The Image of the City | Study Guide

Kevin Lynch

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The Image of the City | Chapter 2 : Three Cities | Summary



Lynch describes his research methods in detail. He notes the two approaches he took to analyze the elements of three American cities. A trained urban researcher started the research with careful observations of a city and noted the physical characteristics of the area. Then Lynch interviewed a small group of city residents in depth over several months. Lynch asked citizens a wide range of questions about the ways they observed and interacted with the city where they lived. Subjects were asked about emotional and practical connections they had with the city. The interviewees were longtime residents or employees in the city and had an intimate, long memory of the city. Lynch studied Los Angeles, Boston, and Jersey City for his case study. Lynch chose these cities for different reasons. He chose Boston for its historical value, Jersey City because it appeared to have no form or structure, and Los Angeles for its contemporary qualities and recent growth.

Lynch was thoughtful in the way he chose his three cities for observation. Boston is among the oldest metropolitan areas in the United States. Lynch recognized the importance of studying an old city. Boston has withstood hundreds of years of growth and change and is still an important city in the United States. It is the oldest city Lynch studied and had undergone many changes but still retained distinctive characteristics from the earliest days of the city.

Jersey City residents defined the city by landmarks that were actually not part of the city such as the New York City skyline or the Hudson River. The city lacked unique and defining characteristics such as landmarks or districts. Many respondents said that everything looked too similar to create definition within the city. The city appeared to be an afterthought with no real purpose behind the layout or structures.

Lynch's appraisal of Los Angeles proves that even intentional city layout isn't enough to make a city memorable or easy to navigate. Los Angeles was a contemporary city that had grown in population and sprawl. Los Angeles was purposefully designed using a grid matrix. The neat lines and blocks of the city should have been aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate but Lynch's research suggests that it was not easy to navigate because it was lacking other characteristics.


Lynch uses the analysis of three distinctive cities to underscore his theory that many characteristics of a city must work in harmony for the city to be memorable and navigable. Each of the cities he describes is deficient in an important characteristic. Lynch's observations are meaningful because they support his claim from the first chapter that good city planning must consider several characteristics of a city and that no one element can overcome the deficiencies of the other elements of a city.

The analysis of Boston demonstrates that old cities can be maintained or revitalized with careful thought. Boston's characteristics prove that some districts within a city can become more memorable and navigable than others without a deliberate consideration of the city as a whole. Disjointed city planning can make it hard to navigate between distinctive districts within the city and create imbalance and fragmentation.

The lack of character and definition described by Jersey City residents underscores Lynch's claim that cities need memorable landmarks and characteristics for navigational purposes. Many city residents defined Jersey City by the characteristic of other nearby cities. Jersey City seemed like an afterthought rather than an intentional space. Many residents reflected the attitude that Jersey City is not a destination spot. Lynch's research shows that residents lacked pride in the city because there were no important or defining characteristics about the city. Without defining characteristics, the city serves merely as a buffer space between bigger or more interesting destinations.

Los Angeles juxtaposes Jersey City in the design intent. Los Angeles is a highly planned city that uses intentional layout and path design. Streets are arranged in clean, straight lines to create blocks but the city planners failed to consider the importance of landmarks, pathways, and districts. Los Angeles is almost indistinguishable from any other large city in the United States because the paths are too straight and the landmarks are too generic. The city does not have enough quirk to make it memorable. Los Angeles is an example of a city that seemed like a good idea on paper but was disappointing in execution.

Lynch points out that his research is preliminary. He was limited to studying only three American cities. Lynch was able to focus on specific elements and easily make comparisons because he focused on these three American cities. Three cities do not cover the vast diversity of the United States and the different urban plans that are executed across the country. The United States comprises a diverse range of terrains, cultures, and economies. More robust research is needed to build a truly comprehensive guide to the ways different elements of urban planning affect the way people live and travel in large urban centers.

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