Book Review – The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch

Review posted on June 3, 2010 

In the 50th Anniversary year of the publication of Kevin Lynch’s seminal work, The Image of the City (MIT Press, 1960), it is very sad to observe –  and experience – in our “modern” cities that most “city planners” and urban decision-makers did not and still “don’t get it”.


The Image of the City – MIT Press 1960

Lynch’s divided his treatise into five sections, the Image of the Environment, Three Cities, The City and Its Elements, City Form, and A New Scale.  “The Image of the Environment” sets the basis for Lynch’s theory of city design through discussion of Legibility, Building the Image, Structure and Identity, and “Imageability”.  “Three Cities” analyzes the urban forms of Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles, and identifies Common Themes that they share.

Five key elements of the city are defined in “The City and Its Elements” – Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks – and their values demonstrated.  The key elements are then brought together in a discussion of Element Interrelations, The Shifting Image, and Image Quality in a city.  “City Form” provides tools for Designing the Paths, Design of Other Elements, Form Qualities, The Sense of the Whole, Metropolitan Forms and The Process of Design.  “A New Scale” provides Kevin Lynch’s encouragement for the development of a clear and comprehensive vision of the entire metropolitan in a clear and comprehensive but short section.

The Appendices to The Image of the City offer more practical application of the approaches discussed in the main part of the work.  Some References to Orientation are provided, including discussion of the Types of Reference Systems, Formation of the Image, The Role of Form, and the Disadvantages of Imageability.  The Use of the Method expands upon “The Method” as the Basis of Design, and proposes Directions for Future Research.  Finally, Two Examples of Analysis provides application to Beacon Hill and Scollay Square to demonstrate “on the ground” realization of the concepts using analysis and planning tools provided in the overall work and Appendices.

In fairness to those who have followed, many of Lynch’s ideas and tools have been adopted and adapted in an excellent manner by many planners supported by discerning leaders and citizenry across the country.  Just as often, however, they have been ignored, watered-down, mutated into self-serving justification with “correct” vocabulary to support obsolete and destructive development practices.

After 50 years, The Image of the City remains a “must read” for those interested in city form – whether in North America or elsewhere – as a touchstone in the feedback loop of “How did our cities and suburbs get into the shape we live with today?” and to inform superior ways of reforming the cities and suburbs as we move into the future.


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