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Storytelling and urban planning


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Barry Goodchild, of Sheffield Hallam University, gave this presentation on the theory of storytelling in urban planning at the IEA DSM Task 24 workshop on behaviour change in Graz, October 14, 2014.

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Storytelling and urban planning

  1. 1. IEA Graz workshop 2014 13, 14 October 2014 Drama or history? Stories in urban planning Barry Goodchild Sheffield Hallam University
  2. 2. Introduction (1) • Urban planning is a distinctive type of multi-criteria policy making activity that co-ordinates a variety of different sectors within a defined area and that, in relation to its environmental criteria (and these are not the only relevant criteria) covers issues of resilience and risk avoidance, environmental protection as well as energy reduction. • International reviews of environmental transitions either say little or nothing either about urban planning or other closely related forms of planning or they complain about the tendency of governments to ignore the potential role of planning as a co-ordinating mechanism. (Aix et al 2010: BMVBS 2010: Roggema 2010, 57) Environmental transitions operates through a multiplicity of different themes and policy fields of which planning is only one and commonly only a minor element.
  3. 3. Introduction (2) • Planning does count, however, if only because it deals with the future shape of towns and cities. In addition, because urban planning deals with local issues, it has the potential to act as an educational device showing the implications of climate change and sustainable development for a community. • There is an interesting example of this. Soka klima is a Berlin- based educational charity ( that tours German towns getting the school kids to imagine the implications of climate change through plan making exercises. • Planning is also of value because it provides a mature and relatively clear account of both the methods of story telling and, given the acceptance of broad environmental aims, the contents of those stories. Here I will focus on the methods.
  4. 4. Story telling and planning? • ‘Story telling’ is the construction of a desirable future based on a narrative of past events, with a plot that expresses some causal relationship. - central to social and personal identity, as for example in enabling a person to understand how they have come to Iive in a specific place and what this place means both to the self and others (Goodchild et al 2014). - equally, stories can be constructed to represent the fate of a collectivity, a neighbourhood, town or city, for the future as well as the past. • In this latter sense, narrative construction is central to urban planning. Planning is about learning. Story telling is a means of dramatising and communicating the learning process. Planning and story telling therefore go together (Forester 1996).
  5. 5. Persuasive story telling • Planning is not just about story telling, however. It is about ‘persuasive story telling’, understood as ‘the preparation of texts (plans, analyses, articles) that reflect awareness of differing or opposing views and that can be read and interpreted in diverse and often antagonistic ways.’ Throgmorton (1992, 18) • The strength of story telling is that the narrative itself has a stronger logic and is likely to remain in the memory longer than any constituent detail (Bruner 1991). Narratives gain their strength from their plausibility, rather than their explanatory power. Nevertheless, they are commonly labelled as true or false and may draw on science or social science.
  6. 6. Story telling as a model of and for practice • Story telling is implicit in the presentation of almost any planning proposal or policy analysis or plan. There is a distinction, however, between story telling as a model of and a model for planning and policy making (Van Hulst 2012). • The former, planning as a model of is about the discourses and dialogues undertaken amongst planning professionals or researchers or other policy specialists. The latter, story telling for is about using stories to improve policy and practice and in addition about communicating to the public. • Story telling for planning and for the public is a skill and almost certainly a rare skill. Planners and others involved in policy making working in a public bureaucracy or a consultancy seldom think of their work as story telling, even if their discussions repeatedly use stories to make a point..
  7. 7. Criteria for story telling (1) • Story telling for planning and for policy making involves the identification of criteria of ‘good’ stories. Throgmorton (ibid 19) suggests, for example, that planning should learn from films, plays and novels and should, as a result, the follow a series of simple rules: • ‘build conflict, crisis and resolution into their narratives, ‘build characters into the narrative, characters who are interesting and believable, and whom readers … care about. ‘place the action in its rightful context. That means acknowledging the settings in which those characters come into conflict. ‘adopt an appropriate point of view. To do so they (the authors) have to ask, both for themselves and their characters, who is standing where to watch the scene? Who is speaking? To whom? In what form? ‘use the imagery and rhythm of the language to express a preferred attitude toward the situation and its characters.
  8. 8. Criteria for story telling (2) • To give an example of the latter, van Hulst (2012) has shows how the imagery of a ‘missing heart’ may be used to argue for the regeneration of a town centre. • Some additional criteria of a convincing story may be identified. 1) Visual imagery and not just the imagery of language is important- in catching the attention of an audience, illustrating themes, offering solutions and heightening the emotional impact of a story. Rational thinking and rational planning works through words and numbers. If the author of a plan wishes to appeal to the senses and to emotions, appropriate visual images have to be included. O’Neill (2013) suggests that visual imagery is limited in narratives of climate change and that this is a weakness of these narratives.
  9. 9. Criteria for story telling (3) • Further, apparently extreme stories promising ambitious achievements or warning against severe consequences are less likely to be accepted as credible, according to public opinion pollsters (1). Much better, if the narrative can be presented as a learning story that provides a narrative of ordinary people struggling with real problems, involving a combination of technical and social analysis and commonly open to ambiguous or multiple policy interpretations. (1) Presentation given by Matt Evans and Tim Silman (Ipsos MORI) at at a Liverpool University Syposium ‘Keeping the Flam Alive? Climate Change, the Media and the Public’ held 30 May 2014.
  10. 10. The limitations of drama • There are limits, however, to reducing story telling to a formula. The subtlety of plots and the potential range and complexity of situations is too great. Further, the integration of quantitative information into the story does not necessarily make for a good read or a good drama, even if necessary for the sake of completeness and justification. • Above all, the reference to good reads, drama and novels goes too far in the direction of a subjective approach to the production of knowledge, without the use of any tests of the truth of validity of one account in relation to the accounts of other people or to material that can be independently varied outside the scope of the work itself. • To take, for example, the statements made by the various characters: where do the characters come from? Should the statements of one character take priority over others?
  11. 11. Story telling as history (1) • History and in particular historiography, the study of history, provide an alternative to novels and films as a means of assessing and developing stories, (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2008, 107-115). • The parallels are not exact. Historians argue between themselves whether history can and should provide lessons. One noted historian, Elton ([1991] 2004, 22) suggests that the study of history is ‘to free minds from the bondages that the makers of laws are forever trying to impose upon us’ and that this necessarily means breaking from views of history as providing lessons. • In many ways, however, the parallels between planning narratives and historical narratives are at least as close as those between narratives in planning and policy making and drama.
  12. 12. Story telling as history (2) • History commonly involves the completion and synthesis of different viewpoints and different stories into an account that unfolds over time and that, doing so, recognises the existence of specific events and tendencies, including statistical data in social and economic histories. • History involves therefore a mixture of subjective and objective information, including the consequences, if any of an event. Unlike theories of planning as story telling, however, the study of history raises a series of questions about method and in particular about the social position and origins of the source information.
  13. 13. Historiographical criteria (1) • Historiography raises questions, about the authenticity of historical documents, for example whether they are forgeries. Forgery is not relevant in the preparation of contemporary stories about planning, spaces and places. The others in contrast are completely relevant. For example • (1) Is there any possible source of bias or exaggeration in what is said? To provide a specific example, newspapers offer a forum for public discussion and given the serial character of publication they also offer a means of monitoring trends in policy controversies over time. The contents of newspapers are largely dependent on editorial choices, however and on the assumed interests of the readership.
  14. 14. Historiographical criteria (2) • (2) Does the informant or the source reveal a voice that is otherwise seldom heard? The most excluded social groups often fail to have their voice adequately represented owing to lack of knowledge, poor English language skills or other factors. • (3) How close is the source to the relevant problem or action? Is the interpretation given by one informant supported by others or by other evidence? To provide a simple example, a policy to combat climate change might benefit from references to flooding. Those references would, in turn, benefit from the testimony of those directly affected, showing the social and economic impact. However, the testimony would amount to no more than an anecdote in the absence of statistics showing the changing incidence of flooding over time.
  15. 15. Historiographical criteria (3) • (4) Can the stories presented by informants be influenced by other, previously elaborated stories? Informants do not necessarily come up with something totally new; rather, they comment, build or elaborate on the stories that are already circulating in either local communities or the media (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2008, 115, van Hulst 2012). Stories that reflect personal experience and avoid media clichés merit the most consideration. • Once these questions are answered, a coherent story can be prepared, based on the views of the informants, other evidence and their analysis. There is much to be gained, however, from using the lessons of story telling as drama as well as history. In addition, to have impact, visual images must be used.
  16. 16. References Alvesson M. and Sköldberg K. (2008) Reflexive Methodology, London, Sage. Bruner, J. (1991) ‘The narrative construction of reality’ Critical inquiry, 18:1 1-21. Elton, G. (2004) ‘Return to Essentials’ in Jenkins, K. and Mumslow, A. (eds.) The Nature of History Reader, Routledge, London, 21-23) Forester, J. (1996) ‘Learning from practice stories: The priority of practical judgment’ in Campbell, S. and Fainstein, S.S (eds),. Readings in Planning Theory, 2nd Edition, Oxford. Blackwell (First edition), 507-28 Goodchild, B., O’Flaherty and Ambrose, A. (2014) ‘Inside the eco-home: using video to understand the implications of innovative housing’ Housing, Theory and Society (advance on-line) O’Neill, S. J. (2013). ‘Image matters: Climate change imagery in US, UK and Australian newspapers’ Geoforum, 49, 10- 19. Throgmorton, J.A. (1992) ‘Planning as persuasive storytelling about the future: Negotiating an electric power rate settlement in Illinois’, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 12:1, 17–31. van Hulst, M. (2012) ‘Storytelling, a model of and a model for planning’ Planning Theory 11:3 299–318