Kevin Lynch on Perceptible Objects and Urban Design

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityWhere the first part of The Image of the City looks at the big picture of how and why human beings need to be able to read their cities, and how they find their way through them, Kevin Lynch in Chapter III goes on to the nitty gritty, as he analyses physical, perceptible objects and their relation to imageability. Lynch classifies these into five types of elements:

  1. Paths:  … the channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves… For many people, these are the predominant elements in their image.

  2. Edges: …the linear elements not used or considered as paths… the boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: shores, railroad cuts… some 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…

  3. Districts: …the medium-to-large sectiosn 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.

  4. Nodes: … points, the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter … 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 ndoes may be simply concentrations… a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square. (47)

  5. Landmarks: …another type of point-reference, but in this case the observer does not enter within them, they are external (48).

The visual drawings of each can be found in the margins (I quite love the use of the margins in this book, they make reading this unique to most books on cities)

Kevin Lynch city elements

More on how these all work:

These elements are simply the raw material of the environmental image at the city scale. They must be patterned together to provide a satisfying form. (83)

And this…oh this is an aside for Lynch, but opens up so much in terms of how people move through space and those boundary lines of race, class, age…so much.

The psychological distance between two localities may be much greater, or more difficult to surmount, than mere physical separation seems to warrant. (85)

I loved this about the various maps that people drew, how the progression of physical things didn’t change even if they experienced them in very different ways:

However distorted, there was a strong element of topological invariance with respect to reality. it was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretched or compressed, large forms so changed from their accurate scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable. But the sequence was usually correct, the map was rarely torn and sewn back together in another order. (87)

That would be so interesting to dig more deeply into, understand how individual relationships to the city and its various communities might impact these maps.

The larger goal that Lynch is attempting to reach with this work:

We have the opportunity of forming our new city world into an imageable landscape: visible, coherent, and clear. It will require a new attitude on the part of the city dweller, and a physical reshaping of his domain into forms which entrance the eye, which organize themselves from level to level in time and space, which can stand as symbols for urban life. (91)

He continues:

The common hopes and pleasure, the sense of community may be made flesh. Above all, if the environment is visibly organized and sharply identified, then the citizen can inform it with his own meanings and connections. Then it will become a place, remarkable and unmistakable. (92)

It is interesting to think about how the ‘sense of community may be made flesh’, how by organizing an environment and providing clear markers in it, people’s quality of life and relationships might also be transformed.

To continue on to how one might actually plan for this, beginning with the improvement of paths, which are

the most potent means by which the whole can be ordered. The key lines should have some singular quality which marks them off from the surrounding channels: a concentration of some special use or activity along their margins, a characteristic spatial quality, a secial texture of floor or facade, a particular lighting pattern, a unique set of smells or sounds, a typical detail or mode of planting. (96)

Methods might include emphasizing nature of street to get somewhere with perspective, using a gradient and then there is this:

Where the journey contains such a series of distinct events, a reaching and passing of one sub-goal after another, the trip itself takes on meaning and becomes an experience in its own right. (97)

I think he captures the joy brought by traversing certain streets fairly well here. I particularly love the analogy with music he brings to bear:

There is a final way of organizing a path or set of paths … It might be called “melodic” in analogy to music. The events and characteristics along the path–landmarks, space changes, dynamic sensations–might be organized as a melodic line, perceived and imaged as a form which is experienced over a substantial time interval. (99)

On nodes he writes, that they are

the conceptual anchor points in our cities. Rarely in the United States, however, do they have a form adequate to support this attention… (102)

They need to be places, with some defining characteristics. So on to his list (yay lists) of qualities of urban design that create successful places:

  1. Singularity or figure-background clarity: sharpness of boundary…closure…contrast

  2. Form Simplicity: …in the geometrical sense (105)

  3. Continuity: continuance of an edge or surface … nearness of parts (as in a cluster fo buildings); repetition of rhythmic interval … similarity, analogy, or harmony of surface…

  4. Dominance: …of one part over others by means of size, intensity, or interest

  5. Clarity of Joint: … high visibility of joints and seams… clear relation and interconnection

  6. Directional Differentiation: asymmetries, gradients, and radial differences which differentiate one end from another…

  7. Visual Scope: qualities which increase the range and penetration of vision…transparencies…overlaps… vistas and panoramas… articulating elements… (106)

  8. Motion awareness: the qualities which make sensible to the observer…his own actual or potential motion…

  9. Time Series: series which are sensed over time … or truly structured in time and thus melodic in nature (107)

  10. Names and Meanings: non-physical characteristics which may enhance the imageability of an element.

Below are the visuals corresponding to the first 7 of these elements, to be read down the left side and then down the right:

Kevin Lynch Design Elements 1

Kevin Lynch continues:

In discussing design by element types, there is a tendency to skim over the interrelation of the parts into a whole. in such a whole, paths would expose and prepare for the districts, and link together the various nodes. The nodes would joint and mark off the paths, while the edges would bound off the districts, and the landmarks would indicate their cores. It is the total orchestration of these unites which would knit together a dense and vivid image, and sustain it over areas of metropolitan scale. (108)

A good reminder, one often forgotten. Ultimately, he argues

…the function of a good visual environment may not be simply to facilitate routine trips, nor to support meanings and feelings already possessed. Quite as important may be its role as a guide and a stimulus for new exploration. In a complex society, there are many interactions to be mastered. in a democracy, we deplore isolation, extol individual development, hope for ever-widening communication between groups. If an environment has a strong visible framework and highly characteristic parts, then exploration of new sectors is both easier and more inviting. if strategic links in communication (such as museums or libraries or meeting places) are clearly set forth, then those who might otherwise neglect them may be tempted to enter. (110)

This aspect of planning and urban design is coming to the fore now, I think, which is really something to celebrate. Like Lynch, however, many of those writing don’t really pay much attention to power, capital, inequalities, racism and fear … those tricky things. So these remain ideals, potentialities opened up though with little sense of how to make them reality. Lynch does, however, note how the city is full of many very different people, and so its designers have to create places that allow for wide differences in how people organize their city. I do love, for all my critique, that Lynch’s principal solution is that designers must provide their cities richly with the different imageable elements that people can organize according to their wishes. Can’t be too specialized or orchestrated, you don’t want people to feel that one path dominates, multiple paths and adventures must be left open.

He ends with idea that not only do planners need to build more eligible cities, but also that people need to be taught to read them better, to really see them. He advocates programs

teaching him to look at his city, to observe its manifold forms and how they mesh with one another. Citizens could be taken into the street, classes could be held in the schools and universities, the city could be made an animated museum of our society and its hopes. (117)

Something about this section strikes me as rather patronising in its wording, yet I love the idea, and particularly love thinking about how the city might in fact be an animated museum of our society and its hopes. People should think about their cities, it is an important part of having more power over them.

Two final notes of interest, first, this almost throwaway comment on the underground:

The subway is a disconnected nether world, and it is intriguing to speculate what means might be used to mesh it into the structure of the whole. (57)

I’m more excited about the netherworld, I confess. A last note on speed, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading Le Corbusier and Illich:

The increasing size of our metropolitan areas and the speed with which we traverse them raise many new problems for perception. (112)

I think it has, it does. He doesn’t get into the ways cities have been built for cars, but that is clearly inimical to the kind of planning and design he is thinking about.

One final post on LA specifically, a little more discussion of class and race, and on to the next book from my reading list:

and for even more on building city spaces…



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