At first glance, the findings of this study support existing behavioural theories of environmental learning (Golledge, Richardson & Gale, 1987). Mental images are organised hierarchically around significant clues, and the connections between them emerge gradually with time. On the other hand, the data revealed that the cues are more than important physical elements. Instead, they appear to be concentrations of multi-sensory experiences and embodied practices, combined with a distinct or symbolic physical form. The intensity of our sensory engagement and embodied interaction with the space is as important as familiarity or knowledge about it.
Although our daily experiences and encounters with a space are always multi-sensory (Lehtovuori, 2005), many environments are built in a way that limits our sensory engagement. Otaniemi, designed with rational modernistic principles in mind, is an example of this approach. The separation of functions and human flows, the open spaces and extensive car infrastructure privilege a rational and "detached" observer over an engaged participant (Jackson, 1970, p. 89). Nonetheless, even in this extreme case, the students were able to anchor their mental images on sites where they experienced intense sensory engagement with the environment. This finding echoes the works of urban sociologists who say that the senses mediate one's engagement with urban life (Low, 2015).
Another key finding relates to the inconsistency of the path structure in the mental images. For the majority of the students, paths appear as arrows, abstract lines or fragmented roads, without clear beginnings and endings. It was true also for the students who stated that they new the area for more than two years, suggesting that familiarity with the area was not the reason for the absence of the paths on the mental images. The factor that influenced the connectivity of paths was the amount of movement that a person was exposed to. As a result of the densification of Otaniemi’s centre, the student who came to Otaniemi my metro does not need to walk more than 200-300 meters to reach most of their destinations. In contrary, the student who lives in Otaniemi has to walk or cycle more to reach shops, study areas and other services. Although both students are familiar with the area and know the same landmarks, their mental images are morphologically organised in a different way.
The fact that our mental representation of space and movement are connected is discussed in the literature. Ingold refers to Gibson and his approach based on ecological psychology, saying that we perceive the world along "a path of observation" (2007, p. 87):
Our perception of the environment as a whole, in short, is forged not in the ascent from a myopic, local perspective to a panoptic, global one, but in the passage from place to place, and in histories of movement and changing horizons along the way (Ingold, 2000, p. 227).
Ingold emphasises that what people remember about the environment is not a collection of spatially referenced landmarks. Rather, according to Gibson, people remember transitions — changes between different vistas. "It is through this ordering of vistas [...] that the structure of the environment is progressively disclosed to the moving observer, such that he or she can eventually perceive it from everywhere at once" (ibid, p. 238). This explains why the map produced by the student who cycles in Otaniemi a lot represented the strongest mental image. This person experiences the space along the many paths that they take, eventually being able to perceive it from everywhere at once.
Finally, the dataset has clearly shown that the way we remember space is active and transformative. The dominant order of the conceived space was subverted in a subtle, yet visible manner:
- None of the maps were organised spatially in a shape of a heart promoted in the university’s marketing materials. Instead, students purposefully limited the representation of the space to a small number of meaningful elements which made sense for them and organised these elements in many different ways.
- The mental images did not reflect the hierarchy of the elements from an institutional perspective: a tree with a nice bench around it was as important as an architecturally or historically significant landmark.
- The students privileged embodied sensory experiences and memories over the physical form. Iconic buildings which dominate the landscape were depicted as vague outlines if they did not offer opportunities for a more active interaction between a person and an environment. Small and intimate spaces which offered rich sensory experiences were remembered better than the physical elements which were designed to be memorable.