Cognitive Mapping and Social Change 1

The Structure of Environmental Representations - the work of Kevin Lynch

Kevin Lynch (1960) was an urban planner who carried out pioneering work on people's urban cognitive maps from the 1950s. He was mainly interested in how people structure their image of their environment, so as to design city layouts which would accord with the ways we perceive and understand our environments. For Lynch, being able to orient oneself in one's environment is a fundamental existential necessity for humans. In our distant past we needed a 'sense' of orientation in order to keep track of where we are relative to sources of food and our home. In the age of massive cities, we need this sense in order to navigate between the numerous locations where we carry out our everyday activities: home, work, entertainment, holidays etc. Lynch points out the fear that we associate with becoming disorientated in our surroundings: "The very word 'lost' in our language means more than simple geographic uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster" (p.4).

As a planner, Lynch was interested in analysing the urban form, and in particular identified the criterion of the 'legibilty' of a cityscape which he defined as " the ease with which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern" (p.2); a legible city would thus be one "whose districts or landmarks or pathways are easily identifiable and are easily grouped into an over-all pattern" (p.3). His method involved externalising the 'mental images' that city-dwellers have of their cities, through interviews and sketch-mapping excersises. Because of his focus on identifying ways of improving the physical structure of cities, he was less interested in individual differences in mental images than in the aggregate image of inhabitants of a particular city. This 'public image' was used to identify aspects of good and bad structure in the cities.

Lynch proposed a set of elements which should be fundamental to the structure of the urban environment and thus were expected to be manifest in people's mental structuring of the environment. The five elements proposed by Lynch are presented in Table 1 with his original definitions. For Lynch, the elements of the city constitute the palette of the urban planner; the appropriate placement and arrangement of the elements on the canvas of the urban environment will produce a legible city in which people can thrive. Conversely, a slap-dash approach to painting the urban picture will result in a disorientating city.

The data was obtained in two ways: firstly urban residents were interviewed about their city and asked to draw sketch maps, and secondly trained field workers were sent out on foot to make detailed plans of the city with the five elements and their interrelationships in mind. All the data were analysed to determine: a) what were the distinctive features of each city and which areas were more or less legible, and b) how well did the field maps compare which the aggregate maps of the interviewees.

Table 1: The elements of the city image proposed by Lynch (1960)
1) Paths Paths are the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves. They may be streets, walkways, transit lines, canals, railroads. For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image. People observe the city while moving through it, and along these paths the other environmental elements are arranged and related.
2) Edges Edges are the linear elements not used or considered as paths by the observer. They are the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts, edges of development, walls. Such edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related and joined together. These edge elements, although probably not as dominant as paths, are for many people important organizing features, particularly in the role of holding together generalized areas, as in the outline of a city by water or wall.
3) Districts Districts are the medium-to-large sections of the city, conceived of as having two-dimensional extent, which the observer mentally enters "inside of", and which are recognizable as having some common identifying character. Always identifiable from the inside, they are also used for exterior reference if visible from the outside. Most people structure their city to some extent in this way, with individual differences as to whether paths or districts are the dominant elements. It seems to depend not only upon the individual but also upon the given city.
4) Nodes Nodes are points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter, and which are intensive foci to and from which he is travelling. They may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another. Or the nodes may be simply concentrations, which gain their importance from being the condensation of some use or physical character, as a street-corner or an enclosed square. Some of these concentration nodes are the focus and epitome of a district, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as a symbol. They may be called cores. Many nodes, of course, partake of the nature of both junctions and concentrations. The concept of node is related to the concept of path, since junctions are typically the convergence of paths, events on the journey. It is similarly related to the concept of district, since cores are typically the intensive foci of districts, thir polarizing center. In any event, some nodal points are to be found in almost every image, and in certain cases they may be the dominant feature.
5) Landmarks Landmarks are another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external. They are usually a rather simply defined physical object: building, sign, store, or mountain. Their use involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities. Some landmarks are distant ones, typically seen from many angles and distances, over the tops of smaller elements, and used as radial references. They may be within the city or at such a distance that for all practical purposes they symbolize a constant direction. Such are isolated towers, golden domes, great hills. Even a mobile point, like the sun, whose motion is sufficiently slow and regular may be employed. Other landmarks are primarily local, being visible only in restricted localities and from certain approaches. These are the innumerable signs, store fronts, trees, doorknobs, and other urban detail, which fill in the image of most observers. They are frequently used clues of identity and even of structure, and seem to be increasingly relied upon as a journey becomes more and more familiar.

Examples of maps obtained for the city of Boston, Massachusetts are shown in Figure 1. Lynch found quite a high degree of consistency between the aggregate maps derived from the interviews and the field-maps provided by trained experts, suggesting that the latter might be a useful basis for a survey of legibility in any city. He also found that different parts of the city were differentiated in terms of their legibility defined as the strength of imageabliity of elements and of the structural interplay between elements. From these maps and from the rich detail included in the interviews, Lynch went on to outline a set of criteria for improving the legibility of elements and of structure.

Figure 1: Maps of Boston from Lynch (1960).

Key to the symbols

a) Map derived from field survey by trained surveyors.

b) Map drived from interviews with residents.

c) Map derived from sketch maps of residents.

d) The distinctive features of Boston derived from residents' sketch maps and interviews.

Criticisms of the Lynch Study

Lynch's study was highly original and seminal. However a number of criticisms of his work have been raised. Firstly, the lack of empirical basis for the five element types has been criticised; the element types were thought up before the commencement of the study so it is perhaps not surprising that they emerged in the analysis of the maps. Would blind raters of the interview data necessarily come up with the same aggregate maps.

More empirically based studies have in fact confirmed Lynch's intuitions about the elements, but some authors have suggested that a typology of fewer elements might suffice to describe the structure of aggregate mental maps. As we have seen in an earlier lecture, Siegel & White analysed the structure of cognitive maps in terms of two element types, routes and landmarks, and the interactions between them .

A criticism acknowledged by Lynch is the selective nature of his sample of interviewees; most were white, middle-class, able-bodied males. It is possible that the levels of agreement accross individual images would have been greatly reduced if other groups had been represented. We shal see in the next section that urban images of black people and of disabled people may differ substantially and in politically important respects from those of white or able-bodied people.

Finally it has been argued (Pile **; Sennett **) that the central criterion of legibility is too narrow an ideal for assessing the quality of a cityscape. Both these authors demand a richer analysis of the city which includes symbolic, historical and cultural meanings of places alongside the more purely spatial aspects of city design.

It should be noted that to summarize the work of Lynch is an impossible task. Even the 1960 book is so full of insightful and imaginative analysis that it cannot be captured in the context of a lecture. One really needs to read The Image of the City (several times) to appreciate fully what Lynch has contributed to the field.

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