Book Review- About the book: Image Of City by Kevin A. Lynch

The Author explains how people orient themselves by the means of mental maps especially in Urban areas. He explained this theory by comparing three cities in America namely Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles. He explained about the concept of Imageability (legibility and visibility, meaning the extent to which the cityscape can be ‘read’ and understood) how people who move through the city engage in way-finding. How a person is able to recognize and organize urban elements like a bus-stop, a particular restaurant, a building etc. into an easily understandable and recognizable pattern in their mind. “In the process of way-finding, the strategic link is the environmental image, the generalized mental picture of the exterior physical world that is held by an individual. This image is the product both of immediate sensation and of the memory of past experience, and it is used to interpret information and to guide action”.

Related Article: Influence on Urban Planning by Kevin A. Lynch, Edward Soja’s Theories of Urban Space

The Five Elements

The author proposes that there are five elements in these mental maps namely:

  • paths: routes along which people move throughout the city
  • edges: boundaries and breaks in continuity
  • districts: areas characterized by common characteristics
  • nodes: strategic focus points for orientation like squares and junctions
  • landmarks: external points of orientation, usually an easily identifiable physical object in the urban landscape.

The key elements are then brought together in a discussion of Element Interrelations, The Shifting Image, and Image Quality in a city.  “City Form” provides tools for Designing the Paths, Design of Other Elements, Form Qualities, The Sense of the Whole, Metropolitan Forms and The Process of Design.

5 elements

The Mental Maps

He explains how a legible mental map gives people an important sense of emotional security, it is the framework for communication and conceptual organization, and heightens the depth and intensity of everyday human experience. He proposes that an environmental image has three components: identity (the recognition of urban elements as separate entities), structure (the relation of urban elements to other objects and to the observer), and meaning (its practical and emotional value to the observer). It is important that these urban elements are not hermetically designed into precise and final detail but present an open-ended order.

He suggests that urban inhabitants should be able to actively form their own stories and create new activities. He presents his work as an agenda for urban designers. They should design the city in such a way that it gives room for three related ‘movements’: mapping, learning, shaping. First, people should be able to acquire a clear mental map of their urban environment. Second, people should be able to learn how to navigate in this environment by training. Third, people must be able to operate and act upon their environment.

The book is a valuable source for urban planners to understand how people perceive, inhabit and move around in the urban landscape. It shows that urban space is not only composed of its physical characteristics but equally by representations in mental images and how space is not just ‘out there’ as a mathematical entity or a priori category but always socially produced.

Related Article: Jane Jacob’s vision for cities

A Different Perspective

He explains about elements of the city that are publicly visible to all people. But what happens when people increasingly rely on private and idiosyncratic points of orientation through their portable devices? Locative media add invisible layers of social meanings to the city that are only visible through a different interface (the mobile screen), accessible to others elsewhere, although very often only to those who are members of that service or community. What does this mean for notions of general legibility, the public and private character of mental images, and social inclusion/exclusion? He explains how the mental image would become complicated due to our current tendency to saturate urban landscape with information, in this case the overall legibility would drastically decrease as it will be filled with numerous elements.  To what extend would mobile and locative devices come to act as filters for coping with the torrent of information, or actually become part of the problem itself?

Another issue that he explains is the eternal question of serendipity, discussed in relation to mobile media and location-based services. Are locative services undermining the potential for exploration and unexpected encounters with new places and people, when our movements are guided and goal-oriented? He feels that disorientation is the cause of fear and anxiety, and already claims that “to become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city” (p. 4). Yet under controlled circumstances he acknowledges that “there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment” (p. 5). Is our capacity for orientation and way-finding something we learn (and thus can unlearn as well when we externalize this to our GPS navigation devices? or is it innate to people as well as other animals? he says “it now seems unlikely that there is any mystic “instinct” of way-finding” (p. 3), but that seems to be countered by recent biological evidence about for example bird migrations.

Critical Review

The critical review of the book is he primarily emphasizes the role of the visual sense. He says how people find their way in the city by explaining on vision. Other senses of human body such as hearing and even smelling are lacking in his work. As the media did not play such a big role in the urban context at the time of writing of this book (1960) there was no analysis of the urban experience is the role of media in general, but still this misses the point that cities from their inception have been inscribed by signs and media.

“The Image of the City” is a work to ponder upon, especially for Urban Planners. The author’s division of mapping/learning/shaping can well be applied as important questions that can be tested for each locative media project. To what extent do locative media accurately or insightfully map our experience of environment? To what extent do locative media teach us to see and experience our environment? To what extent do locative media enable us to shape and modify our environment?

Author Bio:

Vydadi Siri
Member of NOSPlan
School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada

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