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Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City (1960)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lynch's seminal book on the perceptual reading of the city reviewed by Gaia Zamburlini

“The image of the city” was written by American urban planner Kevin Andrew Lynch (1918 – 1984). After studying in various places, including Taliesin Studio under Frank Lloyd Wright, he received a Bachelor degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where, later on, he became full professor in 1963.

His main contribution was to provide empirical research on city planning, studying how individuals perceive and navigate the urban landscape. This book, published in 1960, also explores the presence of time and history in the urban environment, and therefore how these external factors affect people. The first, straightforward approach to the city, taken by every individual, is looking at it, which constitutes a 5-sense aesthetical experience through space and time. A urban system can therefore be either perceived as stable or in constant change, which is the most noticeable effect of external factors affecting any environment.

On this concern, Lynch states that, unlike Architecture, Urbanism is in constant change: today, fifty years later, this issue could be regarded and discussed with further attention, as architecture, too, is subject to external factors and different perceptions, scale, but mostly a cultural aspect, involving the fact that In the 1960s the life-cycle of a building was still not wholly taken into account, as it came up about twenty years later with sustainability issues.

Lynch focuses on four main concepts, correlated to a wise urban planning:

a urban system has to be held legible, through definite sensory cues
its image has to be perceived by the observer, arbitrarily selected by the community and finally manipulated by city planners.
legibility and imageability would then lead to the identification of a structure, and therefore a precise identity, which are both parameters through which it is possible to analyse an urban system and its own elements.
Lynch reckons that there might be different relations of complexity within every structure: these consist in the relations between definite elements, which are identified in:

Lynch’s aim is to understand the relation between environmental images and urban life, at the basis of urban design principles; he therefore brings up an analysis of three different towns, putting into practice a research method whose successfulness is assessed and tested through the results of the analysis itself.

The research focused on Boston, Jersey City and L.os 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.

This is how, through surveys and research, Boston appears to be perceived only as one-sided, Jersey City is described as a formless place “on the edge of something else” and Los Angeles, despite being well structured, seems as faceless as Jersey City, delivering a sense of bewilderment.

On the basis of this in-depth analysis, Lynch summarises the common themes that have arisen, among which we should remember : a common interest for panoramas, and smaller landscape features, noted with care and attention; shapeless places which, although not pleasant, seem to be remarkable and striking, as Dewey Square excavations in Boston around the ‘60s economic boom; identification of places with the social-classes that occupy or use them; the presence or lack of historical marks.
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.

From the field-research, what evidently arises is that each individual image constitutes a connection between urban forms and what is, on a more global extent, the public image. Each of those images is constructed and relying on the 5 elements already mentioned, which are:

-paths: the channel of the observer

-edges: breaking in continuity with the surrounding areas

-districts: 2-dimensional elements within which we spot a common character

-nodes: strategic points

-landmarks: external references

As we previously said, it is possible to draw out thousands of interrelations between the elements, which Kevin Lynch thoroughly describes in Chapter 3 and 4.

On one side, we could therefore say that his method follows a coherent bottom-up route, starting from the individual elements to reach gradually the whole; This strategy would be set to aim at continuity, regularity, measurability and kinesthetic quality, which is the first to provide identity over a continuous experience through time. Nevertheless, although the bottom-up method has a point, as far as order and clarity is concerned, it sticks to the mid-century tendency to cathegorisation, which today might turn out to be too constraining when facing different and multiple realities.

In conclusion, we could say that in the image development process, visual education is the basis for reshaping what surrounds us, and viceversa. This is in fact the main condition for which a critical audience can be formed and therefore for which a urban system can be analysed, manipulated and developed. Despite what previously was said about Kevin Lynch’s ‘schematism’, we reckon his contribution has been of relevant importance: first of all, he has fully put into practice what had just lingered among architects and planners for years: an attention and complete recognition of the citizen’s role, that not only lives a town –stating his own needs-, but also perceives it –providing useful images for planners to work on. Secondly, the importance of visual communication in the urban space, which brings together individuals, experience and planners in order for them to communicate on a common thread.

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