Exploring Downtown Chapel Hill’s Informal Pathways

In this report, authors Aaron Hursey and Melanie Morgan explore the often overlooked ways of getting from here to there. The pair identified and analyzed thirteen informal pathways between Hillsborough Road and Raleigh Road to the East and West, and between the UNC campus and Rosemary Street to the North and South for Professor William Rohe’s Urban Neighborhood Revitalization course. In a report prepared for the Town of Chapel Hill and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, the pair identified several advantages to the informal pathways including reduced travel time, economic benefits, and social engagement. Each pathway was evaluated based on several criteria. An assessment of current conditions and proposed changes were presented for each of the thirteen identified informal pathways. Funding mechanisms for proposed enhancements are also outlined in the report.

Morgan Hursey Pathways Image

Aside from the clear accessibility benefits offered by informal pathways, other significant benefits include the uniqueness and sense of place provided by the unstructured nature of back alleys and unanticipated access points. Each informal pathway is defined not by the strict grid of the car and transit oriented street, but by the natural flow of people moving from place to place, finding the most efficient way on foot. Using informal pathways is inherently different from walking on a sidewalk or a street, and the authors make careful suggestions that do not over-enhance or sterilize these places. Turning an informal pathway into a bright, clean, pedestrian promenade risks turning a unique place into a walkway that could be anywhere. The authors respect the impromptu nature of these pathways by recommending small improvements to wayfinding, lighting, maintenance, and overall accessibility and ease of access. Each of these interventions, they suggest, will enhance existing places without eroding the existing character of each informal pathway.

Without these informal pathways, Chapel Hill risks losing an important part of its character. As development intensifies in and around downtown Chapel Hill, it is a positive sign that the Town of Chapel Hill and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership are interested in preserving and enhancing the existing informal pathways that help give Chapel Hill its unique sense of place and mobility.  

Here is the full report, including all sorts of fun and dynamic visuals: Chapel Hill Informal Pathways Report.

Aaron Hursey is a 2015 graduate of the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC. His primary interests are environmental planning, urban revitalization, and the resiliency of urban environments. Aaron has a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia and spent time serving as a community outreach coordinator in Astoria, Queens. Aaron received a Georgia Chapter ASLA Merit Award and is certified as a LEED Green Associate through the U.S. Green Building Council. He currently works as a Planner for the City of Seattle.  

Melanie Morgan came to UNC with a Bachelor’s in public health and a desire to make it easier for people to walk and bike throughout cities. As questions swirled about a light rail system in the Chapel Hill area, she became interested in the impacts of new rail and transit-oriented development projects. Her master’s project on rail stations and demographic change was awarded the Terry Lathrop Award for Outstanding Work in Transportation Planning from DCRP. She is currently working as the Innovation Team Data Analyst for the City of Centennial, Colorado. Her team, funded by a 3-year, $1.5 million grant through Bloomberg Philanthropies, aims to embed innovation in local governments.