Cognition and the City: An Introduction

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 44 – Number 2


The contributors to this issue explore the integration of two disciplinary domains – cognition as studied mainly in cognitive science, and cities as studied in disciplines such as urban studies, urban geography and architecture.

As the title indicates, this special issue brings together two disciplinary domains: cognition as studied mainly in cognitive science, and cities as studied in disciplines such as urban studies, urban geography, architecture and the like. The first, cognitive science – The Mind’s New Science (Gardner, 1987) – is a very young discipline. It emerged in the mid 1950s out of a rebellion against the doctrine of behaviourism that dominated the behavioural sciences in the first half of the twentieth century. The second, the study of cities, is rather old with roots in antiquity in the writings of first-century BC Roman architect Vitruvius and Palladio in the renaissance. The first’s main focus of interest is the world inside the brain, while the second deals with the world outside. The first attempts to be associated with the natural sciences, while the second is part of what Herbert Simon (1969 [1996]) has termed The Sciences of the Artificial. And yet, the two are interrelated. Several cognitive science’s streams, namely, Gibson’s (1979) ecological approach, embodied cognition (Varela et al., 1994), the extended mind (Clark and Chalmers 1998) suggest that the mind extends into the external environment. In Nobel laurate E. Kandel’s (2012, p. 284) words on the visual system:

Thus, we live in two worlds at once, and our ongoing visual experience is a dialogue between the two: the outside world that enters through the fovea and is elaborated in a bottom-up manner, and the internal world of the brain’s perceptual, cognitive and emotional models that influences information from the fovea in a top-down manner.

In parallel, in the domain of cities, several streams turned their attention to the internal world. In 1960, architect Kevin Lynch published his The Image of the City with the aim of finding what it is in the external world, that is in the city, that makes it legible and imageable. About a decade later urban geographers developed the notion of mental maps (Gould and White, 1974) in an attempt to provide the positivist location theories, that then dominated human geography and urban studies, a more realistic perspective on human behaviour in the environment and specifically in cities. Their basic suggestion was that a person’s location in space has an influence on his/her spatial perception and as a consequence on location decisions. Then, students of mental maps in conjunction with those of Lynch’s Image incorporated psychologist Eduard Tolman’s (1948) seminal paper ‘Cognitive maps in rats and men’, and made the three notions – mental maps, images and cognitive maps – the foundations for behavioural geography. Since the 1990s, with the growing influence of cognitive science and in conjunction with GIS, behavioural geography gradually turned into cognitive geography (Montello, 2018; Portugali, 2018).

Lynch’s main interest in the ‘image of the city’ was the city itself – its morphology and urban landscape. However, in the context of behavioural and cognitive geography the interest shifted from the city to behaviour in space and then to spatial cognition. The city itself became just a passive environment by means of, and within which, behaviour and cognition can be studied; very much in line with the role of the external environment in cognitive science in general. In the latter, the focus of interest was and still is one-sidedly on the details of the inner world, even in the above noted ecological-embodied-extended mind approaches. ‘… to my knowledge’, writes Kelso (2016, p. 5) in a recent study of the emergence of agency in a human infant out of the interaction between the infant and a mobile in the environment, ‘not a single study has recorded the motion of the mobile, thereby obviating the possibility of obtaining any information about its relation to the baby’s movements’. Thus, despite Lynch’s image of the city and the fact that many, if not most, behavioural-cognitive geographical studies were associated with cities, the links between the ‘motion of the city’ and human cognition did not originate here; it originated in three other research fields whose main concern (similarly to Lynch’s) was the city itself: Christopher Alexander’s pattern language, Bill Hillier’s space syntax and, complexity theories of cities (CTC).

According to Alexander (1979, pp. 49–50), cities are products of a language of patterns – a ‘complex set of interacting rules … [reside] … in people’s heads and are responsible for the way the environment gets its structure’. Similar to Gestalt patterns and to Chomsky’s generative ‘internal language’, Alexander’s pattern language is innate to the human mind and thus prior to and beyond culturally related specific urban morphologies. However, it differs from Chomsky’s in that Alexander’s patterns are like ‘the semantic structure … which connects words together – such as “fire” being connected to “burn”, “red” to “passion”’ (Alexander interviewed by Grabow, 1983, p. 50).

Hillier’s focus is on ‘syntax’ – in the case of cities, the syntax of the urban space (Hillier, 2012, 1996; Hillier and Hanson, 1984). The pattern of street networks in cities, suggested Hillier, functions in a way similar to syntax in language. Similar to language in which the relationship between words in their ordering determines the meaning of a sentence, so in a city the relationship between streets in ordering determines the meaning of the urban landscape and as a consequence the behaviour of people in it.

Unlike Hillier’s and Alexander’s approaches to cities, which from the start were associated with cognition, CTC – Complexity Theories of Cities, started with no such association. This domain of studies emerged in the last three decades as an approach that applies the various theories of complexity to the study of cities, their planning and design (Batty, 2013; Portugali, 2011; Portugali et al., 2012; Portugali and Stolk, 2016). Studies in this domain demonstrate that like natural complex systems, cities too are complex self-organized and organizing systems that emerge bottom-up and exhibit phenomena of chaos, fractal structure and the like. The link between CTC and cognition follows, firstly, the fact that the mind/brain is regarded as the ultimate complex system. Secondly that, as elaborated by Portugali (2011), a deeper understanding of human behaviour in cities requires making links to cognitive science.

From the discussion above it follows that linking Cognition and the City – the aim of the present special theme issue – requires an integration between the research domains just surveyed. And indeed, the first paper by Portugali and Haken suggests such an integration. The other papers in this special issue shed light on several aspects of such an integration. Thus, the second paper by Penn, puts Cognition and the City in the wider time context of human evolution. Paper three by Blumenfeld-Lieberthal et al. explores the morphological properties that typify a city. The paper by Ishikawa that follows, the fourth in the list, explores Cognition and the City in terms of people–environment interrelations. The next paper by Omer exposes the links between ‘systematic distortions in cognitive maps’ and the morphological properties of their superordinate geographical context. The sixth paper by Bae and Montello is a case study illustrating the nature of a city’s perceptual boundaries, while the seventh paper, by Kondyli and Bhatt, discusses navigation in large-scale urban structures that are becoming more and more dominant in cities.

There is no need to say more here about the various papers and their points of view; the papers do this themselves in the most appropriate ways: they speak for themselves while their abstracts describe the essence of each paper. Instead I’ll close with reference to Kandel’s statement at the beginning of this introduction. Namely, that ‘we live in two worlds at once’, that our experience ‘is a dialogue between the two: the outside world … and the internal world…’. This dialogue, as is well recorded, has shaped humans’ cognitive evolution for thousands of years. For most of this time, the outside world was in fact, Nature and the elements of which it is composed: animals trees, stars and all the rest. This is not the case anymore: in a world where more than half of the population live in cities, for most newborns the first things that they see when they open their eyes are not trees, birds or stars, but rather buildings, cars, machines and other artificial elements that make a City. And yet, in the domain of cognition, the City of the ‘Cognition and the City’ dyad has so far been discussed mainly implicitly and as a kind of by-product: as means to expose the ‘really interesting’ internal world of entities such as cognitive maps, images, spatial perception and the like. In parallel, in the study of cities, where the main focus was traditionally on economics, society, culture and politics, the Cognition of the dyad entered the discussion for the most part as means to improve our understanding of urban agents’ decision-making. It seems that it is time for the Cognition and the City dyad to become an explicit domain of study for its own sake. This special issue is a modest step towards this aim.


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  • Batty, M. (2013) The New Science of Cities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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