Cognitive Approach

My teacher, Kevin Lynch (1918-1984), had a very important idea. He said that planners should understand and consider the way ordinary people perceive their environment before proposing changes. Lynch wrote many books on many topics, but his first and most important work is The Image of the City. For the first time, interviews were conducted to learn how ordinary people perceive and understand the city. Lynch believed that design could make the city clearer and stronger and more understandable. He assumed that a good city form should have an understandable structure and image which is not imposed by designers and planners but derived from the perceptions of the people who use the place.

Carl Steinitz, Landscape planning: A brief history of influential ideas (2008)

In the psychophysical approach, the perceived qualities of a landscape are derived from perceptual responses of different groups of respondents. Considered from the perspective of the cognitive approach, landscape perception becomes a process of interpretation, mediated by emotional responses to sites, perceived meanings, and physiological reactions (e.g. stress reduction). Design is thus a cognitive activity made up of thought processes, such as the search for ideas, the generation of solutions, the evaluation of information, the consideration and production of visual representations, and the development of strategies, while learning and experiencing.

A clear image of the environment will contribute to wayfinding performance in the future. Thus, to learn the large-scale structure of space, the traveler must necessarily build a cognitive map of the legible environment by integrating observations over extended periods of time, inferring spatial structure from perceptions and effects of actions.

Based on the above discussion, it is evident that the configurational properties of the environment are important variables in acquiring environmental knowledge. Cognitive representations and legibility comprise an subjective evaluations of the urban environment. It seems impossible to understand human-landscape interactions and specifically the experience of landscape without knowledge of their psychological foundations. Experience is first and foremost a psychological phenomenon.

Kevin Lynch, Boston image scheme from The Image of the City (1969)



Our image of the landscape is the result of complex cultural interpretations. The relationship of our personal experience, based in our cultural milieu to the landscapes around us is often underestimated. This includes how we interpret something even as simple as a public park. Parks have undoubtedly communicated cultural, behavioral and political cues throughout history.  Sometimes didactic and sometimes unintentionally instructive about societal norms and preferences, parks are not always as neutral as they might appear. Curiously, parks are instruments of power that seem almost benign in the public realm – few question the creation of a new park.

The design and appearance of a park generally reflects its cultural and geographical position. At the municipal level, parks are furnished with standard “from the catalog” items, such as benches, bollards and trash cans, which vary from country to country, and from city to city. Even in parks that are initially completely custom designed, these standard elements creep in as time and use progress. It is easy to identify the location of some parks from their bits and pieces, such as those in New York City from their dark green wood-slat benches. In contrast to this common quality, Superkilen in Copenhagen looks nothing like any other park in Copenhagen, and for good reason.

Jessica Bridger, Culture Riot (2012)


 Topotek 1, Bjarke Ingels Group, Superflex, Superkilen (2012)


R. David Marks, Socorro, New Mexico, USA (2018)


Design Theory

The word [theory] is derived from the Greek theoria, meaning to supervise, witness and travel, and also to consider, study. ‘Travelling’ in this case indicates the way in which theory becomes method. Since the time of Descartes (1596-1650), a scientific theory has been defined as a creative, ordering hypothesis that is followed by experimental verification or falsification.

Such a model is not applicable to the arts, or to architecture or landscape architecture, which do not make it possible to test or check theories in the same way. Notions such as truth, authenticity and tenability do not apply. The content and intent of ‘theory’ differ, and overlap with such concept , visions and paradigms.

In that it can bridge, mediate or reconcile, theory can play a number of roles in landscape architecture. The bridging role is played by what are effectively ‘guidebooks’ that describe and locate sites, thereby providing the reader with a descriptive vocabulary and with criteria for appreciating the landscape. The mediating role of theory consists of actively revealing the contradictions underlying a given culture’s artistic, political and economic ideologies, thereby influencing perceptions of the landscape in general and of built works in particular. The reconciling role is needed to contain, inscribe, embed, and express within, its designed environments a culture’s complex and contradictory attitudes about the natural world. It can communicate the tension between those intertwined strands of faith and reason, myth and fact.

Theoretical thinking on the subject of garden design has always focused on the how and why of a garden’s layout. In essence, the questions concern the nature of good design, and of ‘good’ environment of the highest possible quality.

This leads to a need to clarify the why and how of the design process. Design theories are based on changing standards and values, on ideologies shared by designers. Verification is impossible because of a lack of adequate systematic knowledge of human behavior, human, ideals, expectations and aims. Assumptions are therefore inevitable.

There is a distinction between positive design theories and normative ones. A positive theory is founded on assumptions and ideas that can be used as a basis for describing and explaining the nature of the design process and the present condition of the natural and the built environment. The greater knowledge of phenomena brought by empirical evidence can deepen a designer’s insight into reality. This, together with his own growing experience, can lead him to better decisions. For every landscape architect, the learning process begins during the phase of professional training; it is a life-long process.

A normative theory is founded on an ideology and on propositions of how reality should be, thoughts on this being guided by notions on human behaviour. Normative theories often lead to utopian design and planning proposals. Architectural history contains many examples of useful innovations and changes that were derived from experiments that were originally utopian in nature. Progress often results from trial and error. There is also a distinction between instrumental theory and critical theory. Though the former is typically derived from empirical observation, it often evolves from practical experience, as with Kevin Lynch and John Ormsbee Simonds. ‘This is what I call the practitioner’s knowing-in-action. It can be seen as consisting of strategies of action, understanding of phenomena, ways of framing the problematic situations encountered in day-to-day experience. It is acquired through training, or through on-the-job experience. It is usually tacit’. A critical theory challenges taken-for-granted ways of thinking and puts forward alternatives.

Meto J. Vroom, Lexicon of Garden and Landscape Architecture (2006)

Bureau B+B, Wijkeroog Park (2004-2011)




Our era is decidedly the one for the landscape, at least in the sense of verbal reproduction and being iconic. The word and the image are everywhere, in the daily newspaper and in the specialized publications, on the screens, and on the walls, in the leaflets and in the spirits. Today the landscape is labeled and revealed, it is explained and adulated, conserved and protected, and it is equally sold and re-sold. Popularised and democratized, it belongs to everyone, as it functioned in the past as a social code and distinctive sign of a certain elite who willingly recognized themselves in the common sharing of emblematic places or topical representations.

Michael Jakob, Le Paysage (2008)


Michel Gondry, Chemical Brothers “Star Guitar” video clip (2003)


Unrealized Potential

Most of the people who use plazas, we found, are young office workers from nearby buildings. There may be relatively few patrons from the plazas own building: as some secretaries confide, they‘d just as soon put a little distance between themselves and the boss. But commuter distances are usually short; for most plazas. the effective market radius is about three blocks. Small parks, like Paley and Greenacre in New York, tend to have more assorted patrons throughout the day—upper—income older people, people coming from a distance. But office workers still predominate, the bulk from nearby.

This uncomplicated demography underscores an elemental point about good urban spaces: supply creates demand. A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits—al fresco lunches—and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause. It does all this very quickly. In Chicago’s Loop, there were no such amenities not so long ago. Now, the plaza of the First National Bank has thoroughly changed the midday way of life for thousands of people. A success like this in no way surfeits demand for spaces; it indicates how great the unrealized potential is.

William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980)

Streetlife, William “Holly” Whyte in his own words.




A comparison with the speech act will allow us to go further and not limit ourselves to the critique of graphic representations alone, looking from the shores of legibility toward an inaccessible beyond. The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered. At the most elementary level, it has a triple “enunciative” function: it is a process of appropriation of the topo­graphical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among prag­matic “contracts” in the form of movements (just as verbal enunciation is an “allocution,” “posits another opposite” the speaker and puts con­ tracts between interlocutors into action).  It thus seems possible to give a preliminary definition of walking as a space of enunciation. (…) The modalities of pedestrian enunciation which a plane representation on a map brings out could be analyzed. (…) Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it “speaks.”

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980)


Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking (1967)

Situational Improprieties

In diagnosing mental disorder and following its hospital course, psychiatrists typically cite aspects of the patient’s behavior that are “inappropriate in the situation.” (…)

By and large, the psychiatric study of situational improprieties has led to studying the offender rather than the rules and social circles that are offended. Through such studies, however, psychiatrists have inadvertently made us more aware of an important area of social life—that of behavior in public and semi-public places. Although this area has not been recognized as a special domain for sociological inquiry, it perhaps should be, for rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization.

Erving Goffman, Behavior in Public Places (1963)

Monty Python, Stills of the Ministry of Silly Walks’ Sketch (1970)

Dystopic​ Sunday

The negative foil to Manet’s Déjeneur sur I’herbe, or rather its mood of gaiety gone sour, is embodied in Seurat’s promenade piece: Un Dimanche à la Grande-Jatte. This picture is one single mosaic of boredom, a masterful rendering of the disappointed longing and the incongruities of a dolce far niente. The painting depicts a middle-class Sunday morning [sic] on an island in the Seine near Paris, and that is just the point: it depicts this merely with scorn. Empty-faced people rest in the foreground; most of the others have been grouped into Wooden verticals like dolls from the toy box, intensely involved in a stiff little walk. Behind them is the pale river with sailboats, a sculling match, sightseeing boats-a background that, despite the recreation going on there, seems to belong more to Hades than to a Sunday. A great load of joyless leisure is in the image, in the bright matt glare of its atmosphere and in the expressionless Water of the Sunday Seine, the object of an equally expressionless contemplation… As the workaday World recedes, so does every other world, everything, recede into watery torpidness. The result is endless boredom, the little man’s hellish utopia of skirting the Sabbath and holding onto it too; his Sunday succeeds only as a bothersome must, not as a brief taste of the Promised Land. Middle-class Sunday afternoons like these are landscapes of painted suicide which do not come off [even at that] because it lacks resolve. In short, this dolce far niente, if it is conscious at all, has the consciousness of an absolute non-Sunday in what remains of a Sunday utopia?

Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (1954)

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884)


Paul Signac, In the Time of Harmony: The Golden Age Is Not in the Past, It Is in the Future. (1895)

Paul Signac was a Seurat’s friend and follower. Notice how where Seurat paints isolated characters in the urban context, his friend draws compositive relationships that links his characters with his common activity in the countryside. This isolation of urban life is a line of reflection of those that work in urban landscapes.