Reading Kevin Lynch is like getting a new pair of glasses. Nothing has actually changed in your surroundings, but you see things differently. Legibility, or readability, is an important part of navigating the city landscape. To study this "we must consider not just the city as a thing in itself, but the city being perceived by its inhabitants" (Lynch 3).
The city is a constantly growing experience. As you move through a city you are experiencing things in an expanding way. "At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences"(Lynch 1). There is always something more to add to how you experience the city. These memories and experiences of a city become meaningful to the people who live there. To Lynch, visual quality of a city and the mental images associated with it are of upmost importance when studying the urban landscape.
A city can be considered a very important and powerful symbol of a society. In The Image of the City Lynch explores the cities of Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles revealing the knowledge of the inhabitants and how they view their city. When asked to describe a city, any person would say that a city is a collection of "streets, buildings, sidewalks, bridges," but Lynch prefers to describe the city as a interrelated connection of paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Paths are the channels through which the observer moves and that constitute the predominant element in their image, whereas edges are linear elements that are not paths- they are lateral references, sometimes boundaries. Districts, nodes and landmarks are also prominent parts of a city. Districts are sections of the city that a person "enters" and that have identifying characteristics. Nodes are points within the city that can be used as destinations or points of interest, such as transit stations. Landmarks serve the same purpose as nodes; however, they are physical objects, where nodes can be plazas, intersections or park spaces.
"A distinctive and legible environment not only offers security but also heightens the potential depth and intensity of human experience"(Lynch 5). An environmental image links person to place and gives a sense or emotional security. An environmental image is made up of three components- identity, structure and meaning. First, you must identify the object, then determine the spatial or pattern relation, and assign an emotional value about it.
The importance that you place on a landscape or place is called an environmental image. Lynch ascertains that there are two aspects of an environmental image, what is distinct within the environment, and what the observer thinks and what meaning they associate with their surroundings. "People observe the city while moving through it, and along these paths the other environmental elements are arranged and related" (Lynch 47). Lynch discovered through surveys and interviews from these cities that people tend to adapt to their surroundings, and formulate patterns and identity from what they see and experience every day. People place a significant amount of importance on their personal environmental images, and this can influence their reactions to changes.
As planners "we are continuously engaged in the attempt to organize our surroundings, to structure and identify them" (Lynch 90). In designing cities it is always important to acknowledge the importance of legibility and an environmental image. "When reshaping cities it should be possible to give them a form which facilitates these organizing efforts rather than frustrates them" (Lynch 90).