The Image of the City | Study Guide

Kevin Lynch

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The Image of the City | Summary




The Image of the City is a noteworthy textbook that explores urban design and particularly the ways that residents perceive cities. The book focuses on the ways people create mental images of the cities where they work and live. Lynch argues that cities not only exist in physical form but they also exist in the minds of the average citizen. Lynch determines that every person creates their own unique image of the city and he takes these variables into account. City planners should be aware of the ways people form mental images and use those characteristics to create cities that are memorable, attractive, and navigable. Lynch develops the term "imageability" to describe the quality of a city to be re-created in the mind. It is easier for a community member to create a mental map and navigate the city's layout when it has more imageability. Lynch emphasizes the need for cities to be efficient as well as interesting and aesthetically pleasing.

Research Style

Lynch focuses his study on the American cities Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City. These cities each have varying populations, socioeconomic distributions, and designs and are located in different areas in the United States. His research studies the way people perceive cities and form an image in their minds of what the city looks like and where important buildings or landmarks are located within the city. He surmises that city planners should pay close attention to how easy the city is to navigate. Citizens use structure and the identity of landmarks to help them find their way through their respective cities. According to Lynch urban planners should not worry about controlling the meaning or symbolism of different landmarks or the layout of a city because urban populations are too pluralistic and meaning varies from person to person.

Lynch conducted intensive interviews of the residents of Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles. He asked subjects about social identity, structure, and relation to time and history. Each city scored differently in these categories. Boston is a much older and historically rich city and scored higher in the importance of time and historical context but residents said it lacked manageable structure. Los Angeles scored high in structure but low in identity whereas Jersey City had plenty of identity but a confusing structure. The different scores of each city suggest that optimal city planning would create a balance of all three elements to allow easy navigation, social identity, and historical importance and give citizens the best experience living in and navigating a city.

Research Conclusions

Lynch notes that people are capable of adapting to structural quirks or an uninteresting identity but the adjustment takes time and practice. There are strategies that can help people navigate cities. He urges city planners to consider five interrelated characteristics to create navigable and interesting cities. These elements help citizens create mental images and allow them to create their own meanings in relation to the characteristics of the city. These features are paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Lynch identifies these features as the key characteristics of a city that allow citizens to create mental images, assign meaning, and develop an emotional connection to a city. He urges city planners to consider these elements when designing new urban developments.

Paths are the transportation routes of the city and are the most common points from which people experience the city. They can be made distinct and memorable through variation in design and natural setting. Lynch suggests that an obvious hierarchy of streets to indicate which carry a higher volume will help people avoid confusion. Each street need not be absolutely straight but ought to travel in one general direction and have a directional gradient to communicate where on the commute the traveler is. Paths should have well-defined origins and destinations as well as landmarks along the way.

Edges provide a spatially distinct constitution to elements of the city. More visually obvious elements such as a waterfront or park side are better. Edges can be strong but planners must ensure they are still penetrable enough to allow connections across them.

Districts are relatively large areas that have enough identity to be named. Each district should be set apart from others through thematic, visual clues. Districts often become defined in terms of class or special use. Some districts are introverted and have sharp boundaries and an exclusive association whereas others are extroverted and tied more closely to the whole pattern of the city.

Nodes are precise locations that require extra attention from an observer. They are usually junctions along a network of paths or transit stations. They should be limited to a reasonable amount and made distinct through edges and landmarks.

A landmark is anything that stands out that can help observers orient themselves. It could be lavish and visually appealing or it could simply be a foreground that contrasts sharply with the background. Anything memorable to which people feel a connection can be a landmark.

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