The Image of the City | Study Guide

Kevin Lynch

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The Image of the City | Context


Post War Expansion

World War II ended in 1945 and a flood of young men returned home to a growing economy in the United States. The GI Bill of 1944 allowed young men to complete college using government funding. The American population grew at a rapid pace both because soldiers returned home from war and started families of their own. This situation created a baby boom in the United States. The country was growing quickly and needed places for newly returned soldiers or budding families to live. The meteoric expansion required thoughtful urban planning to make sure space and resources were utilized responsibly and aesthetically. Urban city planning is the design, development, and revitalization of cities and urban spaces and became a popular study across the United States in Lynch's time. Lynch returned from his stint in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944 with an interest in these elements of urban planning and design. He used his practical knowledge from the military as well as his previous study of architecture and engineering to study the way people create mental images of the cities where they work and live.

White Flight

Many urban centers experienced a phenomenon called "white flight" in the 1950s and 1960 which was the migration of white families out of urban centers into suburbs. White families who made disproportionately higher salaries than black families wanted their children to grow up in safe, idyllic towns and cities. Many black families from the southern United States moved north in an attempt to escape segregation and deeply rooted racism. More black families moved into white urban cities so white families chose to leave the cities. Homes in urban cities lost value as wealthy white families left for the surrounding suburbs. The sudden change in population and economics required that people better understand what features made urban centers pleasant and navigable. Lynch and other urban planners needed to understand more of the psychological elements of urban planning and design.

Conflicting Philosophies

Popular urban planning philosophies during the 1940s and 1950s had conflicting viewpoints and Lynch would later add his own theories and perspective to the conversation. An important and influential philosophy from urban planner Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928) was that a beautiful and good city could instill beauty and goodness within citizens. The "neighborhood unit" philosophy from Clarence Perry (1872–1944) suggested that urban centers were detrimental to raising young children and urban planning should focus on creating small, safe towns where families could grow. Yet another philosophy called "physical determinism" suggested the physical form was more influenced by social reforms and movements that occurred within a city. Lynch studied these competing philosophies during his academic career. However, he was more interested in how citizens perceived the city around them when he returned from serving during World War II. Lynch attempted to understand how the real-life people in a city perceived their areas and not how urban planners or urban psychologists perceived a city. His people-first approach was revolutionary and changed the perspective of research to focus on people's experiences. Lynch's work focused on real-life people instead of the out-of-touch perspective of architects or city planners who did not live in the cities they designed.

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