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 role as educators is to offer our students the opportunity for three kinds of learnings:

(1) the building of competence in changing or conserving the landscape,

(2) the building of experience and confidence in doing so, and

(3) the building of the theoretical constructs that underlie the above two.

The development of the third leg of our self-justification -theory- is by far the most important and represents in all fields the most fundamental and traditional role of the university.

Carl Steinitz, A Framework for Theory Applicable to the Education of Landscape Architects (and Other Environmental Design Professionals) (1990)