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— urbantick

Mental Maps – an Overview

In the UrbanDiary Interview I am using mental maps to get participants to express how they navigate the space in the city. Mental map in this context means that participants are asked to draw a sketch of how they remember and would describe the space they are using on a daily bases. In addition to the technical GPS record this personal view has the focus on perception of space based on memory, experience, personal circumstances and current concerns. The sheet is prepared with a title and a box, but is otherwise blank. Participants are completely free on how to draw a “map”. The only rule is not to copy it from a street map or image. In addition they are asked to comment on what they draw, to record the sequence the sketch of their mental images of space is drawn. See earlier posts on the UrbanDiary mental maps here and here.
On of the very famous studies using mental maps is “The Image of the City” by Kevin Lynch. It was carried out over five years and summarized in this 1960 book. Lynch says: “Every citizen has had long associations with some parts of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings.” (Lynch, 1960, p 1) It is a fairly sweet and stereotypical description with a lot of implicit hints to society but expresses that there is some knowledge and meaning in each one of us about the environment we live in and have to navigate through. It is something that is not about North or South, exact distance measurements or overarching, objective descriptions. Rather it is about personal experience, judgment and what is physically and psychically important to the subject. Lynch said, “Most often our perception of the city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns. Nearly every sense is in operation, and the image is the composite of them all.” (Lynch, 1960, p 2)
As early as 1913, Charles Trowbridge commented on how people have different sense of orientation. He concluded two groups of navigators. Some people have imaginary maps in their heads centered upon the location of their homes. They are able to navigate a certain distance on familiar ground, but they would lose orientation in unfamiliar ground. The other group was more described as “egocentric“ and orientated to their own position at the moment. With a better ability to navigate in unfamiliar territory.

The map is just one form of expression of these personal memories and descriptions. But although it is called a map, it has two fundamental differences. It has no scale and no objective direction assigned to it. The drawing lives of its elements and may only stand in this context, e.g. there is no assumed direction pointing towards north unless the author of the map assigns it with an arrow. Nevertheless some features of a map can be borrowed by the participant, such as top down view, symbols, and so on.
Other methods can be a description in words, both as a text or an interview. The Lego Serious Play is an other creative way to expressing memories and perception and a more hand on approach. David Gauntlett from Westminster University is a researcher working with this method.

The instructions to draw a mental map are simple. The focus lies on the content and not the beauty of the sketch, there is no right or wrong. The key is that the sketch is not copied from a map or image but rather drawn from memory.
Lynch introduces the mental map to the participants as follows: “ We would like you to make a quick map of … Make it just as if you were making a rapid description of the city to a stranger, covering all the main features. We don’t expect an accurate drawing – just a rough sketch.” Lynch 1960, p 141)
It is a rather quick exercise and does not require a lot of planning and thinking. In fact from my experience with mental map-making, there are three phases to the creation of the sketch. First is the skeleton phase, it contains most of the important information, objects, direction, names and paths. The second phase puts the flesh on by linking between memories with information and description. This will often trigger some more memories and makes the map rich and representative. The third and last phase is the beauty process, where no more important information is added, but rather the sketch is adjusted and critiqued.

sturgeonsstuff – there is also a podcast about a group of students discuss their mental map of the world and Image The New Yorker magazine – A New Yorker Mental Map, taken from tamibeikelboom.

Mental maps have been used in a variety of spatial research. On one hand there are studies such as Lynches with a focus on the built environment and a rather detailed perception description. On the other hand there are studies to focus on the quality of the environment more in terms of feelings such as desire, stress, fear or happiness. Such a study has been done by David Ley in Philadelphia in 1972 or a current similar project on fear in Los Angeles by Sorin A. Matei, 2003. From participants responds he was able to create a three dimensional surface to represent the amount of fear in the Los Angeles region. This is indicated with red and green colours. While working with children mental maps are also often used as a method of expression. For example in “Environmental fears and dislikes of children in Berlin and Paris” by Olga Nikitina-den Besten, 2008 looks at the absence of children in today’s cities and investigates the highly specialized urban environment from a child’s perspective of safety, fear and joy. The aspect of drawing should not be underestimated. With children, the reaction will ultimately be ok they like drawing so the method is appropriate, but adults often have more difficulties to draw even a simple sketch. Drawing is not something adults necessarily do very often, but children are expected to some drawing.

Image from Environmental fears and dislikes of children in Berlin and Paris by Olga Nikitina-den Besten – A boy, 10 years, from Berlin and a girls, 12 years, from Paris.

An investigation into peoples desire using mental maps is summarized in the book “Mental Maps” by Peter Gould and Rodney White. They are looking at where would people like to life. They asked people: “Suppose you were suddenly given the chance to choose where you would like to live – an entirely free choice that you could make quite independently of the usual constraints of income or job availability. Where would you choose to go?” (Gould, 1974, p 15) From the responses they generated a surface of desire for different areas in the world. Here an example of a 3d model of the UK, where the height indicates the desire. Clearly there is an increase from north to south (model viewpoint is in the north looking south).

Image by Peter Gould and Rodney White, 1974.

To a great extend there is a lot of information contained within the mental maps on how people perceive the space and ultimately how people create their space. The creation of space could be something very personal and through what the essence of mental maps is a very dynamic concept of temporal perception based on mood, concerns and circumstances. As a very abstract concept it could be compared to the creation of space in the virtual world as an orbit around subject in time and space. Space as in social space or individual space is probably not the same as Euclidean space, the way we think about space generally. If we describe space from personal perception and time point of view, the concept of space might be something very different from the space as a box concept.

To extend and intensify the research on mental maps you are all invited to contribute your own, very personal mental maps of the place you live. For this purpose is the flickr group MENTAL MAP at http://www.flickr.com/groups/mentalmap/
It is an open group and you can ad your sketch of the environment you life in. The instructions are outlined above by Kevin Lynch.
You can contribute two types of maps, an overall sketch of the city, town or village you life in and a detailed description of your way to work and back home again. For both it would be great if you include a short description and it is necessary to geotag the image before adding to the group. Otherwise it will be rejected by flickr. The geotag is a rough location in the area of your sketch.
I am thinking about putting all the mental maps together in a publication as a summary of worldwide perception of people’s environments.


A map of all the posted Mental Maps can be seen here. There might not be much there at the moment but hopefully it will grow in the next few weeks.

Gould, P. & White, R., 1974. Mental Maps, Harmondsworth: Penguin.