The Image of the City

The Image of the City

Fifty years after the publication of Kevin Lynch’s seminal book, his vocabulary and human-centered approach are still shaping urban design and wayfinding.

In my junior year in college, I took a correspondence course in urban geography from Penn State. As I read the textbook in the basement boiler room of an old elementary school (my summer job cleaning and fixing boilers was actually ideal for taking a correspondence course), I discovered an author who would forever change my perceptions about urban planning and design.

Kevin Lynch was not a planner or designer. He was not a visionary like Edmund Bacon or a contrarian like Jane Jacobs. He proposed few solutions to the calamity that was urban planning and redevelopment in American cities in the 1950s. But his writings may have done more to shape urban design, planning, and urban wayfinding than any other thinker of that era.

During the 1950s, Lynch set out in modern American cities redesigned by highways, enormous public housing projects, and grand new commercial and institutional centers inspired by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier to see how these new urban features affected the average citygoer. Using two basic research methodologies—the cognitive map (i.e., a person’s ability to draw a map from memory) and experiential analysis (documenting how people navigate cities)—Lynch tried to determine how people viewed, perceived, and navigated cities.

His conclusions resulted in two assertions. The first was that most urban dwellers utilize nearly the same urban vocabulary when creating a mental map of their city. This vocabulary consists of nodes (centers of congregation), landmarks (visual anchors), districts (distinct urban places), edges (the physical barriers between districts), and paths (streets and other transit routes). While extremely simple, this vocabulary has become standard for urban planners, designers, and later, the tourism industry. When urban wayfinding and mapping systems began to be developed in major cities, Lynch’s ideas found their clearest uses, both in theory and in practice. Read any book on wayfinding over the last 10 years and you’ll see his combination of elements (with the addition of gateways) employed as part of the navigation process. Tourist maps found in any major city employ the elemental structure of Lynch’s maps, which are so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember what existed before.

Lynch’s second major assertion was that the modern city was growing increasingly detached from the citydweller, dramatically impacting visitors’ sense of place. His analysis in Jersey City showed that its residents had no comprehension of the districts outside their home district; essentially, the city was creating villages with no connection to each other. His analysis of Boston showed that the central highway artery cutting through the city completely severed residents’ understanding of the city as a complete form. In Los Angeles, he discovered dead zones where residents had forgotten that specific urban parks and other destinations existed. Their view of the city had become a highway map. 

Lynch’s conclusions had a profound impact on city officials. When city tourism groups sprang up in the 1970s, their first priority was to redefine the city by highlighting neighborhoods through their architecture, culture, major landmarks, and streets. This was followed in the 1980s by large urban projects with the goal of knitting the city together again. Boston began burying its central artery and reuniting sections of the city, while Jersey City developed wayfinding and identity programs. These efforts created an urban design renaissance that continues today in cities around the country.

Lynch’s final and greatest influence was the understanding that cognitive science was a research field that could be applied to design and planning projects. The idea that the study of human behavior can influence design, commonplace today, was nearly unheard of in the 1940s and 1950s. In those days, urban theory was shaped by revolutionary designers and utopian visions decoupled from human behavior. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City of wide highways and malls was matched by the public buildings on grand lawns developed by international school visionaries like Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. These visions were based on the idea that the environment could change human behavior instead of the other way around.  Today most theory is built around the opposite approach: that evidenced-based design should complement human behavior.

After 50 years it’s exciting to see the impact of a single book, theory, or design on the way we look at cities. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower idea found direct expression in the Burj tower in Dubai after 50 years. Jane Jacobs’ vision of a city where buildings could contain a series of flexible functions became reality in the mixed-use revolution of the last 10 years. And Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City shaped the way we perceive and navigate modern cities.

--By Craig Berger, segdDESIGN No. 26, 2009

Editor's note: Craig Berger is SEGD’s former director of education and professional development. 

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