Mind Mapping Mental Maps of the City and the Built Enviroment

Urban Design: Art City Society

Nicholas Socrates 2009

Mind Mapping Mental Maps of the City and the Built Enviroment

In class we used mental maps to get participants to express how they navigate the space in the city.

Participants are asked to draw a sketch of how they remember and would describe the space they are using on a daily bases. This personal view/ record  has the focus on perception of space based on memory, experience, personal circumstances and current concerns.

The sheet given to participants to draw on is blank. Participants are completely free on how to draw a “map”. The only rule is not to copy it from a street map or image.

Participants are asked  to record/ sketch their mental images of the space.

One of the very famous studies using mental maps is “The Image of the City,” by Kevin Lynch, about how users perceive and organize spatial information as they navigate through cities. It was carried out over five years and summarized in his 1960 book. Lynch says: “Every citizen has had long associations with some parts of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings.” (Lynch, 1960, p 1) This expresses that there is some knowledge and meaning in each one of us about the environment we live in and have to navigate through. It is something that is not about North or South, exact distance measurements or overarching; objective descriptions, but rather, it is about personal experience, judgment and what is psychically important to the subject. Lynch said, “Most often our perception of the city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns. Nearly every sense is in operation, and the image is the composite of them all.” (Lynch, 1960, p 2)

Lynch used three disparate cities as examples (Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles). He reported that users understood their surroundings in consistent and predictable ways, forming mental maps with five elements:

Paths, the streets, sidewalks, trails, and other channels in which people travel;

Edges, perceived boundaries such as walls, buildings, and shorelines;

Districts, relatively large sections of the city distinguished by some identity or character;

Nodes, focal points, intersections or loci;

Landmarks, readily identifiable objects which serve as reference points.

Lynch provided seminal contributions to the field of city planning through empirical research on how individuals perceive and navigate the urban landscape. His books explores  the presence of time and history in the urban environment, how urban environments affect children, and how to harness human perception of the physical form of cities and regions as the conceptual basis for good urban design.

In ´Image of the City Lynch coined the term, ´wayfinder´; he defined wayfinding as “a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment”.

In 1984 environmental psychologist Romedi Passini published the full-length book “Wayfinding in Architecture” and expanded the concept to include signage and other graphic communication, clues inherent in the building’s spatial grammar, logical space planning, audible communication, tactile elements, and provision for special-needs users.
The map is a form of expression of these personal memories and descriptions. But although it is called a map, it has two fundamental differences; it has no scale and no objective direction assigned to it. The drawing lives of its elements and may only stand in this context, for example there are no assumed direction pointing towards north. Other methods can be a description in words.

The instructions to draw a mental map are simple. The focus lies on the content and not the beauty of the sketch, there is no right or wrong. The key is that the sketch is not copied from a map or image but rather drawn from memory.
Lynch introduces the mental map to the participants as follows: “We would like you to make a quick map of … Make it just as if you were making a rapid description of the city to a stranger, covering all the main features. We don’t expect an accurate drawing – just a rough sketch.” Lynch 1960, p 141)
It is a rather quick exercise and does not require a lot of planning and thinking. In mental map-making, there are three phases to the creation of the sketch. First is the skeleton phase, it contains most of the important information, objects, direction, names and paths. The second phase puts the flesh on by linking between memories with information and description. This will often trigger some more memories and makes the map rich and representative. The third and last phase is the beauty process, where no more important information is added, but rather the sketch is adjusted and critiqued.

Mental maps have been used in a variety of spatial research. There are studies such as Lynches with a focus on the built environment with a rather detailed  perception description. Also these studies can focus on the quality of the environment more in terms of feelings such as desire, stress, fear or happiness. Such a study has been done by David Ley in Philadelphia in 1972 or a current similar project on fear in Los Angeles by Sorin A. Matei, 2003. From participants responces he was able to create a three dimensional surface to represent the amount of fear in the Los Angeles region. This is indicated with red and green colours. While working with children mental maps are also often used as a method of expression. For example in “Environmental fears and dislikes of children in Berlin and Paris” by Olga Nikitina-den Besten, 2008 looks at the absence of children in today’s cities and investigates the highly specialized urban environment from a child’s perspective of safety, fear and joy. The aspect of drawing should not be underestimated. With children, the reaction will ultimately be ok they like drawing so the method is appropriate, but adults often have more difficulties to draw even a simple sketch. Drawing is not something adults necessarily do very often, but children are expected to some drawing.

To a great extend there is a lot of information contained within the mental maps on how people perceive the space and ultimately how people create their space. The creation of space could be something very personal, and through what the essence of mental maps are; is a very dynamic concept of temporal perception based on mood, concerns and circumstances.


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