Table 1. Different ways of working with mental images in the context of urban design.

Figure 3. An example of a coded image in Nvivo.



The study analyses mental images of the university campus area of Aalto University situated in Otaniemi (Espoo, Finland). The images were made in November 2018 by 37 Masters-level students from one of the interdisciplinary programmes of the university. This ensured that they have different backgrounds and do not represent any one particular department or study area. They were asked to draw Otaniemi as they remember it on empty pieces of paper. The word map was purposefully excluded from the instructions to avoid 'correct' map-like representations.

The students were prompted to add texts, names of the places they draw and any other meaningful information to the maps. Each student also filled in an anonymised questionnaire asking about their familiarity with the area. In total, 38 maps were collected and 37 students allowed me to use their maps for this research (Figure 2). Because of the large number of maps, the drawing task was not followed by interviews.

The campus area was chosen for the study for two reasons. Firstly, the author of the exposition had access to the students and could engage them in the map-drawing exercise. Secondly, the area presents an interesting case for mental image analysis. It has a relatively homogeneous landscape and very few distinct landmarks which, according to Lynch, should produce a weak mental image. Without physical elements that have a strong identity, symbolic and functional values can come to the forefront and reveal additional layers of the lived space.


Otaniemi, a peninsular district 7 km west of the centre of Helsinki is home to a large university campus with more than 20 000 students and around 4 000 residents. It is a low density structure with lots of open space, woodland and buildings based on the plan by Alvar Aalto (Mäntysalo, Schmidt-Thomé & Syrman, 2018).

It is a very rationally planned space based on the ideas of modernism and the ‘garden city’. Designed in the 1940s, when there was an abundance of suburban land and a need to educate more engineers, it is a campus scattered around a relatively large area of 5.2 square kilometres. The plan of the area implied the segregation of functions and the separation of pedestrian and car traffic, in line with the principles of modernism. It affected the perceived space — the spatial practices. Movement became instrumental and mechanistic, different disciplines and groups of people were isolated from each other.  There were a few significant landmarks — buildings designed by the famous Finnish architects Alvar Aalto, Reima and Raili Pietilä and Heikki and Kaja Siren — but most of the buildings followed the visual guidelines set by Aalto, resulting in many similar-looking structures, thus making pedestrian movement and orientation even more complicated.

Since the 2010s, Otaniemi has been going through a process of densification. The plan was to build a metro station and connect the area to the city centre, and to add new buildings next to the metro and to the historic core. The planners envisioned a vibrant and dense university campus which provided opportunities for interdisciplinary encounters. However, new spatial practices and meanings take time to emerge, and for some students the conceived space and the lived space did not fully match. The area still has many similar looking buildings, open spaces void of activity and long distances meant for driving, along with multi-functional spaces open for everyone and new transport connections.


The procedures of working with mental maps differ in different disciplines. In the behavioural sciences, the focus is on the process of spatial cognition: researchers want to know how people think about space. Hand-drawn maps and route descriptions are used to externalise spatial cognition. By analysing the structure of the mental maps, researchers can learn about the underlying organisation of spatial information and spatial relationships (Burgmanis, Krišjane, Šķilters, 2014; Tversky, 2003; Bennardo, 2002; Dennis, 1997).

In critical geography, mental mapping is used to develop cartographies of group and individual spatial narratives. The analysis focuses on social exploitation, oppression, identity and other topics, and map drawing is often accompanied by an interview (Gieseking, 2013). Critical geographers also apply a variation of mental mapping, referred to as sketch maps. They are the "cartographic representations of individual or group spatial experiences, commonly produced by placing locational markings onto geographically referenced base maps" (Boschmann & Cubbon, 2014, p. 237). The analysis procedures for these kinds of maps include overlaying information from different participants or comparing it to other variables referenced in space.

In the context of urban design, the relationships between physical properties and human behaviour are more important than the cognitive processes behind them or than the personal or group narratives. Researchers try to connect the mental representation to the existing geometry of space, analyse the distortions or find common patterns among groups of people of the same age or gender. Despite the simplicity of the task (freehand drawing from memory), analysis of this data presents a challenge due to its messy and unstructured nature. Hand-drawn maps are often too diverse and complex for systematic analytic procedures. When working with maps drawn from memory, researchers usually come up with a method that will reduce their complexity to a more abstracted representation, comparable or measurable. Table 1 presents a range of data collection and analysis procedures from different studies.

This exposition followed one of the analytical procedures outlined in Gieseking’s study (2013). He lists 57 methods and techniques to analyse mental maps. These methods are mainly based on qualitative analysis and are well-suited to work with the heterogeneous visual information from the hand-drawn images. By reading mental maps qualitatively as the narratives of place (NOP), Gieseking connects them to production of space:

The components and techniques categorized under NOP include those analytics that help us to see how both the physical, remembered, and imagined space of the campus intersect in production of a place in how it all at once conceived, perceived, and lived (Gieseking, 2013, p. 720).

According to Gieseking, narratives of place can be explored through built environment elements and physical environment elements (in this case, buildings and outdoor elements). These two groups of elements became the main analytic lens to 'read' mental images. The digitalised mental images were coded in Nvivo using the thematic coding approach (Ryan & Bernard, 2003). The coding relied on both an inductive and a deductive thematic analysis (Fereday & Muir-Сochrane, 2006). The theory-driven codes came from Gieseking's study while the data-driven ones were identified by looking into the repetitions in the mental images. Once the codes were combined into themes, each theme was explored in more detail by referencing the visual elements to which the codes pointed.

Despite the maps being messy and sometimes unclear, my own good knowledge of the area allowed the recognition of most of the markings on the maps and their subsequent categorisation into a code-book. Additionally, notes and markings made by the students helped identify elements on the images. If the text was more extensive than a single name or location, it was transcribed into a memo and stored in connection with the map which it came from. An example of a coded image is shown in Figure 3.

In addition to qualitative coding, I analysed the morphology of the mental images — their spatial organisation. This approach is inspired by the analysis of hand-drawn maps by Appleyard (1970), who noticed that when people draw maps, they use either spatial elements (roads) or sequential elements (individual buildings or landmarks). Do understand the morphological structure, I separated roads from landmarks in individual images and looked at the resulting images separately.


Figure 2. 37 mental images collected for this study. Each image can be enlarged by clicking on it.