Kevin Lynch's Original Study (Copyright MIT Press 1960)

In 1960 an architect by the name of Kevin Lynch embarked on a fascinating three-city study of how urban dwellers keep mental pictures of their hometowns. He and his team identified five “elements” of the city: 1) paths, 2) edges, 3) nodes, 4) districts, and 5) landmarks. These five components constitute most of the ways individuals think about and navigate their city. As smartphones become more and more ubiquitous, the way we navigate cities has changed. We have GPS devices, interactive maps, social networking applications that tell us where our friends are and where they like to go for pizza. The city exists in physical space, it exists in our minds, and now it exists in the digital “cloud.” How does this new layer of bits effect the way our cities look, act, and feel?

I want to briefly discuss the five elements before conjecturing how access to information changes what these elements look like and how we organize the city in our heads. Paths can be everything from informal trodden grass across a campus quad, to an interstate highway. They are mutually recognized vectors of travel that have varying levels of accommodation for such an action. Edges are linear boundaries that individuals view as the end of a certain space or a barrier to further travel along a path. A path for cars (highways) might act as an edge for pedestrians. Nodes are areas that attract or concentrate activity and provide an orientation to the surrounding area. They denote a sense of arrival, and/or provide a transition from one perspective to another. Train stations, highway exits, public squares, and plazas are all examples of nodes. The last two elements, districts and landmarks- are terms we use every day. There are “warehouse districts,” or places we might call “Little Italy.” But in general districts are spaces that residents recognize as somehow different from other places. Landmarks help orient you to your surroundings by thinking of other points of interest in relation to the location of the landmark. A Wal-Mart, the Empire State Building, or an old oak tree are all landmarks.

But what happens when you add an always-on internet connection in your pocket? What does this new digital layer do to our image of the city? The ubiquity of aerial photographs and accurate maps may mean that we do not rely on these five elements quite so much anymore. We have a cheat sheet of sorts, which can tell us when the next train arrives or where a coffee shop can be found.

Building off of what PJ and Nathan have been working on, I would like to posit the idea of an “augmented city.” The tourist or recent transplant may use their phone in the beginning, but we do eventually build our mental images. Our customized Google maps, our Yelp reviews, and Foursquare badges are digital manifestations of our mental image. But because we are sharing this information, these images inform others’ images as well. The implications for such a direct link to our image of the city is bigger than we think. Advertising on these platforms can distort our image, it can make that Starbucks seem closer or bigger in a way that a billboard couldn’t accomplish. Our images are now, more than ever, susceptible to the influences of others. We need to be careful of who we let build that image.