New Developments in neuroscience are helping to better understand how people interact with the built environment. Scientists now believe the evidence is clear enough to inform improvements in the way we design and plan our environment.

Towards the end of 2019 we attended the Bartlett’s Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture, Hosted by the Urban Design Group. This annual lecture was given by Professor Kate Jeffery, one of the world’s foremost experts on mammalian navigation and mental map development.

Professor Jeffery’s lecture was entitled, ‘What neuroscience can tell us about our sense of place, and sense of direction.’ Informed by her research at University College London (UCL), the lecture provided a detailed account of how the brain’s neural networks enable our sense of place and direction, and why some environments can lead people to become lost or spatially confused.

Main areas of discussion within the talk were concepts such as rotational symmetry in spatial design, and the importance of landmarks, pathways and edges. Professor Jeffery also made reference to several aspects of the seminal book, The Image of the City, written by ground breaking urban theorist and researcher Kevin Lynch; after which the lecture series is named.

Lynch’s work looked at the various cognitive mapping techniques our brains employ to navigate the city. His book was the result of a five-year study of Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles on how observers take in information of the city and use it to make mental maps. Lynch’s conclusion was that people formed mental maps of their surroundings consisting of five basic elements. Pathway, Edge, District, Node and Landmark.

Interestingly professor Jeffery’s work, along with others, carried out at UCL and elsewhere, looks at many of Lynch’s original five key factors, but uses tiny electrodes to map the movements of rats within a controlled space. Key findings show that the rats, like humans, require a variety of built environment signals to form an overall working mental map. For example, a place with landmarks but no built edges or asymmetry may still confuse both animals and humans.

This science could prove invaluable to anyone working in urban design, highways, planning, architecture, or the public realm and begs the question why more of the human sciences are not woven into spatial practices education.