Environmental images and cognitive maps

Cognition involves perception, thinking, problem solving and organization of information and ideas (Downs & Stea, 1973). Hence, environmental cognition can be defined as perception, understanding, organization and retrieval of spatial information. Through cognition, we construct images of our environment which help us to find our way in our daily lives. These constructed environmental images form mental representations which are unique to the individual. This process is called cognitive mapping. Memory plays a crucial role in cognitive mapping. As S. Kaplan (1978) states a cognitive map is based on familiar objects and events. Hence, cognitive maps can change or improve depending on the individual’s experiences.

People derive information from their environments through neurophysiological processes, but they also rely on personality and cultural factors to produce cognitive images (Knox & Marston, 2003). Thus, cognitive maps are highly personal constructs. A cognitive map of an individual can be quite different from an actual physical map in terms of accurate distance and structural organization. Simplification and distortion are two most important attributes of cognitive maps (Knox & Marston, 2003). The images might be incomplete or have inaccurate distance estimates. Nevertheless, cognitive images reflect how we see our environments and how we connect places to each other. Consequently, people’s orientation and navigation through space can affect their quality of life. Sense of orientation helps people to feel confident and less anxious (Kaplan et al., 1998). Cognitive maps help people to establish their routes and find their way, no matter how incomplete or distorted they are.

The term of "cognitive map" was first introduced by Tolman (1948) in his study where he investigated the spatial behavior of rats in a maze (Goregenli, 2010). However it was Kevin Lynch (1960) who pioneered cognitive mapping studies in urban design and planning with his famous work "The Image of the City". Lynch puts an emphasis on the concept of legibility for structuring and identifying the environment. Legibility plays an important role in way-finding and environmental images are fundamental for way-finding. An environmental image is a product of both immediate sensation and the memory of past experience (Lynch, 1960). Clarity of environmental images, thus the degree of legibility facilitates one’s way-finding. Lynch identified five key elements of urban form which determine the legibility of an urban environment; paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Although paths were found to be the dominant elements of environmental images, Lynch emphasizes that all of the elements operate together and interrelation of these elements are important in creating legible urban environments.

Lynch’s work has been mainly criticized for its small sample size and research technique; his five elements of legibility had already been established before interviewing the subjects. Later, he (1984) also criticized his own work for not being practical but being academically interesting (Pacione, 2005). His work also neglected the importance of symbolic meanings associated with places. Lynch was aware of the influence of meaning attached to a place on one’s environmental images, however his work focused on urban form and he stated that form should be used to strengthen the meaning in urban design. Still, his legibility framework is still considered as fundamental and influencing in cognitive mapping studies in urban environments.

Today’s fast paced urban life-styles urge us doing our daily tasks in a limited time. Hence, difficulties in getting to the desired destination may cause people to feel stressed out. As a primary component of cognitive mapping, legibility should be considered as an essential objective in place-making. Cognitive maps can be used in landscape architecture to investigate the relationship between characteristics of outdoor environments and perceived legibility. Evaluation of existing structure and organization of the environments will provide landscape architects to improve their place-making strategies in terms of design and planning.