Wednesday, May 28

Book: The Image of the City

Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, published in 1960, is well-established as a classic text of urban design and planning. The primary insight developed in this small book is that the structure of a city exists not only in physical reality but also in the minds of its inhabitants. This thesis of “imageability” launched another angle from which city planning could be researched and organized around. True to his era, Lynch emphasized such traits as efficiency and tended toward abstract principles, but I think there are still valuable lessons that can be gleaned from his approach.


Each individual holds a unique image of his or her city, a visual representation that guides through daily life and maps out meaning. Researching a sample of these images can help planners discern a “public image” of their city. This can be evaluated in terms of identity, what makes this particular image unique among cities, structure, how the image is spatially formed, and meaning, what values are attached to the image. Planners should resist being concerned with meaning, because it varies too much in a pluralistic society. They should focus on structure and identity, and work toward enhancing the imageability of the city, thus helping citizens orient themselves within it.

Residents of Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles were extensively interviewed about the images they carried of their own cities. Boston scored high on identity, but confused residents with its structure. Jersey City lacked both a distinctive identity and clear structure. Los Angeles was built according to a rational structure, but lacked the kind of localized identity necessary to navigate through it. The cities varied widely in how the image was situated in the passage of time, with Boston allowing for far more historical context than the others.

People can mentally adapt to any situation, but there are design strategies that can make urban orientation easier. For the purposes of study, the interconnected design elements can be broken down into five categories: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

Paths are the transportation routes of the city and are the most common points from which the city is experienced. They can be made distinct and memorable through variation in design and natural setting. To avoid confusion, there ought to be an obvious hierarchy of streets, indicating which carry a higher volume. Each street need not be absolutely straight, but it ought to travel in one general direction and have a directional gradient to communicate where on the line 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. The more visually obvious they are, like a waterfront or park side, the better. Edges can be strong, but planners must ensure they are 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 as well. Some districts are introverted, with sharp boundaries and an exclusive association, while others are extroverted, tied more closely to the whole pattern of the city.

Nodes are precise locations that require extra attention from the observer, 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 an observer orient himself. It could be lavish and visually appealing, or it could simply be a foreground that contrasts sharply with the background.

There are ten important design qualities that apply to each element:
1. Singularity. Sharp contrasts can be used to draw attention.
2. Simplicity. Forms should be easily conceivable geometric shapes.
3. Continuity. Individual elements must be understandable as a whole.
4. Dominance. Some elements stand out from the others.
5. Clarity of Joint. Emphasize strategic intersections and boundaries.
6. Directional differentiation. Asymmetry can help the observer detect direction.
7. Visual Scope. Points at which the larger picture can be taken in.
8. Motion Awareness. Make the traveler visually aware of one’s speed.
9. Time Series. Designing “melodies” in a series that is experienced over time.
10. Names and meanings. Non-physical attributes that enhance design features.

There is a temptation for the designer to miss the whole by focusing too heavily on these parts. It’s also important to resist defining the perceptual environment so clearly that individual perspectives are not able to shape and define it in their own unique ways. The city form should induce the citizen to explore and create as well as find the most efficient route from place to place. Citizens can learn how to perceive their city as a dynamic work of art.

The final objective of such a plan is not the physical shape itself but the quality of an image in the mind.”

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