elephant paths does. As a result of Co-design, public spaces within developments will be aesthetically pleasing and highly functional, resonating with the day-to-day activities and movements of the residents.

 So the next time you find yourself on a path less paved, tip your hat to the quiet revolution that’s already taken place underneath your feet and remember, when it comes to design, nature (with a little nudge from Neighbourly Lab) knows best.

Interested in collaborating with us or would like further info on Neighbourly Lab’s Co-design projects? Email 

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