The Image of the City – Kevin A. Lynch

(MIT Press, 1960)

This is an interesting (but slightly dated) little book which looks at how people who live and work in cities see them and navigate around them – in short, how their image of the city is constructed. Lynch uses examples from the USA – Boston, Los Angeles and Jersey City – to illustrate his points, but I think they’d be equally applicable to most cities (at least those without significant historical remnants).

Lynch was a city planner and architect who taught at MIT, and was one of the first people to try to understand how people perceived the cities in which they lived, and how cities could be mapped in terms of perception. He uses five markers, such as paths (which include paths and roads), open spaces, landmarks (such as notable buildings), edges, etc.

The people questioned in the surveys who lived and worked in the three cities Lynch studied gave quite different responses, depending on the location: Jersey City was found to be the most difficult to navigate, and Lynch points this out by reference to the lack of “wayfinding markers” in that city compared, say, to Boston. He also points out how even such difficult cities can be made more navigable by inclusion of paths and landmarks, and removal of obstacles.

It’s a very interesting book, if somewhat dryly written (it reads a little like a thesis), which has made me look at London (where I live) in a new way. I liked seeing the reason why Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, for example, seem so separate and psychologically distant from Poplar, immediately to the north (it’s the psychologically dissociating effect of Aspen Way, only crossable for the pedestrian by a single footbridge or else by the Docklands Light Railway. The DLR isn’t nearly such a distancing line, since most of it is elevated). The orienting feature most Londoners would use is the Thames – if the river is omitted from maps which ostensibly have no need to show it (such as the Underground map), it causes a good deal of dis-orientation.

However, one of the things Lynch doesn’t address, perhaps because people in the cities he studied relied on the car to get around, is the dislocating effect in one’s image of the city if one travels a lot by Underground. One emerges from a tunnel in an area which may not be far from the place where one entered, and yet, because one has no physical sense of how one has arrived there, London can exist in a series of bubbles, connected by tunnels.

The book would equally well be useful for city planners and architects, but it’s also interesting for the general reader who is interested in the city where they live and work, and may help he or she to have a better idea of how to navigate it.

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This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Image of the City – Kevin A. Lynch

  1. Pingback: Nice Graffiti New York photos | The Urban PhotoJournal

  2. Jenny says:

    >>One emerges from a tunnel in an area which may not be far from the place where one entered, and yet, because one has no physical sense of how one has arrived there, London can exist in a series of bubbles, connected by tunnels.

    That is pretty much exactly what London is like for me. I have no conception of how the Tube system relates to proper London, and I am no good at navigating anywhere without the Tube. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a London bus anywhere. :p

    • ela21 says:

      I read about a group who are trying to make London more navigable on the surface, and dissuade so many people taking very short Tube journeys – there are very good maps on central London streets. In fact, reading about them made me look up Lynch’s book!

  3. Pingback: New York City | The Urban PhotoJournal

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