Friday, July 8, 2016

On "The Image of the City" by Kevin Lynch ***

Kevin Lynch is concerned not so much with the actual physical substance of the city but rather with the image that that substance conveys. Our ideas of a city, he says, are mixed with memories and meanings. In this sense, his thinking is not unlike that of David Kolb in Sprawling Places, which argues suburbs need to be seen as areas of greater complexity than they typically are via the memories and meanings attached to locales. Rather than mourn chain stores taking over an area, we can see them as having connections to the local. In a sense, this is true. One landmark that I think of in Victoria, British Columbia, is McDonald's. Why? It's two stories and features a huge chandelier. Probably, it was something grander at one time, but it has become a McDonald's--and a grand one at that. I remember eating at it one night with my friend Mike and a fascinating but troubled gal he liked named Diane. Or take the city of my birth, Pasadena. There, I remember well a string of fast-food restaurants along North Lake Avenue (eating at them; working at one; walking to/by them with my friend Tim, who lived closeby). They're nothing special, and yet they've been there from my birth to the present day, longer than many other truly "local" venues. They are landmarks of their own, even if not cherished and loved in the same way. Their very endurance has aided in their becoming part of my image of the city.

Lynch focuses, however, on downtown cores--and most specifically of three cities: Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles. The purpose of looking at our image of the city is to see how we might better plan and build cities as we move forward. What do people remember? How do they organize their viewpoints? How do they structure the city in their heads so that they can move around it?

Boston is chosen because of its age and historicity. It offers people many, many landmarks. And indeed, Lynch finds that people have a relatively easy time placing several districts within downtown. Still, there are portions of the area studied that remain amorphous in most people's views, largely centered around larger highways that cut off foot traffic. The relative irregularity of the streets, however, also means that people have difficulty "shaping" areas like the Boston Commons.

Jersey city is chosen because of its seeming disrepair. It's a town on the way to somewhere else--either New York City or Newark. And the views local people have of the city seem to confirm this. Nothing much stands out. There are not many landmarks, many places on must see--other than perhaps looking across the river to the skyline of New York City. People organize their city by street names and shopping districts that they visit regularly.

Los Angeles is something of a go-between. It is chosen because of its newness. It features more landmarks than Jersey City but less historicity. People's views of it are somewhat amorphous but slightly more definite than that of Jersey City. People organize the city by street names. Still, they do recall Pershing Square and a few other landmarks, that they can place. Interestingly, people's views of the city are more detailed in where they live, grow blurry in midrange areas (transit), and have slightly more detail downtown where they work (but not as much as where they live). Los Angeles, in other words, offers a specificity of view on the hyperlocal and on the macro but little on the midrange that connects the two.

Lynch shows differing views with maps--photos of an area, professionally created maps of an area, and maps based on people's memories and views of an area. The latter are interesting to compare with the professionally rendered insofar as certain areas disappear.

The next chapter focuses on five elements that go in to people's created images, or maps, of a city: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Each of these play a role in how people organize their views. Travel along a path might render more detail there with other items organized around it--and so on for each element. Interestingly, landmarks occasionally might be "baseless"--that is, they form part of the skyline but people really don't know what their base looks like, what their function is, or where exactly they are. Folks forge maps in different ways--along paths and radiating out, from basic grids with items placed on them, with edges (e.g., Boston's waterfront) with the interior slowly filled in, as adjacent regions that are filled in and connected, or from one small place and filled outward from there. The best images are put together with both a hierarchy and a continuity, but rarely do both elements come together.

Since we are constantly organizing our view of the city, good city planning should facilitate this organizing process, Lynch says. Hence, paths should lead toward some sort of destination; landmarks should be singular or, if smaller, bunched to create a sort of landmark destination; districts should be visually distinct from one another with clear edges; nodes should link districts. In all, the features of the city should be marked by the following characteristics: singularity, simplicity of form, continuity, dominance, clarity of joint, directional differentiation, visual scope, motion awareness, time series, and names and meanings. Difficulties arise, however, because people do not always enter a city or a path from the same direction. Hence, you can't just have a path with one climax, for someone might enter at the climax and then the other direction lacks for a destination. There must be a kind of melody or rhythm.

Lynch, thus, lays out three possible general organizations for the city: hierarchical (subdistricts within districts, all united around a singular node or landmark); two-sided dominance (hill on one side, ocean on the other--destinations at both ends); and temporal pattern or sequence (spaced areas of dominance at intervening points along a path).

Hence, in an ideal city, all parts conjoin to the whole image. Paths lead to districts, which are centered around landmarks, bounded by edges, and linked by nodes, which in turn "mark off" paths.

A conclusion denotes the importance of considering the city's image as a whole when planning, most especially in the suburbs, where attention to the whole is rarely given. Three appendices discuss images of cities in history (landmarks play a large role, and the more barren the landscape, the more adept locals become at reading their environment); the survey techniques for the research; and a microstudy of images of Boston's Beacon Hill and Scollay Square (the latter, though being a node, lacking visual signposts to make it stand out as a place).

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