IEA Graz workshop 2014
13, 14 October 2014
Drama or history?
Stories in urban planning
Sheffield Hallam University
• 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
• 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
• There is an interesting example of this. Soka klima is a Berlin-
based educational charity (http://www.soko-klima.de/#) 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.
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
- 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
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.
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..
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
• ‘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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
• The parallels are not exact. Historians argue between
themselves whether history can and should provide lessons.
One noted historian, Elton ( 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
• 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
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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-
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