garden path flagstone curved

Three questions to help you create a well-designed pathway

Design School

Every pathway should get you from point A to point B. That’s the lowest bar. I think it’s not a path if it doesn’t! Really, the journey is what matters. You can tell when you’re on a well-designed pathway. It has a purpose. Its shape, layout and materials all support that purpose. We can create a pathway that becomes a journey by using simple, intentional design.

walkway concrete straight

Pathways direct you from your car to the front door. They also take you from the back door to the grill. Walkways lead you out into the garden. They might send you over to the compost bin. The walkway can be utilitarian, or it can create a story, have power, and feel purposeful. How do you make that happen?

When I design a walkway, I think about three questions:

  1. What is the pathway’s function?
  2. Who will be using it?
  3. How do I want people to feel?

Those three questions inform all the elements of the path. Here’s an example:

Walkway #1

walkway front door straight
  1. What is the function: getting from driveway to front door
  2. Who will be using it: visitors, most likely not homeowners – their guests. This is public.
  3. How do we want them to feel: welcomed, comfortable

Another pathway might have answers like this:

Walkway #2

garden path curved mulch
  1. What is the function: exploring multiple garden spaces
  2. Who will be using it: homeowners, their family and friends. This is private.
  3. How do we want them to feel: curious, intrigued, interested

Walkway #1 must be clear. The people using it may not know where they are going. They may be delivering items. For sure, this walkway gets lots of traffic. It is seen from the street. Walkway #2, however, is tucked away. It’s not public – it’s a private pathway. Invited guests use it, and they are meandering, not delivering packages.

Also, the owners will shovel snow off of Walkway #1. They’ll leave Walkway #2 to melt, however. The destination needs to be very clear for Walkway #1. We need to show people the front door and encourage them to go there. In contrast, the destination needs to be hidden for Walkway #2. We want people to explore, to take their time, and to relax.

Can you see the different the journey you’ll have on these two Point-A-to-Point-B spaces? You have all kinds of choices for the materials to use, the layout of the path, the width of the path, and how you handle elevation changes. To create a well-designed pathway, you should think about how these practical decisions answer those three basic questions.

For example, materials that are sturdy underfoot keep people moving quickly. Concrete, pavers, and stone all can handle a snow shovel. In contrast, pea gravel, mulch, and stepping stones slow you down and are unsteady. Neither is bad, but choosing which one depends on your answers to the three basic questions.

Walkway #1 wouldn’t likely be pea gravel, of course! This is the main entrance for the public into your home. But Walkway #2 could definitely be made out of something that moves a little under your feet. See how knowing the function, the users, and the feeling helps figure out materials? Walkway #2 (the one through the yard) can be made of mown grass. However, you’d never choose to have the path from your driveway to the front door made from grass.  Something sturdy under your feet that can handle a snow shovel is the best choice.

open grass path

The layout and width of a path also affect how we feel while we’re walking on it. In the image above, we see a spacious grassed path through a very public garden. In the image below, we see a narrow stepping stone path thorough a private space.

garden path flagstone curved

Wide paths are comfortable, while narrow paths are edgy and uncomfortable. Curves and sharp corners hide the destination, but straight shots give clear views of where you’re going. 

Think back to our two example pathways from the beginning. Would you choose a wide straight line for Walkway #2? Absolutely not!  It needs turns, curves and some tight spaces. We are meant to feel like explorers on Walkway #2.  But the first walkway – sure! An easy path to follow will get people comfortably to the front door without having to think.

These questions work no matter how big or small your yard is, or how many paths you have. So when you are working on pathways around your house, think beyond moving from Point A to Point B. Think about the journey.

walkway concrete paver arbor

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