City archetypes

Composite map of Boston (Kevin Lynch)

Composite map of Boston (Kevin Lynch. Source:

When Kevin Lynch conducted the research for a project called The Perceptual Form of the City, providing much of the material for his seminal work The Image of the City, he asked study participants to draw their mental models of the cities they lived in. Lynch then created composite maps generated from multiple drawings, resulting an archetypal, aggregate mental map of the city. He was able to identify five shared characteristics of the mental image people form of their environments: paths, nodes, districts, edges, and landmarks. While the individual interpretation of these five elements may vary, they form the vocabulary of what he called the imageable city.

Lynch’s studies suggest that some cities are more imageable than others, and that it is potentially possible to improve their imageability and thereby how people navigate within them by focusing on the identity of the five elements. His work also suggests that there are basic building blocks that constitute the way in which cities grow. If we as individuals had a clearer understanding of what comprises these basic elements and how they relate to eachother, we would presumably have a better way of understanding both new and familiar city environments.

Madrid (Architypes, Christian Marc Schmidt, 2003)

Madrid (Architypes, Christian Marc Schmidt, 2003)

In The Architecture of the City, Aldo Rossi wrote about urban artifacts—constant elements within the city that form the foundation of its identity and how it evolves over time. It follows that, if we were to filter out the urban ‘variables,’ we might be able to identify the elements of the imageable city that constitute its essence from a geographic standpoint. This was the premise of a series of prints called Artifacts that I produced in 2003. These were brief experiments in mapping cities based on their signature characteristics as identified by studying satellite imagery. The underlying idea of ‘authentic identity’ or imageability of places and cities is one that continues to inform my work.

[Map=Yes], Stamen/Mapquest

New York City (Map=Yes, Stamen)

Recently, Stamen launched a new project based on OpenStreetMap (OSM), a map created solely through the contributions of volunteers. Called “Map=Yes”, the project allows creating maps of cities around the world, displaying only select urban elements such as buildings and parks, while filtering out all other elements such as streets and labels. Enabled by XAPI, an API maintained by MapQuest allowing advanced queries to the OSM database, the technique has the effect of displaying the unique character of a city. Although many cities are far from complete, the represented buildings and the patterns they create help to define the character of a place. The more metadata is added to geographic elements in OSM, the more customizable these maps can become.

The real potential of the combined framework that Stamen and MapQuest have created is the capability of generating personalized maps, displaying places with personal significance. What would it mean if, instead of resorting to generic, ‘swiss army knife’ maps, we could explore and navigate our environments through personalized maps?

Individually personalized maps are only the first step. As Kevin Lynch’s studies suggest, every city may have an archetype—the composite of collective, manifested associations. Rather than a map with neutral or objective posture of the sort that we have become accustomed to, a filterable map aggregating and merging a multitude of personalized, semantic maps would potentially enable understanding not only the location of geographic elements, but also their significance to the urban fabric on a larger scale.

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