Important In the World of Urban Planning
The Image of the City was published in 1960 and written by Kevin Lynch. Kevin Lynch was an urban planner and author. Lynch studied and obtained a Bachelor of City Planning from MIT, where he continued to have a long career as a faculty member of the MIT School of Architecture and Urban Planning. (MITLibraries, 2019.) Lynch was one of the first to dive into the idea of imageability, mental maps, and how people living in cities engage with their city environment. At the time of its publication, he was a pioneer of sorts. Lynch mentions in his preface that while the detailed development was his own, he could not have done it without the conversations he had with professor Gygorgy Kepes while at MIT. The Image of the City was the first book he wrote at MIT, but Lynch went on to write many others.
The book itself dives into legibility and imageability by looking specifically at three cities. Lynch then moved into the city image and its five elements, which he spells out for the reader. These five elements are a core piece of Lynch’s design and he uses them in correlation with his process of designing. The final section of The Image of the City, called Appendices, contains a sort of wrap up of Lynch’s process. He writes about types of reference systems, disadvantages of imageability, the use of his methods for designing, ideas for future research, and a couple of examples of analysis. The Image of the City is considered a classic in the city planning community and is still quite relevant today. One reviewer even quoted: “As a toolkit for describing cities, Lynch’s elements are second-to-none. A general understanding among common people would certainly increase their ability to formulate their thinking about the city as an entity and the impact it has on their lives.” (
Lynch writes about cities as being legible. In the same way that people read books by looking at the words, people can read cities by looking at the cityscape, specific landmarks, and certain pathways. Cities are not just buildings to their inhabitants. The same way that people remember words they have read and perceive them in their own way, people read cities in their own ways and remember them as their own mental map. Mental maps are subjective, but Lynch breaks the concept down into elements to better understand them and how to relate to the inhabitants of a city. Lynch focuses heavily on the physical aspects of the environment. He defines imageability as, “that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer.” City planners are planning for the people, not themselves; so, understanding how people perceive the environment that they live in is very important in the world of urban planning.
While Lynch was from Chicago, his book The Image of The City focuses on three other cities: Los Angeles, Boston, and Jersey City. Lynch ran an analysis on these three cities, in which he observed two main things. First, a trained observer would walk on foot through the city; making notes along the way of certain elements, their visibility, and anything remarkable about the city, whether negative or positive. Second, a very detailed interview was given to 15 – 30 inhabitants from each city. The inhabitants ranged from long-time residents to people simply employed in the area. They were asked questions specifically to evoke their own mental map of the city. All three cities inhabitants had different lifestyles and different views of the city they lived in.
Lynch included the analyses of these cities to show the different ways people orient themselves in different cities. All of these cities were laid out completely differently and had certain key visual points that the residents recognized in their mental maps. To truly read and understand the city, one would need to view it as an inhabitant would. The inhabitants typically have a mental map that they are accustomed to and comfortable in. Lynch notes that people living in a large city rarely feel lost in the modern age. He references way-finding devices, such as: maps, street signs, bus placards, and route signs. This was especially interesting to me as a reader because in the true modern age that we are living in now, we have access to so much mapping technology that people rarely feel truly lost.
Most people own phones with GPS technology that can tell them turn for turn where to go whether by driving or walking. Lynch wrote this book nearly sixty years ago and while technology has advanced, his statements are still true. Lynch saw the direction technology was heading and even made a very accurate prediction regarding mapping technology! While referencing some new, at the time, technology being used in New York, Lynch wrote that, “While such devices are extremely useful for providing condensed data on interconnections, they are also precarious, since orientation fails if the device is lost, and the device itself must constantly be referred and fitted to reality.” This sounds awfully familiar in comparison with today’s convenient GPS technology on modern cellphones and devices, doesn’t it?
Lynch noted that mental maps consist of five different, but overlapping, elements. With a firm grasp on the five elements creating a mental map of an area, a city inhabitant could feel more at ease. A good mental map can lessen feelings of anxiety that can arise from being in a big city. Paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks are the elements he went on to describe. Lynch noted that paths were extremely important, as they pertain to mobility in an urban environment. Paths could be anything used to get one place to another; from a roadway for vehicles, a sidewalk, or even a shortcut through some buildings. Edges are the boundaries between two phases, such as shores, railroads, or walls. Districts are medium to large sections of a city that a person can mentally “enter”, such as a downtown area! Nodes are like focus points in districts that can serve as a crossing or junction.
Finally, landmarks are primarily viewed as an external feature that can be used to recognize an area or signal direction. (Lynch, 1960.) To give examples of these elements specifically from my small mental map of Auburn, I would start with naming Magnolia Avenue as a path. An edge for me would be where the railroad tracks run through, and almost separate, Auburn from Opelika. The “downtown” area of Auburn would be considered a district, while an example of a node would be the large intersection in front of Toomers Corner where many people cross the road. Finally, a landmark that I’m familiar with would be the Seal in front of Langdon Hall. While everyone’s would be different, my mental map of Auburn is concentrated to a smaller area because it is what I’m most familiar with!
Lynch’s five elements are a great way to describe a city and break it down in a simple observable form. However, taken at face value, it can be too simplified. In my opinion, this is the only weakness with Lynch’s book. Designing a city is an extremely complex process and while viewing it from an inhabitant’s standpoint and observing its legibility are important, a complex city comes with complex problems and, occasionally, complex solutions. This book itself is not meant to see the whole picture, but readers need to keep in mind that while it is a great learning tool, it definitely needs to be paired with more information.
I think this book is still very relevant in terms of identifying what a mental map is and how it is useful. However, it makes me wonder if people’s mental maps have improved or lessened over the years. I think less and less people actually have a good mental map of the areas they live in today. Technology has made it so easy for people to just plug in their desired location and follow a map, that they do less exploring on their own and just know specific locations. While I personally know many specific locations and landmarks in Auburn, if I was asked to draw a draft of the mental map I currently possess I would have many gaps that I am unfamiliar with. Areas that I drive through every day would be a struggle to pin point.
However, oppositely, there are likely people who use these technologies and are even more able to draw a mental map than they would have been. Perhaps being able to say exactly how many miles and turns we are away from the nearest Taco Bell has made us more knowledgeable of our area and more able to reiterate that when asked to. I think it boils down to how the individual perceives their area and what elements they actually take note of in their head. Overall, this book has had a large impact on the planning community. I believe Lynch’s work would be beneficial for anyone with an interest in city planning to read. This book could even serve as a starting point for someone completely new to the idea of urban planning!
While it was written nearly sixty years ago, his breakdown of mental maps can still be applied to any city and its inhabitants. It’s a good place to start and be reminded of why cities need to be planned. They need to be functional and accessible to the people living within it! Towards the end of The Image of the City, Lynch mentions the importance of the observer once more. He notes that planners need to take inhabitants into account as what they themselves are used to could be specific to their local culture. “He can be a prisoner of a regional way of thought or, particularly America, of that of his own class.
If cities are to be used by many groups of people, then it is important to understand how the different major groups tend to their surroundings.” (Lynch, 1960, p. 156) I think this is especially important to take note of. Designers need public input to successfully plan for the cities current and potential use. Lynch’s elements theory unlocks a good starting point for planners to obtain insight into what makes a city what it is; the lives existing in it. As I read this book I found that nothing around me had changed, but my outlook did. The simple idea of reading a city as more than just buildings, but instead seeing paths and recognizing elements around me has changed how I view urban planning.