Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Kevin Lynch’s “The Image of the City”

20140113-173656.jpgUrban planner Kevin Lynch, in his seminal 1960 book The Image of the City, sets out to show how people in urban settings orient themselves by the use of “mental maps.” Although his purpose is ultimately to make practical contributions to his own field, it is a worthwhile read even for those of us with more abstract interests in cities.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960.

In the book, Lynch concentrates on the “apparent clarity or ’legibility’ of the cityscape,” or the way its parts can be recognized and organized into a coherent whole as a mental map. “[A] legible city,” writes Lynch, “would be one whose districts or landmarks or pathways are easily identifiable and are easily grouped into an over-all pattern.” Everybody experiences cities differently, but we all need to orientate ourselves and there are commonalities in how we do this.

Environmental images can be broken down into three (abstracted) components: identity, structure, and meaning. That is to say, objects must be identifiable as distinct, they must be put in spatial or pattern relation to the observer and other objects, and it must have some practical (a door as means of egress) or emotional (the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of welcoming American freedom) meaning. An object’s “imageability” – “that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer” – helps bestow this identity and structure.

Although Image is interesting reading as historical documentation and an illustration of how little some things change, chapter 2 – with its brief analyses of Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles – is not the reason why it has remained a classic. Rather, what makes Lynch’s book so compelling and useful is its identification of five elements that help constitute a city’s image in the observers’ minds: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

Paths are the channels along which people move, be they streets, sidewalks, or transit lines (e.g. 13th Street). They are, unsurprisingly, predominant elements of people’s city images, although how they are perceived, used, and mentally structured differs depending on how they are laid out and whether they have distinctive features. Edges are breaks in continuity, such as shores or walls (e.g. the fence around Tompkins Square Park or the Hudson or East Rivers that border Manhattan and marks it off from Brooklyn and New Jersey).  They may be barriers or seams, marking the separation of different regions. Districts are medium-to-large sections of the city conceived of as having a finite, two-dimensional extent “into” which one can enter (e.g. Chinatown or the East Village). As Lynch describes  it, “[t]he physical characteristics that determine districts are thematic continuities which my consist of an endless variety of components: texture, space, form, detail, symbol, building type, use, activity, inhabitants, degree of maintenance, topography.”

Nodes are the strategic spots in a city, either serving as central junctions in transportation (e.g. Grand Central or subway stations) or as points that gain their importance from being “the condensation of some use or physical character, as a street-corner or an enclosed square.” Some concentration nodes are “the focus and epitome” of a district, radiating their influence and standing as a symbol for it. Times Square immediately comes to mind as an example. Finally, landmarks are reference points most commonly of a simply defined physical nature. They may be anything from a building or a sign to a store or a mountain. Just mentioning New York should conjure up a handful of examples: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, Macy’s…

These elements, of course, are abstractions, never isolated in practical experience: drivers experience highways as paths while pedestrians more likely regard them as edges, whereas a district experienced on a city-scale might be regarded as a node when regarded for someone considering the entire metropolitan area (or, in the case of New York’s Grand Central, a landmark for someone passing by in a taxi or on foot but a node for a commuter). As Lynch notes, “[d]istricts are structured with nodes, defined by edges, penetrated by paths, and sprinkled with landmarks.” But, while this must always be remembered, they are nonetheless useful tools for textual analysis.

One reviewer has pointed out that Lynch primarily emphasizes the role of the visual sense and omits in his analysis the role of media in general and text in particular. Whether or not that is an omission is debatable (Lynch’s stated intentions neither make room for nor require the inclusion of texts beyond their implicit presence in signage), but Lynch’s five elements of the image of the city – paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks – are suitable for consideration of visual and textual urban representation. The elements can be used effectively to structure analysis and abstract components that can then be scrutinized textually and historically. If one is mindful of which parts of the city are put forward and which ones are left aside by a given writer or artist, as well as how they are populated and described, it is possible to discern the creation of a public, normative, city-image on the page. This method is perhaps particularly suited for comparative analysis, where similarities and differences in city-images can be elucidated by the identification of localities and landmarks, paths walked in textual company or in solitude, or in the different meanings extracted from the ostensibly “same” feature of a given city.

Another purpose for reading Image, which the book can serve even for the reader who is not interested in that type of analysis, is its potential to upset the taken-for-grantedness of the urban experience. It is difficult to read Lynch’s work without finding at least a few places where the mind reacts and says: “Oh, so that’s why I do that!” or “Hey! I do that too!” Insights of that kind are priceless.

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