Tag Archives: Boston

Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityKevin Lynch — he’s been on my list of folks to read forever on architecture and cities and space, and with reason as The Image of the City is rather brilliant. He writes:

Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time. City design is therefore a temporal art… At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surrounding, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences. (1)

I love this nod to the overwhelming — and mostly pleasurable — nature of the city, the ways it works in both space and time, and like Lofland, Whyte, Cullen, Gehl and others, he is clearly writing as someone with an appreciation for city life. It is a life that is in many ways collectively constructed:

Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are consonantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own… No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature. (2)

In The Image of the City, Lynch’s focus is primarily looking at what he calls the ‘legibility’ of the cityscape — how we read cities and how understanding that can help us (re)build better cities. Why is legibility key?

A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He can establish an harmonious relationships between himself and the outside world…(4)

I love this quote even more…

a distinctive and legible environment not only offers security but also heightens the potential depth and intensity of human experience. Although life is far from impossible in the visual chaos of the modern city, the same daily action could take on new meaning if carried out in a more vivid setting. (5)

This is not to go against the many authors who write about the unknown, Lynch emphasises that this not to deny the value of labyrinth or surprise, but under two larger conditions — where there is no danger of losing basic

orientation, of never coming out. The surprise must occur in an over-all framework; the confusions must be small regions in a visible whole…. Complete chaos without hint of connection is never pleasurable. (6)

Another important qualification, the power of human beings to shape the urban environment:

The observer himself should play an active role in perceiving the world and have a creative part in developing his image. He should have the power to change that image to fit changing needs… what we seek is not a final but an open-ended order, capable of continuous further development. (6)

So to understand how this all works, he book tries to get at the ways people understand and read cities, the

‘public images,’ the common mental pictures carried around by large numbers of a city’s inhabitants… (7)

I love maps, and so found this a fascinating way to examine people’s relationships to the urban form, splitting it into useful divisions to be examined:

The mental maps that are shared of streets and landmarks. These are analyzed in terms of identity (its recognition as a separable entity), structure (the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and other objects) and meaning (for the observer, whether practical or emotional). (8)

Above all in understanding legibility is this:

imageability: that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. (9)

A highly imageable (apparent, legible, or visible) city in this peculiar sense would seem well formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the eye and the ear to greater attention and participation. The sensuous grasp upon such surroundings would not merely be simplified, but also extended and deepened. Such a city would be one that could be apprehended over time as a pattern of high continuity with many distinctive parts clearly interconnected. The perceptive and familiar observer could absorb new sensuous impacts without disruption in his basic image, and each new impact would touch upon many previous elements. He would be well oriented, and he could move easily. He would be highly aware of his environment. The city of Venice might be an example of such a highly imageable environment. (10)

Venice again, but I think this is definitely how a city works best, and this imageablity is the center of his study of Boston, LA and Jersey City. What follows is a really interesting way of mapping out perceptions of the city through surveys and interviews. The maps are brilliant:

Kevin Lynch - Boston

Particularly interesting is the look at problems, as in the ‘Problems of the Boston image’ (p 24 — though you won’t be surprised to find that Boston has fewer problems than the other two):

Kevin Lynch Problem of the Boston image

 

This marks what Kevin Lynch describes as the

confusions, floating points, weak boundaries, isolations, breaks in continuity, ambiguities, branchings, lacks of character or differentiation. (25)

Of course it beats both Jersey City and Los Angeles hands down as a memorable, enjoyably walkable and legible city. I do myself have a great soft spot for Boston. I thought I’d go into more detail on LA in a second post, as it is my own city after all. It also highlights Lynch’s limitations, but there is much to be mined from the book.

First, what development has done to the US city centre:

There is the same piling-up of blank office structures, the same ubiquity of traffic ways and parking lots (34).

This has made them almost indistinguishable from one another, Lynch notes Jersey City as the least distinguishable of all — funny that what people most loved about it was the view of New York’s skyline on their horizon.

Common themes between the cities:

…people adjust to their surroundings and extract structure and identity out of the material at hand. The types of elements used in the city image, and the qualities that make them strong or weak, seem quite comparable between the three…

In terms of broad themes, the key favourite aspects of all cities were  space and views:

Among other things, the tests made clear the significance of space and breadth of view (43) … there was an emotional delight arising from a broad view, which was referred to many times. …

Natural landscapes:

The landscape features of the city: the vegetation or the water, were often noted with care and pleasure. (44)

Also a deep sense of the spatialities of class (race is not discussed at all, except in an oblique way, a truly blindingly un-scholarly way which the post on LA will deal with more)

Quite as apparent is the constant reference to socio-economic class: the avoidance of “lower class” Broadway in Los Angeles, the recognition of the “upper class” Bergen Section in Jersey City, or the unmistakable division of Boston’s Beacon Hill into two distinct sides.

Space and time:

… the way in which the physical scene symbolizes the passage of time… (45)

So in broad strokes, there is a lot to think about here… the next post gets into the nitty gritty of design elements and physical space.

[Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press]

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