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"The Image of The City" by Kelvin Lynch

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"The Image of The City" by Kelvin Lynch essay
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Lynch’s in the “The image of the city” divided his discourse into five sections, the Image of the Environment, Three Cities, The City and Its Elements, City Form, and A New Scale. “The Image of the Environment” sets the basis for Lynch’s theory of city design through discussion of Legibility, Building the Image, Structure and Identity, and Imageability. In Three cities he analyses the urban forms of Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles, and identifies common themes that they share.

He first explored how the characteristics of an urban space is affected and how people tend to orient and associate themselves with the space by means of mental maps which consist of five elements: (1) paths: routes along which people move throughout the city; (2) edges: boundaries and breaks in continuity; (3) districts: areas characterized by common characteristics; (4) nodes: strategic focus points for orientation like squares and junctions; and (5) landmarks: external points of orientation, usually a easily identifiable physical object in the urban landscape by linking how people orient themselves in the aforementioned three cities. A central concept in this book is that of legibility (also called imageability and visibility). Legibility means the extent to which the cityscape can be “read”. People who move through the city engage in way-finding. Lynch proposes that these mental maps can therefore be either perceived as stable or in constant change, which is the most noticeable effect of external factors affecting any environment.

The research focused on Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. As explained, the method undertaken concentrated on two phases, consisting firstly in office-based interviews, where the sample citizens were also required to draw up a map in order to make a rapid description of the city. The second phase consisted in a systematic examination of the environmental image evoked by trained observers in the field. It is interesting to realise how the whole interview and in-field approach has been the one aimed at discovering the social experience of a town, which does not just outline how a urban system works but also how it is perceived by people. This approach reveals a particular compatibility with the rising experimental psychology of the 60s, aimed at constituting methods and theories according to the action and reaction of people.

In my view this book is an incredible valuable work to understand how people perceive, inhabit and move around in the urban landscape. It shows that urban space is not just composed of its physical characteristics but equally by representations in mental images. Mobility is not just (the potential for) free-flowing movement but heavily relies on structuring and identifying the environment through the aid of mental maps. Hence it is important to consider opinion of different section of the society and not just one particular section which I believe was a one of the drawback.

In addition, Lynch’ emphasis on clear legibility of the urban environment poses some critical questions about the current tendency to saturate the urban landscape with information. What happens to the overall legibility of the city when every building, object, and place wants to communicate and announce its existence for example time square where each advertisement display dominate the other leading to chores and hence the places tends to loss its legibility. Another issue brought up by Lynch’ work is the eternal question of (the end of) serendipity, so often discussed in relation to mobile media and location-based services. Are locative services undermining the potential for exploration and unexpected encounters with new places and people, when our movements are guided and goal-oriented? Lynch is of the opinion that disorientation is the cause of fear and anxiety, and already claims that “to become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city” (pg 4). Yet under controlled circumstances he acknowledges that “there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment” (pg 5).

Lynch work also raises a question that is especially relevant nowadays. Is our capacity for orientation and way-finding something we learn (and thus can unlearn as well when we externalize this to our GPS navigation devices Lynch takes a clear stance when he says “it now seems unlikely that there is any magical “instinct” of way-finding” (pg 3)

Finally, some more critical remarks. Lynch primarily emphasizes the role of the visual sense. He says how people find their way in the city by relying on vision. Other faculties such as hearing and even smelling are lacking in his work.

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