This book considers the visual quality of the American city by studying the mental image of that city which is held by its citizens. It will concentrate especially on one particular visual quality: the apparent clarity or “legibility” of the cityscape. By this we mean the ease with which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern. Just as this printed page, if it is legible, can be visually grasped as a related pattern of recognizable symbols, so a legible city would be one whose districts or landmarks or pathways are easily identifiable and are easily grouped into an over-all pattern.
This leads to the definition of what might be called 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. It might also be called legibility, or perhaps visibility in a heightened sense, where objects are not only able to be seen, but are presented sharply and intensely to the senses.
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 of 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…
In a highly imageable city, all of these elements below would exist. The form must be somewhat noncommittal, plastic to the purposes and perceptions of the its citizens. They are unique in some way and, at the same time, intensify some surrounding characteristic. Ideally, if you observe the tensions between all of these elements, you’d see a total pattern.
paths: Usually these are the streets, sidewalks, trails. Paths consists of the “channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves” (Lynch, p. 47). It is important to note that the paths an individual identifies may not correspond to a traditional street network, such as shortcuts. These are often the most predominant items in an individual’s mental map as this is main mechanism for how they experience their city.
edges: Usually these are perceived boundaries such as walls, buildings, and shorelines. They can be physical edges such as shorelines, walls, railroad cuts, or edges of development, or they can be less well-defined edges that the individual perceives as a barrier. Edges provide the boundaries that separate one region from another, the seams that join two regions together, or the barriers that close one region from another. They are linear elements, but are not the paths along with the individual experiences the built environment.
districts: Relatively large sections of the city distinguished by some identity or character; (i.e. Little Tokyo, Beverly Hills, The Castro.) Districts are “medium-to-large sections of the city” (Lynch, p. 47). They are typically two-dimensional features, often held together by some commonality. The individual often enters into or passes through these districts. According to Lynch, most people use the concept of districts to define the broader structure of their city.
nodes: These are strategic spots where there is an extra focus, or added concentration of city features. Nodes are points within the city into which the individual enters (and which is often the main focal point to which she or he is traveling to or from). There are often junctions – a crossing or converging of paths. They often have a physical element such as a popular hangout for the individual or a plaza area. In many cases, the nodes are the centers of the district that they are in.
landmarks: These are readily identifiable, external physical objects which serve as external reference points. Landmarks are also a point-reference (similar to nodes). However, unlike nodes, which the individual enters during his or her travels, landmarks remain external features to the individual. They are often physical structures such as a building, sign, or geographic features (e.g. mountain). The range of landmarks is extensive, but the commonality is that there are used by the individual to better understand and navigate the built environment.
Example of an Image Map per Kevin Lynch’s theory:
Empire State of Mind for an audio image map of New York City