A research was done on the University of Arizona main campus to test the most memorable and imageable places on campus. The research was set according to architect and urban planner Kevin Lynch’s method of perceiving cities. In his book, The Image of The City, Lynch structured his method on five elements: Path, Edge, District, Node, and Landmark, which are used to identify a city.

For example, a Path could be a street, a walkway, a transit line, a canal, etc. An Edge could be a shore, a railroad cut, a wall, etc. A District could be sections or blocks of a city. A Node could be a public space, a park, a transit center, etc. A Landmark is an iconic city feature such as a monument, a building, or a natural element such as a mountain.

Lynch’s analysis measures how people perceive the urban environment of a city, what places are memorable to them, and describes their image of that city. He interviewed people and made them draw maps of their cities as they experienced them. These people were not trained or prepared to do so, so the results were vernacular drawings, he called them cognitive maps. These maps were neither comprehensive or detailed, but were very simple and highlighted the individual perception of each one. Collectively, the sum of the maps showed places that everyone remembers, such as landmarks and nodes of their city, and places that are commonly remembered, and places that rarely or not remembered at all, such as some paths, edges, and districts of their city.

So, How does the University of Arizona main campus look like as a cognitive map?

The University of Arizona main campus is located in Tucson, AZ. It was considered as a city that has Lynch’s principles of cities applicable because it covers a significant amount of land. It is, somehow, a self-contained district defined by four edges. Although it lies at the heart of the city with no formal boundaries, its district feels independent, and its conventional adjacent city streets act as memorable edges. However, even it covers about 460 acres, only a few imageable places could be put on my cognitive map, leaving a lot of white space blank in memory.

To me, a cognitive map is the map of the everyday life in the city/place I live/work in. Therefore, all what I could have put on this map demonstrate my own common experience, places that I go every day, on a regular basis, or just large entities that were stuck in memory like the stadium, the memorial center, and the medical center. Therefore, there is no problem with campus, it is just a personal perception that certainly change from one to another.

With some fun and curios will, I started to ask some of my friends to draw me a map of UA campus in just 2 minutes, just to see what they come up with. However, I found myself asking more people that until I had 50 of them. That included UA students, Pima Community College students, high school students, graduate alumni, UA employees, architects, shuttle drivers, UA police officers, and parking monitors. (see some of their drawings below)

By comparing this map with students of UA, study/eating places matches, but the way home does not. Interestingly, by comparing it with other other people that are not students, the white spaces actually were the imageable places for them, which means they remember a whole different places on campus!

However, there were still matching places like UA mall, UA student union, old main, and UA main library, which are campus’s main theme or core image. This means that everybody on campus have these in mind for sure, but the rest is different to each person. This makes total sense of how cities should be perceived, there must be landmarks that everybody sees, there must nodes that most people penetrate, and there must be some edges, districts, and paths that some people use.

This how I drew my UA cognitive map, not looking at a Google map or other sources.

I was thinking somehow that Lynch was proposing these elements to improve imageability of a city in the sense of that every place MUST be memorable in all cities, which may imply stuffing all of these 5 elements in every new design with that intention in mind, to increase their imageability. I feel overwhelmed with this idea.

In other words, if Lynch was intending that everybody on UA campus should be able to draw a map that has everything exist on campus because his theory was applied on UA campus, then he is asking for too much. There is no such normal human that is able to comprehend city spaces like that. I’m sure that even people who worked for 20 or 30 years on campus cannot draw a complete cognitive map. Otherwise, if the intention was just to establish a scientific method of measuring how people perceive and memorize places, it is a very effective method.


These are samples of how some people perceived the UA campus. You can see how some of them were very broad and some were very detailed. It is fascinating how every person remembers places they have been to. But what is more fascinating is how do they match the real world? They give us a completely different image!



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