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Decoding the Collective Image of Malmö

Elnaz Sarkheyli

Public spaces, parks, walking, cycling, and transit paths in Malmö are designed to create an accessible and integrated city. In this study, three groups of first-year students were asked to draw their mental maps of Malmö to investigate how they perceive Malmö as a legible, conceivable, and connected city. The results reveal that these young residents have a clear picture of most public places and the predominant landmarks’ positions. Still, the links between many public places were unclear, not legible enough, or even negligible according to their drawings.
Publicerad: juni 2023
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Mental Mapping in Malmö

Malmö has a rich development history, beginning as a trading center in the 13th century and evolving into an industrial port town. The city has transformed into a hub for technology and innovation with the establishment of Malmö University and the Malmö Incubator. Despite focusing on sustainable development, Malmö still faces challenges such as segregation and economic inequality. Over the recent decades, the city invested in developing or renovating public spaces, parks, walking, cycling, and transit paths to create an accessible and inclusive city. The recent developments for an accessible, inclusive, green, and sustainable city makes it interesting to reread the city’s built environment through the city’s collective map, which could demonstrate how the citizens’ find the city legible, conceivable, and connected.

A city’s collective image, which is the overlap of a series of individuals’ mental maps held by some significant number of citizens (Lynch, 2015), could indicate people’s perceptions of the city. The image of the city, referring to the citizens’ mental picture, indicates the cognitive construction of urban spaces (Chorus & Timmermans, 2010) and a sentimental combination between objective city image and subjective human thoughts (Lynch, 2015).It could include citizens’ perception of the city structure, the spatial composition of the urban environment, the prominent city elements, and memories, impressions, and experiences (Peake & Moore, 2004; Sulsters, 2005). Lynch (2015) in his study identifies five types of referable physical forms in public images: path, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks, and discuss the knowledge obtained by the study of mental maps, including the city’s legibility (clarity or people’s ease of understanding the layout of a place (Sulsters, 2005) and imageability (conceivability). Mental maps can also be decoded to “reveal socio-spatial hierarchies or to explore ways in which collectives and individuals orient themselves in their environment, or to understand how they perceive the world” (Götz & Holman, 2018).

Mental maps can be distorted and partial and differ from real distances, positions, and directions. The distortion results from the overestimation of distance close to the familiar place of residence and the underestimation of distance in less familiar remote areas (Peake & Moore, 2004; Waterman & Gordon, 1984). Peake and Moore (2004) introduce the application of a global positioning system (GPS) in conjunction with a geographic information system (GIS) to measure distortion in mental maps. Accordingly, “The shape and size of the mental maps drawn varied between subjects” (Peake & Moore, 2004). Furthermore, Slusters (2005) studies the cultural significance of the city image and how individuals within groups with specific characteristics have different mental maps. In another study, Chorus and Timmermans (2010) argue that traveling by means of active modes, such as car and bicycle, leads to higher quality mental maps compared to one traveling by more passive bus mode. Zhang (2015) studies the relationship between individuals’ activity-travel patterns and their mental maps and concludes that their activity spaces are not necessarily within their mental maps. However, the mental map positively influences the formation of activity space, which correlates with an individual’s travel pattern factors (Zhang, 2015). In addition, some scholars used mental maps to show the role of some particular features in a city. For instance, Lindskog (2022) uses mental maps to show the important role of transport infrastructure in Stockholm’s neighborhood construct, particularly the large-scale transport infrastructure. Some scholars focused on some particular groups’ perceptions of the city. Osóch and Czaplińska (2019) used mental maps to study how the urban environment is perceived by its youth and to see what elements in the cityscape stood out. Manton et al. (2016) used mental maps to map the perceived safety risks for cyclists to improve infrastructure design to make it safer (Lindskog, 2022).

Therefore, mental mapping and the overlapping citizens’ mental maps can be valuable in capturing people’s perceptions of their living environment. In this study, cognitive mapping is used to evaluate the collective perception of the City of Malmö, particularly the city’s infrastructure for a liveable and accessible city. This study aims to investigate how public spaces and infrastructure for access and connections are identified in public image by decoding young residents’ cognitive maps. Thus, it first tries to see if the concept of the city’s image could be applied to identify a city’s core. Second, it investigates the most frequently recognized city features of Malmö and their spatial connections according to the people’s cognitive map of the city.


Mental mapping for many years has been used as a method and technique to gather people’s impressions about the city, their perception of the city structure, and its distinctive elements. It has helped visualize the sense of place, movement, and environmental perception and even illuminated socio-spatial inequalities (Gieseking, 2013). Scholars have applied mental mapping in different ways, mainly as a qualitative method, such as mental mapping interviews (Lindskog, 2022), mental sketch mapping sessions (Gieseking, 2013), and collective mental mapping workshops. In addition, some scholars combined the method with GIS analysis, GPS tracking, interviews or focused-group methods.

The city of Malmö is known for its diverse demographic makeup, including a high proportion of foreign-born residents and a relatively young population. So, while it could be relevant to include different representatives of the diverse communities living in the city, this study focuses on a group of young people studying at Malmö University. In this study, the first-year urban planning students without previous mapping experience, were asked to draw their cognitive maps of the city of Malmö. In other words, they were asked to introduce the city of Malmö by drawing their mental maps of the city on paper and pinpointing the city features that they could identify and remember in fifteen minutes. The data gathering was conducted as part of one of the regular lectures in the Physical Planning course in the years 2020, 2021, and 2022. In a preliminary analysis, I chose 63 mental maps out of 79 total drawings collected as analyzable maps. In this study, I didn’t consider the individuals’ factors such as their background, familiarity with the city, age, gender, their daily commuting mode of transport, or other socioeconomic factors. The selected maps were analyzed in terms of the extent of the city presented and the city’s features – landmarks, nodes, districts, paths, edges – recognized from the city. In addition, the quality of depicting the city elements was analyzed. Then the data were imported into a GIS layer of the city. Accordingly, the data was visualized and classified regarding how frequently the participants have identified the city features.

The City’s Scope on the Mental Maps

In an overview of the drawings collected as the participants’ mental maps of the city of Malmö, one could notice that not all participants could present the whole city area in their cognitive map of the city. As all the participants are students at Malmö University, the majority included the university area. But there were also other familiar places and areas on many participants’ mental maps. Out of all the areas in the city, the Old Town (Gamla Staden), Triangeln area, and Western Harbor (Västra Hamnen) are the ones that have received the most attention or have been frequently addressed (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The variety of scopes presented on the participants’ mental maps of Malmö

As the literature states, the mental map has been applied, among others, to uncover human movement and their interactions with their living environment (Gieseking, 2013). Mental maps could indicate how people use their cognitive maps as a reference to orientate themselves and move in between places (Slusters, 2015). Arguably, overlapping citizens’ mental maps could identify the core and heart of a city or an urban environment. It can indicate where the main activities are and where the prevalent flows of people are. The result is not far from other facts showing the city’s concentration of meeting places, events, offices, transit stations, and population. However, the inclusion of Western Harbor as an almost new neighborhood could be related to its closeness to the university area or being seen as an important recreation destination. It is also the location of the city’s symbol, a high-rise residential tower called the Turning Torso. The difference in size between the scopes presented by the various participants could probably be explained by their different levels of familiarity with the city, the participants’ background, their choice of transport, or other socioeconomic characteristics of the individuals.        

The City’s Prominent Elements

Lynch (2015) identified five referable urban features as five elements of the city’s collective image. One of those is ”district” or the medium-to-large sections of the city, usually recognizable as having some familiar, identifying character (Lynch, 2015). Figure 2 illustrates the districts recognized by the participants, and the colours show the percentage of participants addressing the districts. Many of the districts had been pointed out simply by locating the district’s name on the participants’ drawings. The areas recognized have been relatively geographically located correctly, but not all the participants had shown the information on their drawings. Also interestingly, some participants illustrated some of the districts’ territories, such as Western HarborThe Old Town, and Pildammsparken, by drawing the area’s shape or even by marking some natural or physical symbols representing their perception of the districts’ natural, physical or subjective character (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Respectively, 14%, 17%, and 13% of the participants illustrated the districts of Western Harbor, the Old Town, and Pildamsparken by drawing their shapes. In the lower section, the districts addressed by the participants are presented in percentages.

Depending on their experience or ability, people might include a larger city area in their mind maps. People’s mental maps could differ among individuals and groups with different lifestyles, ages, interests, or grades of experience with the area (Slusters, 2005). If some city areas are frequently seen in people’s mental maps, it could also imply the centrality of some areas in the city or could refer to the concentration of activities in some places. But for example, in this study, many students mentioned the Malmö university district could only indicate the importance of this area for this group of participants, while the districts such as Triangeln and the Old Town are the central parts many mentioned in their mental maps.

”Nodes” and ”landmarks” are the two other elements of the city image, according to Lynch’s theory. Those include the strategic spots in a city, the intensive foci, or the point reference for navigating. According to the data gathered, 36 places have been identified, some of which have been addressed only by 1 or 2 persons. The elements pointed out by the significant number of participants include Malmö Central Station (62%), Malmö University Building (49%), Triangeln (33%), Main Square (33%), Turning Tower (30%), and Malmo Castle (29%). The results show how the central station, as the main gate to the city, has a significant role in people’s cognitive maps. In addition, the Malmö University building, which is the main studying, meeting, and working area for the students, is identified as an important spot on the  mental maps. In addition, Triangeln, which is an active shopping center, public space, and train station, has been identified by a relatively large group. According to the results, Turning Torso is the most dominant landmark in the city. Interestingly, on 68% of the mental maps including Turning Torso, the building had been illustrated by a small sketch in a relatively correct location. Malmö Castle was also among the city elements that the participants had a clear image of, as 61% of the participants who included it on their maps outlined the castle and its fortification.

The legibility and imageability of the city features could be argued in terms of their recognizable form, shape, or character or the associated meaning and memories. For instance, many participants pointed out the Triangeln area by drawing a triangle. Also, many illustrated the Little Square (Lilla Torg) by drawing a small square adjacent to a giant square representing the Main Square (Stortorget). Figures 3 and 4 show the landmarks and nodes recognized by the participants, and the size of the circles represents the percentage of participants addressing those places on their mental maps..

Figure 3. The landmarks and places identified by the participants, in percentage.
Figure 4. The landmarks and nodes illustrated by the participants.

”Edges” and ”paths” are two linear elements of the city’s image. Edges are the boundaries and linear breaks in continuity, while paths are the channels or connectors along which the observers move (Lynch, 2015). The findings show the relatively determinative role of the coastline, the channel, and the rail line on the participant’s perception of the city. Notably, many participants had a clear image of all the city edges’ shapes.

Figure 5 shows the paths identified by the participants on their cognitive maps. As it is seen, paths have not been as legible as the nodes, landmarks, and edges. Many participants tended to point out the distinctive places without showing their connections. This result could indicate that the streets in Malmö are not perceived as “places” in many cases for many participants. Also, there are several unclear connections between the city elements. For instance, Turning Torso, in most cases, is geographically located correctly on their maps but with no clear connection to other parts of the city. In addition, although many participants recognized the landmarks and nodes on their maps, they have not shown the paths and streets connected to them. Also, a few participants stated the streets’ names on their mental maps. This information could reveal the street’s relatively lower legibility and imageability compared with the urban squares or significant places in Malmö.  

Figure 5. Major paths recognized on the mental maps (the lower section) and some samples of the students’ mental maps (in the above section).

However, some common paths could be recognized on the collective mental map. The route from Malmö Central Station to StortorgetGustav Adolf Square, and then Triangeln is the most commonly recognized route in Malmö. However, this path has been mainly shown as a simple link between the aforementioned places without noting, sketching, or reflecting on the route’s character. Besides, the path between Malmö Central Station to Amiralsgatan and Folkets Park and the path from Neptunigatan to Pildammsparken have been recognized by many participants. On the other hand, Inner ring road (Inre ringvägen) and Outer ring road (Yttre ringvägen) have often been recognized by those with a broader scope of the city. It could indicate that the highways reflect the city border on their cognitive maps. Also, this result could confirm the findings of the previous studies that travelers commuting by car or bicycle modes have relatively more precise mental maps (Chorus and Timmermans, 2010), at least from the city’s overall form and elements.

The City’s Spatial Configuration Posed on Mental Maps

Spatial configurations reflect the relative arrangement of elements or parts of the urban environment which connects the built environment and the human’s spatial experience and behavior (Hasgül, 2015). The study of spatial configuration considers the spatial structure of the open and built environment (Nes & Yamu, 2021). It concerns the relationship between public spaces and private spaces in connection with the morphological aspect of the urban texture. Analyzing the mental maps and the collective image of the city of Malmö could reflect on the city’s spatial configuration, explaining how the city’s spatial structure works in citizens’ perception. In general, the collective image of the city shows that the participants have had a clear picture of the main public places and predominant landmarks’ geographical positions. However, the findings also present that the links between many public places are unclear, vague, or not legible enough, as many have not included those on their mental maps (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Two sample drawings showing the city’s links in the students’ mental maps.

On the other hand, it addresses the higher legibility, imageability, and connectivity of the Old Town area and the city’s core. For instance, while many participants have identified the path between Malmö Central Station to Stortorget, Little Square, Gustav Adolf Square, and Triangeln, none address a link to Turning Torso. This finding could also be explained in terms of the relatively important role of some links in the city’s structure that made them ignore some other links or prioritize some over others in their drawings.

In addition, the mental maps could indicate some facts about the lack of connectivity or disintegration and the relative isolation of some city parts. For example, on most mental maps collected, one could not find information about the extensive eastern harbor areas of the city. Also, some drawings address the disconnectivity of some city parts (Figure 6). This could be due to the influence of the physical or mental barriers in a city, such as the water channel and the rail line, or it could be argued as the lack of integration and lower connectivity in some parts of the city.

This study of the collective mental maps of a group of students in 2020-2022 could reveal some aspects of the city’s spatial configuration and the participants’ perceptions of the city. It showed the distinctive elements and the quality of the imageability of the places and areas of the city. Also, it could indicate the strength or weakness of connectivity in some areas of the city. Further studies could focus on other social groups’ perceptions of the city, particularly the vulnerable and more excluded groups.


Chorus, C.G., & Timmermans, H. J. P. (2010). Determinants of stated and revealed mental map quality: An empirical study. Journal of Urban Design, 15 (2), 211-226.

Gieseking, J. J. (2013). Where we go from here: The mental sketch mapping method and its analytic components, Qualitative Inquiry, 19 (9), 712-724.

Götz, N., & Holmén, J. (2018). Introduction to the theme issue: “Mental maps: geographical and historical perspectives”. Journal of Cultural Geography, 35 (2), 157-161. DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2018.1426953

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Osóch, B., & Czaplińska, A. (2019). City Image Based on Mental Maps-The Case Study of Szczecin (Poland), Miscellandea Geographica, 23 (2). DOI:10.2478/mgrsd-2019-0016

Peake, S., & Moore, T. (2004, November 29-30). Analysis of Distortions in a Mental Map Using GPS and GIS.  The 16th Annual Colloquium of the Spatial Information Research Centre, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Pocock, D.C.D. (1979). The Contribution of Mental Maps in Perception Studies. Geography, 64 (4): 279-287.

Sulsters, W.A. (2005, October 15). Mental Mapping, Viewing the Urban Landscapes of the Mind, International Conference “Doing, Thinking, Feeling Hope: the Mental Geography of Residential Environments, , Delft, The Netherlands.


I would like to acknowledge and express my gratitude for the valuable contribution made by the Planning students of the academic years 2021, 2022, 2023, at the Department of Urban Studies, Malmö University, in creating the mental maps as part of the Physical Planning course exercise.


Elnaz Sarkheyli is a senior lecturer and holds a Ph.D. in Urban Studies with a focus on Urban Planning and with experience teaching Urban Planning and Urban Design. Her research interests include urban regeneration, sustainable development, sustainable transport, and public spaces.

Department of Urban Studies, Malmö University

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