Mental Maps of Hometowns

In A Sense of Place, 3. City Form and Orientation by EmilyLeave a Comment

I have never been able to fully grasp spatial concepts; when I try on shoes and put them back in the box, I still can never quite figure out how to place them so they both fit again. However, Kevin Lynch talks about mental maps in very logical and often spatial terms with different shaped designs in the margins of the pages. While I think it is important for residents to be keen observers in order to possibly improve their city, it can be very challenging to do especially when one has lived in the same city for a considerable amount of time.

Lynch writes that “[m]oving elements in a city, and in particular the people and their activities, are as important as the stationary physical parts” (2). I really agree with this statement; people give the city character and often their experiences in places make up their mental maps. When people ask for directions to a street, I am almost always unable to give them accurate ones. The street they are looking for is known to me  just as the place where I sat every year and watched the town parade going by, scrambling for candy before it fell into the sewer grate.

I lived on the same street in the same house for eighteen years, and while I know the name of my street, to this day I still could not tell you positively the name of the street behind my house or what the streets are called at the five way intersection 400 feet from my house. It is often hard to see things logically like names of streets when one has such a deep personal connection. It is similar to someone in a relationship not seeing the objectively bad qualities in their partner because they are so connected to them and in love they cannot think objectively when it comes to them.  

I had to give my boyfriend directions the first time he visited my childhood home, and he asked me for interstate numbers and whether he wanted to be in the north or southbound lanes. I had no idea what interstate is a 10 minute walk from my house, nor did I know what lanes or streets he wanted to take. I simply directed him by telling him to make a left at the blue gas station or a right at the out of place new house. It is difficult to give practical directions to a place that is so deeply personal to you. I found myself getting caught up in telling a story from my childhood about a church we passed instead of telling him he made the wrong turn.

If I were asked like participants in Lynch’s project to draw a map of my home town, there would be no districts or edges on my map despite my best efforts. My mental map contains a major street and landmarks, both famous and personal.  I cannot help but relate mental maps again back to my concentration of identity formation. Every individual has their own mental map of their city, and each one is unique. I think mental maps can gives clues as to the person’s personality; for example if they are a visual learner their map may contain more pictures and landmarks than streets. If they are more of a practical person, they perhaps label everything and include little personal landmarks.  On the other hand, a more emotional person like myself has a mental map full of personal landmarks that I connect to because of strong feeling or meaningful experience I had there.

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