The Image of the City | Study Guide

Kevin Lynch

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Kevin Lynch | Biography


Early Life

Kevin A. Lynch was born on January 7, 1918. He grew up with two older brothers in northern Chicago, Illinois, in middle-class neighborhoods. He attended local Catholic schools for a few years before his mother sent him to Parker School. Parker is a progressive school that followed John Dewey's (1859–1952) teaching philosophy of learning by doing. Lynch enjoyed his education and met his future wife Anne Borders while attending Parker School. Lynch went to school during the Great Depression (1929–39) which was a period of severe economic depression in the United States. Parker School encouraged students to become involved in protests, charitable causes, and political activism and the experiences had a profound impact on Lynch. His education encouraged him to ask broad questions and consider how events and situations are connected.


Lynch attended Yale University in 1935 after high school and studied architecture. He was unhappy with the structured and conservative curriculum after enrolling in the liberal and progressive Parker School so he left Yale to study under famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959). Lynch valued Wright's knowledge and expertise but decided to enroll at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York in 1939 to study engineering. He left before graduating to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II (1939–45). He married his high school sweetheart Anne when he returned from war. He also enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he completed his bachelor's degree in city planning in 1947.

The Image of the City

Lynch worked for a short time as an urban planner but soon returned to MIT as a lecturer. In 1954 he was given the opportunity to study city planning and the way people understand and perceive their surroundings. The five-year study was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation is an organization dedicated to funding breakthrough research to benefit society. Lynch's work was published as the book The Image of the City in 1960 in collaboration with fellow MIT professor Gyorgy Kepes (1906–2001) who illustrated the book.

The Image of the City was a breakthrough in city planning philosophy because it explains the average citizen's perspective of the city and how city dwellers interpret their surroundings. The book discusses the ways people create mental maps of the cities where they live and work using specific characteristics as anchor points. They then use these anchor points to help them navigate the city. The book uses a conversational tone that is easy to understand and it launched the careers of Lynch and Kepes. The two would collaborate on other books and projects in later years. The success of the book solidified Lynch's popularity and clout as an important researcher in city planning.

Later Career

Lynch continued to work as a professor at MIT after the publication of The Image of the City. He became a full tenured professor in 1963. The popularity of The Image of the City helped Lynch fund other studies of city planning and its effect on people. Lynch continued to lecture at MIT and conduct long-term studies. He also published several papers and books. His other books studied the way urban life affects kids, the way urban dwellers perceive time and place, and the importance of the design of outdoor spaces. In addition to research and teaching, Lynch was and urban planning consultant. He first worked at the firm Adams, Howard, and Greely and later worked as an independent consultant.

Death and Legacy

Lynch remained an active professor at MIT and an urban consultant for the rest of his career. Lynch suffered a heart attack and died on August 25, 1984, at the age of 66.

Lynch's books are widely used today in college courses as introductory texts into urban planning and the psychology of city planning.

MIT established the Kevin Lynch award in Lynch's honor after his death. The award recognizes accomplishments in city planning in regard to balance, people's experience, and celebration of nature within a city. Award nominees are chosen based on research, publications, or projects that embody Lynch's vision and values. Lynch encouraged practices that integrate nature and urban life.

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