Urban Sociology and Imageability

A vivid and integrated physical setting, capable of producing a sharp image, plays a social role . . . It can furnish the raw material for the symbols and collective memories of group communication.

A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He [or she] can establish an harmonious relationship between himself and the outside world. This is the obverse of the fear that comes with disorientation; it means that the sweet sense of home is strongest when home is not only familiar but distinctive as well.

Kevin Lynch: “The Image of the City.” Cambridge Massachussettes, 1960 MIT Press

If asked which areas on campus students found visually pleasant, would you choose the football field or North Village Apartments? What about Hoover Library or “Red Square”? If you said all of them you’d be right. Now, can you guess which dorm is at top of the list in the visually unpleasant category? Ok, maybe that one was too easy. And, no, I didn’t go off on a wild hare and start polling random students as they passed by the office, interesting though that might be. I did, however, drop by Dr. Linda Semu’s Urban Sociology class to watch their group mini-documentaries about places on campus they identified either as important physical elements, visually pleasant or unpleasant, or a “most frequented” place.

Library & Red SquareWhile Linda has taught this course for several years, last spring she decided it needed a little fine tuning. As part of the study of Lynch’s elements of imageability students work in groups to complete a multipart assignment wherein they examine the physical spaces on campus while looking for specific characteristics. Are there places that especially serve to facilitate a sense of community? Are there buildings or landmarks that are aesthetically pleasing and memorable? What areas are best at marrying human needs (psychosocial processes) to physical surroundings? In past semesters students completed this aspect of the assignment “on paper.” Linda wanted to find a way to get the students more engaged in identifying and describing the areas they chose. What if, instead of another piece of paper to hand in, the students used video? Linda took the chance and in spring of 2010 changed this part of the assignment to a short video piece. Pleased with the results she opted to use video again this semester.

As part of the first stage of the assignment, students complete a survey about the physical spaces on campus. Linda then organizes the students into groups based on the results. The survey responses serve as a storyboard outline for the mini-documentaries each group creates. Having watched presentations from two different classes it’s interesting to see how easily students gravitate toward what could be considered iconic areas of campus. The library, gym and football field always figure in there. The gazebo was also part of last year’s choices but didn’t make the list this year. A few places (such as the formerly alluded to dorm) are traditional in their “grossness” and “disgusting” attributes. Students almost jokingly refer to “glarbage” and, while they’d like the food to be more appealing, the cafeteria is a prime spot for socializing and “glar watching.” In fact, several areas housed within Decker are rated highly for their conduciveness to socializing, whether it’s hanging out over a cup of coffee at the Buda Cafe, studying together in Ensor lounge, grabbing a bite to eat in the pub, or hanging out with friends just for the sake of, well, hanging out.

As part of her overview of the survey results from last spring, Linda concluded:

“Overall, the results are to some extent consistent with the five elements of imageability that Lynch suggested. You point to buildings, open spaces/landscapes, vista points, with some being considered as landmarks. Similarly, despite this being a small campus, we can see the concept of district being applied as to when we move from one area of specified use to another: classrooms, dorms, Decker center, etc. The Red Square/Library and in some cases the library are considered as the center/heart of the campus. This conforms to the concept of nodes as suggested by Lynch. The Archway is an ‘edge’, signifying a break from the town and the college campus.

It is clear from the data that people’s memorization of a place plays a very important role in the meaning people attach to a place.  These memories might either be unique to the individual or shared by many people. For example, the Decker center is not an outstanding building and it surely is not mentioned as one of the visually pleasant places on campus. However, it houses many facilities that are central to student’s life (post office, dining facilities, etc) such that inevitably, students gather there and it becomes embedded in students’ memories of the campus.”

Pretty interesting stuff. I know I will consider my favorite places on campus in a new light. What about you? Do you have a favorite spot on campus? Leave a comment and tell us about it and why it appeals to you.

(Photo of Hoover Library courtesy of McDaniel Office of Communications & Marketing.)