• Urban Cosmography

The image of the city, by Kevin Lynch

Space creates behavior

Our first paper guest of the review section on Urban Cosmography is The image of the city, by Kevin Lynch. Published in 1960, a modern city classic, this middle-aged book gets relevant and inspirational by the years.

Kevin Andrew Lynch (1918-1984) was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, an urban planner and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent all his career. In a moment of growing urbanization in the western world, particularly the USA, of flourishing infrastructures, industries, metropolis, progress and production, Kevin Lynch was able to read the complexity of cities and to anticipate that spaces create behaviors. This is what makes The image of the city a precious book for our contemporary lives.

The form of the city must invite its viewers to explore the world.

Every urban environment is seen, remembered and experienced, not in a univocal way, not in a single moment. Cities stage diversity and simultaneous needs. They are a continuous result of layering, in space and time. This mutability is the reason why the way a city is perceived and understood by people is the key to understand what kind of experiences can happen, and how to best facilitate them through design. The need of recognizing and give a mental structure to what surrounds us has its roots deep in the past of brain evolution: what we see plays both a practical and an emotional role.

The book discusses how the visual image of a city is embedded with its meaning, made of physical elements - constructions, nature, road networks - cultural values, and fundamental rights - freedom, justice, control, dignity, creativity. It’s addressed to the American cities of the 60s, drawing a methodology that aims to come at help for future urban designs. The reason behind The image of the city though was not pursuing any definitive design solution, but rather looking for methods and ideas that are, even now, applicable to many other contexts.

Environmental images are the result of a two-way process between the observer and his environment. [...] The image itself is being tested against the filtered perceptual input in a constant interacting process. Thus the image of a given reality may vary significantly between different observers.

Lynch argues that the image of an urban environment is made out of three connected characteristics: identity, structure, and meaning. To be distinguished and identified, any object in space must have some unique attributes. It must have a spatial connection with the observer and its context. And, finally, it must mean something to the observer, practically or emotionally. To assess the role of the environmental images on our lives and behaviors, these characteristics have been tested on three case studies: the city of Boston, New Jersey, and Los Angeles. The assumption was that such an analysis should have been incorporated into the urban design profession, widening its traditional tools to include site visits, direct surveys, interviews, sketching with locals, and - for the first time -  mental maps.

Do you have any particular emotional feelings about various parts of your trip? How long would it take you? Are there parts of the trip where you feel uncertain of your location?

Without making spoilers, it turns out that one city had a few distinctive elements (identity) and the identification of its parts was, therefore, relying on minor details such the location of urban voids, shop signs or street names; one city was perceived as the aggregation of very distinctive neighborhoods that, however, were lacking connection (structure) among them; one city was difficult to grasp (meaning) at the human scale because its image was largely depending on a fast road driving perspective. In the last chapters, the findings of this methodology are put together in order to explicit the role of the shape of the city in easing or worsening a certain understanding of the environment, and therefore possible behaviors within that environment.

Lynch suggests that five physical elements - paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks - and their combination can inform on how people perceive the city and should be taken into account during the design phase. Citizens rely on paths as long as they have a knowledge of a certain area of the city, and especially usual paths (home-work) play a great influence in time on the mind of the observer; Edges contribute to the orientation, but can also to break up the permeability of the city fabric, when they have a continuity in shape and are uncrossable (water bodies or fast car lanes); Districts are an easy reference to describe a city and generalize its perception; Nodes are strategic spots where people are able to perceive different elements more clearly and can easily remember the surroundings (a square at a city scale, or a city itself at a regional scale); Landmarks are unique references within the background of a city that help the orientation to occasional visitors (a high dome, the top of a skyscraper). The more these five elements are serving different purposes, they are visible at different scales, they are related to culture and tradition, the higher is the overall quality of the image of the city.

If a tall building is unmistakable in the city-wide panorama yet unrecognizable from its base, then a chance has been lost to pin together the images at two different levels of organization.

In 2019, it might be taken for granted the importance of community consultation and the way of approaching any design by performing analysis on different levels. Architects and Urban designers are all familiar with reading a site by studying its accessibility, proximity, boundaries, centers, flows of exchange, etc. But for the time The image of the city was published, it represented a prime and experimental attempt to achieve more complex cartographies, to connect the form of the city with the “invisible landscapes” of its users, and to define criteria for making urban environments more livable and welcoming.

Lynch’s contribution was essential for many of the current research fields in spatial design, to name some: the application of neuroscience to architectural design to test the perception of space; the participatory design processes; the relation between urban morphology and discrimination; the emotional geographies.

The form must be somewhat noncommittal, plastic to the purposes and perceptions of its citizens.

We can argue that to the classic dichotomies form-follows-function vs function-follows-form, Kevin Lynch would opt for a third way: form allows functions, highlighting the importance of guaranteeing a degree of change in time. The shape of the city (form) and the uses it serves (function) will both evolve in time. In a moment of rigid city plannings and zonings, often forgetting of the human scale, to look at urban design as open-ended processes was an uncommon, wise intuition. New meanings and developments are always possible for a city and it’s paramount to allow them to be expressed. Urban design must align with variable needs and designers must take into account that the interrelations among different elements of an urban environment are always subjected to a dynamic perception. With that in mind, Lynch remarks on the importance of keeping the shape of the city visible as a whole. The vividness and the coherence of the environmental image is a crucial condition for the enjoyment and use of the city. A highly readable city invites higher attention and participation.

The images of the city reflect the present, but also create a memory. A memory of shared symbols, experience and ties. Cities are the habitat of many groups and civic cohesion passes through the image of the city, as Lynch describes it. Through the understanding of both individual and group images, of their interrelations and, ultimately, of its citizens, we have a better chance to create satisfying urban environments.

training the observer, teaching him to look at his city, [...] classes could be held in the schools and universities, the city could be made an animated museum of our society and its hopes.

#KevinLynch #modernclassic #nonfiction

All images in this article are taken from the book.


The image of the city, Kevin Lynch 1960

You can find the book here

Italian edition by Marsilio Editore


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