Kevin Lynch, empiricism and creativity

boston city image

I’ve recently enjoyed an (almost) cover-to-cover reading of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City, having dipped in and out of it over the last year or so.  Lynch was an MIT professor and practicing urban planner, and this is his best-known work.  

The book is for the most part a study of ‘legibility’ in the urban environment, which Lynch explains as ‘the ease with which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern’.  A legible cityscape possesses a high degree of ‘imageability’, that is to say it has qualities which give it ‘a high probability of evoking a strong [mental] image in any given observer’.  Lynch posits that the strength and accessibility of this mental image correlates with the observer’s wellbeing within their environment, and with the ability to form ‘collective memories in the group imagination’, Daily life, he suggests, ‘can take on new meaning if carried out in a more vivid [ie legible] setting’. The bulk of the book is concerned with the identifying of those physical characteristics of cities which strengthen or detract from its imageability.  

Lynch is first and foremost an empiricist, and the book constitutes a report on the systematic surveying of three US cities and their inhabitants. From the resulting body of data Lynch and his colleagues derive a set of key attributes associated with strong city image, which designers can utilise in their attempts to create future high quality physical environments.

I am taken with this approach, perhaps because of my background in empirical commercial market research.  It brings with it a rigour absent from much landscape theory, which too often appears to be based on nothing much beyond whims of the theorist in question.  Given that the product of our trade has a lasting impact on people, are we not obliged to ensure that our designs have a sound basis in terms of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t, what has and what hasn’t? (I was dismayed to recently hear a landscape architect say they had no idea whether or not their redesign of an urban park had increased footfall; they gave no impression that they particularly cared).

But is it enough on its own?  Does subscription to a set of prescribed critera such as this not constitute the dead hand of science on the imaginative impulse?  I heard enough times in my previous life the complaint that research kills creativity.  The reality, for me, is that we need both: the imaginative drive to push the boundaries, and the checks and balances of criteria such as Lynch’s to ensure that what we do actually works in the real world.

 

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