If you were asked to get out a pencil and paper and draw your city, what would you include? Maybe a few major roads, a downtown district, a large lake? If the result is a coherent map with connected features, you probably live in an “imageable” city. The concept of imageability was introduced by Kevin Lynch in 1960 as a way to measure how well cities can be experienced and understood. A clear mental image of the city provides orientation that is necessary for emotional security and heightens the experience of everyday urban living.
Lynch unpacks the complex concept in his book, The Image of The City, by defining the components of an imageable city and applying the concept to Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles. Lynch believed that a mental image of a city is composed of five elements:
Paths: Any ways the observer travels, such as streets, sidewalks, or transit lines;
Edges: Breaks in continuity, such as walls, shorelines, or transitions between districts;
Districts: Sections of the city that one can enter and exit. Districts have some identifying character, such as neighborhoods or shopping districts;
Nodes: Intersections that either contain an important junction or are a concentration of similar uses, such as a transit station or public square;
Landmarks: Reference points, which unlike a node, one cannot pass through, such as a unique building or statue.
When these five components exist and interact seamlessly with each other, it creates a sensuous and memorable place. Lynch describes a highly imageable city as “well-formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the eye and the ear to greater attention and participation.”
South View of Phoenix from Camelback Mountain
What would happen if the concept of imageability was applied to Phoenix? The city's rigid grid pattern of mile-wide blocks does indeed create an easily navigable city. However, easily getting from point A to point B does not automatically mean the traveler was able to form a clear mental map of their surroundings. When I asked on Phoenix resident to map the city, the result was a grid of streets, some mountains, the downtown district, and a shopping mall.
Of the five elements that create an image of a city, it might be argued that Phoenix has only mastered the path through its street grid. The ever-sprawling city struggles to define edges and walkability; and creating districts with unique character has been a regular critique. Without these districts, vibrant nodes are difficult to cultivate and sustain. While Phoenix does have several landmarks, such as Piestewa Peak and Tovrea Castle, they are far and few between in relation to the vast amount of space covered by the urban populace.
Southwest View of Phoenix from Camelback Mountain
As Phoenix begins to regain its identity through initiatives such as Reinvent Phoenix and PlanPHX, the city's imageability will hopefully improve and provide an experience that residents and visitors will never forget.
The concept of imageability provides urban planners with valuable insight into their cities. What does it look like when you draw your city?
Credits: Images by Lynn Coppedge. Data linked to sources.