MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

The Perceptual Form of the City

Boston featured in study directed by MIT Professors Kevin Lynch and Gyorgy Kepes, 1954-1959

Professor Kevin Lynch (1918-1984) earned his BCP degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1947 and taught courses in city planning at the Institute for thirty years. Prior to his time at MIT, Lynch studied at Yale University, at Taliesin under Frank Lloyd Wright, and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His work, especially his theory of city form and studies relating to human perceptions of the city and how they should affect city design, was highly influential.

MapIn 1954 Kevin Lynch began a five-year research project funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Perceptual Form of the City, co-directed by Lynch and Professor Gyorgy Kepes at the MIT Center for Urban and Regional Studies. The research conducted in the study was the foundation of Lynch’s theories on city planning discussed in his seminal work, The Image of the City, published in 1960. Targeting the cities of Boston, Massachusetts; Los Angeles, California; and Jersey City, New Jersey, the study comprised field trips, interviews, mapping and photograph exercises, and direction inquiries. These components helped Lynch to map out the various elements of the city, which he describes in his book as nodes, paths, edges, districts, and landmarks.

For the direction-inquiry portion of the study, five field trips were made in Boston over a six-week period in the summer of 1956. Researchers visited five locations (Columbus Square, Arlington Square, South Station, Old North Church, and Massachusetts General Hospital) and asked passersby for directions to six pre-determined destinations (John Hancock Building, Filene’s Department Store, Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Hill, Scollay Square, and the Public Garden). The origin and destination points are indicated on the map shown here. Researchers asked directions of at least two men and two women, one young and one old of each. They were asked three questions in order to get them to speak at length about the destination: “How do I get to…?” “What will it look like?” and “How long will it take?” The following directions from Massachusetts General Hospital to the Public Garden illustrate the variety of responses received.

Old wrinkled woman probably over 90-years-old: Oh, my ginger! That’s a long way. (Laughs.) Well, I tell you, go right down here (nodding toward Cambridge Street) to the esplanade. Follow that to the esplanade. Follow that to the left, along the river. You’ll see signs. Follow that to Arlington Street. That’s where the Gardens area.
Oh, they’re like nothing you ever saw. (Laughs.) Now they’re something out of this world. Awful now. Trees, and grass -- but no flowers! (Laughs.)
Oh, with your long legs, about fifteen minutes … or ten. (Laughs.)
(Leaving, turns and, with a wave, says:) Good luck.
Nurse: Oh. Are you walking or driving? Well, go right at that stoplight (pointing to Cambridge Street). Go to the traffic circle and go left on Charles Street. Just follow Charles and you’ll run right into it.
You’ll cross Beacon Street. The Common will be on your left, and the Public gardens on you right. They’re like two big parts, or one. Charles Street goes down the middle: the Common on the left, Public Gardens on the right. You can’t miss ‘em -- there’s a big bank right across the street, next to ‘em.
Oh...(thinking)...about fifteen minutes.

Overall, the field trips were a success. The directions provided offer a glimpse into the individuals’ perceptions of their city environment, as well as the relationship between two urban geographical points. They may also make you think twice the next time you are asked, “How do I get to…?”

The papers of Kevin Lynch (MC 208) include research notes, working papers, interview transcripts, trip diaries, course notes used for teaching, and other materials. The collection is available for research at the Institute Archives and Special Collections, Room 14N-118. A portion of the project documentation for The Perceptual Form of the City has been digitized and is available in DOME, the MIT Libraries’ digital repository.

View images of Boston, Massachusetts from Kepes-Lynch photograph collection.

Object of the Month: May 2009; updated April 2013

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