Lynch, K. (1972). _What Time Is This Place?_ Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

Kevin Lynch is the guy. I swear, every time I read something of his, I’m blown away on multiple levels: insight, writing, research, everything. He’s famous for his ability to operationalize elements of place (most famously in The Image of the City [1960]) and their psychological effects, as well as his elegant research methodologies, but he simply does not stop there. His ability to perceive space and its great affect on our lives is echoed in his writings, too. Such a lovely writer. So simple, so unadorned, yet utterly evocative. Every written passage is a sensorial one. Wonderful stuff.

With that, this book is about how the physical world embodies the markings of time, how those markings may jibe with (or not) our own experiences, and what might be done to make that association “a life-enhancing one” (1).

“[T]he quality of the personal image of time is crucial for individual well-being and also for our success in managing environmental change, and that the external physical environment plays a role in building and supporting that image of time. The relationship is therefore reciprocal” (1).

Lynch hypothesizes that the “desirable image … celebrates and enlarges the present” (1) and connects with both the past and the future. We must emphasize the present and understand (however upsetting it is) that change is necessary and wanted.

What about restoration? What motivates it? Its sources are both practical and psychological. Regrettably for many planners (and their cities), their objectives are set too far out in the future, they rely on data too long on abstractions and too short on diversity.

Lynch’s not keen on preservation for its own sake — what is it, exactly, that we’re trying to preserve? And what do we agree is important? (Who gets to say what’s important?) Besides, “[e]very thing, every event, every person is historic” (36). Where historic preservation has saved places of questionable relevance, urban renewal has wiped out entire communities at great costs. Lynch calls historic preservation “another cloak for ‘poor removal'” (42). So rather than preserve, we must intelligently dispose.

“Choosing a past helps us to construct a future” (64).

What are some “roots in time” (40), ways we can locate historic symbols to give a place a sense of stability? “Lynch proposes a “plural attitude toward environmental remains, depending on the particular motive” (63). If science, then follow the archive and archaeology methods. If education, “unabashed playacting and communication” (63). Educational walks are key, as is showing the workaday alongside the glamorous. If to augment the present value and perception of movement of time, then choose a “temporal collage, creative demolition and addition” (64). Fragments can “enhance the complexity and significance of the present scene” (60). Focus on scale, pathways, plantings, etc. Finally, if for personal connection, make selective imprints. Our families and friends and the associated vernacular make the strongest impressions in our lives. Why not plant a tree to mark wonderful occasions, thus celebrating “the near and middle past”? (61).

Lynch delves also into time itself. As much as we hope, the growth and decay inherent in “progressive and irreversible change” (65) is not the same or a larger version of diurnal events. Our times are both subjective and objective, and we use the environment to make sense of both. Therefore, if we’re dealing with people and so their behavioral patterns, we must devise temporal, as well as spatial, designs.

“It is when local time, local place, and our own selves are secure that we are ready to face challenge, complexity, vast space, and the enormous future” (89).

Lynch notes that in film, the “material basis is visible change” (166). So how to modify the transitions to make them more perceptible? Temporal collage, treating the city as palimpsest; episodic contrast, such as planting a deciduous tree; the direct display of change, though it runs the risk of being spectacle; design for motion, anything Olmstedian; the patterning of long-range change, which is easy for planners, but harder for users. Here time-lapse photography is useful.

And how do we manage the transitions? Abandonment is far too painful, particularly for those left behind, and is in fact much harder to recover from it than disaster, as we have learned in the cases of Detroit and New Orleans. “Obsolete institutions are more critical retardants, and the attitudes and knowledge of the people who occupy the space are utterly central” (194). Adaptation allows some level of continued service, but people struggle with its rejection of constancy. Mobility is easy for the affluent, hard for the migrant and refugee.

What is acceptable change? The options include: comprehensiveness/the military model, strategic planning, “crawling pegs” (210), opportunistic action, status quo, perpetual revolution, open-ended. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but strategic planning is “more sensible where control and prediction are poor” and the “goal is fixed, straightforward, measurable” (210).

Finally, some policies for changing things: the organization/celebration of time, change intelligence (present current conditions and alternatives for the future), prototypes, conservation, preservation (but”new things must be created, and others allowed to be forgotten” [237]), time enclaves (great for touristic spots), and the field of change management (community organizing and project management). The obstacles, of course, are political.

The qualities of “good” images are the same as those of the environmental image of time. They are “vivid and engaging, have a firm, resilient, and wide-ranging structure, and allow further exploration and development” (241).


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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Community Development, Major Field, Media Arts, Minor Field, Public Space, Research Fields


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