Kevin Lynch’s method #imageability

An old post that I am unearthing – I should say unclouding – as it is quite relevant to the course I am teaching at l’ESA this semester. Here below is a summary of the method lynch undertook to analyze the imageability of Boston, Jersey City and L.A.!

Lynch developed his system of rules for analyzing cities by looking at three urban case studies, Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles. He interviewed for about an hour and a half a sample of citizens and observing their habitat. The goal was to test his concept of “Imageability” – of which he distinguishes five elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks.

INTERVIEWS

Researchers interviewed 30 people in Boston, about 15 in Jersey City and Los Angeles. Lynch thought of this sample to be “inordinately small.” He writes that “clearly, a retest with a larger sample is needed, and this requires more rapid and precise methods.” (p. 152) Respondents were primarily from a middle class background (hence omitting some areas of the city), which might have skewed the results.

During a first interview, respondents were asked to sketch a map of their city, describe in detail some of their city travels (for example the trip they normally take from home to work and inversely), and tell what their strongest connection to the urban environment was.

The interview was recorded on tape, and then transcribed (carefully recording pauses and inflections). Some of the respondents were willing to be interviewed a second time.

During the second interview, researchers showed respondents photographs of their cities and of other cities (the photographs of the respondent’s cities covered “the entire district in a systematic way, but given to the subject in random order.”). Respondents – the “subjects” – had to identify and classify the pictures: “The photographs recognized were then reassembled, and the subject was asked to lay them out on a large table as if they were placing them in their proper position on a large map of the city.” (p. 142)

Researchers went with some of these respondents to the field and enacted the city travel they described during the earlier interview. This was also tape-recorded. “The subject was asked to lead the way, to discuss why a particular route was chosen, to point out what he saw along the way, and to indicate where he felt confident or lost.” (p. 142)

Researchers organized the data collected. They checked it by running informal interviews (asking directions) of four to five passersby in each of the chosen places in the city – 7 destinations and 5 origin points.

The sketch map had a strong correlation with the “verbal interviews” yet bore differences when it came to connection and organization.

FIELD ANALYSIS

The researchers who covered the field survey were conditioned, taught the concept of “imageability” before hand, prepared accordingly a map of the area to study. They hence came back with a structured set of information. During the field analysis (three to four working days), researchers tested the concept, assessed what were really landmarks and what were not for example.

The field analysis corroborated with the interviews conducted for the cities of Boston and Los Angeles, less so with the city of New Jersey.

“The field analysis done on foot developed two faults: a tendency to neglect minor elements important for automobile circulation, and a tendency to pass over certain minor features of districts that are especially important to subjects because of the social status they reflect. Our field method therefore, if supplemented by automobile surveys seems to be a technique that can predict the probable composite image with some success, allowing for the “invisible” effects of social prestige, and for the more random fixing of attention in a visually undifferentiated environment.” (p. 144)

The method described was meant to develop urban design directions. Lynch thought on complementing the study of the five single elements of “imageability” with an understanding of “element interrelations, patterns, sequences and whole”. (p. 155) Lynch even suggested using the method for city areas of different scales: buildings, landscapes, and transportation systems etc. According to Lynch, the study could also be used to understand how strangers or children build their personal image of a city, so to anticipate urban city design. He also writes that “as our habitat becomes ever more fluid and shifting, it becomes critical to know how to maintain image continuity through these upheavals [external changes].” (p. 158)

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

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