Uncovering JAPA

Mental Maps Still Matter in the Age of GPS

In “New Directions in Cognitive-Environmental Research,” Andrew Mondschein and Steven Moga share a new, neurological take on Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image of the City.

Planners and designers, they write in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 84, Nos. 3–4), can look to recent research in neurobiology and psychology to gain a better understanding of how spatial thinking and citizen agency contribute to mental well-being in the built environment.

Mondschein and Moga will help readers learn how the brain commits Lynch’s mental maps to memory, how participatory planning models can combine GIS and cognitive mapping, and how planners can both teach and learn from lessons of cognitive-environmental research. Their article sheds light on how individual agency and cognitive mapping are, taken together, “central to shaping a humane 21st century.”

Demonstrating how findings in cognitive science support Lynch’s notions of mental mapping and imageability, Mondschein and Moga call for increased collaboration between urban planning, design, and cognitive-environment research.

They present a comprehensive literature review on cognitive mapping, coupled with new insight into how technology can assess the psychological impacts of design, to prove positive psychology and participatory planning can work together towards achieving Lynch’s goals of a more just city.

Urban planning practitioners, researchers, teachers, and students alike will find new relevance in The Image of the City through Mondschein and Moga. Their article serves as a testament to how Lynch’s writing has not only withstood the test of time but also gained new purpose and insight when considered through an interdisciplinary lens.

In the 60 years since The Image of the City was published, Lynch’s calls for citizen agency in imageability — his claims that resident perceptions of the built environment should drive design and planning processes — have been cited 2,879 times across disciplines.

The literature review reveals how Lynch's book has gained traction both inside and outside of the field of urban planning: in environmental studies, psychology, computer science, and information systems, among others.

Addressing critiques that mental mapping will lose salience with the ubiquitous reliance on navigational and information technologies (NITs), Mondschein and Moga point to research on cognitive perception to argue that NITs will not replace mental mapping. Indeed, they explain how the hippocampus encodes mental maps, building spatial knowledge that creates a sense of agency critical to personal empowerment.

Top image: Illustration by Getty Images.


About the Author
Margaret Haltom is a Master in Urban Planning student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

May 30, 2019

By Margaret Haltom