The way we perceive our location in the landscape is very personal. Even in familiar environments, people will have a completely different concept of the space. This ‘cognitive mapping’ effect has always fascinated town planners, landscape architects and garden designers.
Kevin Lynch’s 1960 publication “The Image of the City” is as a seminal title in this area. Lynch was one of the first to try to understand how people’s perceptions of the environment could help to design better environments. By asking participants to sketch maps of the city on their route to work, and by comparing these maps, he could identify common elements.
Lynch realised that most elements can be categorised as paths, edges, districts, nodes or landmarks. These elements are all seen in garden and city planning alike. ‘Paths’ are travel corridors such as streets or walkways. ‘Edges’ are linear, limiting or enclosing features, but do not function as paths, such as a wall or hedge. Districts are larger areas with a common function such as ‘Chinatown’ in a city, or ‘the lawn’ in a garden. ‘Nodes’ are major points in the scheme where paths intersect or end, causing behaviour to focus at these points. ‘Landmarks’ are distinctive features people use as reference points, and are often visible from a distance. These could be a tall building in a city, or a sculpture or specimen plant in a garden. The interaction and linking of these elements enable people to build a own cognitive map of a space and helps to make the environment legible to them.
Path’s are like the arteries of the garden, circulating us around the garden enabling us to get from ‘district’ to ‘district’ with ease. They create physical and psychological movement within the garden, linking separate areas together. These thoroughfares are as important as the spaces they link. Their route and materials dictate how they ‘feel’, and the pace at which we experience them.
It is a great skill to be able to create routes through the landscape that are both understandable, and enjoyable. A sudden glimpse of something in the distance, like a specimen plant or sculpture can catch the attention, and create a desire, drawing the observer along the path to discover where it leads. On the way they may be distracted by a fork leading them off in a new direction. It is this teasing and revealing of the garden in stages that gives a sense of excitement and intrigue in those experiencing it.
One of the greatest landscape designers, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was a master of this effect on the entry to his grand estates. The main carriageway wove it’s way through the landscape, between carefully situated hills and woods. Only an occasional glimpse of the house was offered until suddenly, the landscape opened up with a grand reveal of the house, perfectly set within the rolling hills of the landscape.