Using stories to co-create cities

In a world where we recognize more and more the importance of bringing diverse voices to the table to tackle the complex issues our cities are facing, we can’t stress enough the need to normalize knowledge about our urban environment. A precondition to become proficient in city building as a community is to improve our urban literacy.

Urban Literacy – the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate public life in urban environments.

To increase our urban literacy, it is crucial do find a shared language as we bring together city staff, scholars, business owners, marginalized people, nonprofit representatives and many others to talk about our collective future as a city. That is why storytelling has been gaining so much attention. It allows for communication to be efficient in a way that technical jargon or lingo from specific social groups can’t. That connection fosters familiarity and trust.

One aspect that usually is overlooked on the conversations around City Building is our human urban experience. Knowledge about human behaviour in the built environment is as important as knowledge about buildings and transport systems. This is the opinion of Jan Gehl, one of the most influential architects in improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards people.

It might sound obvious, but to design and build better cities, it’s necessary to create a general understanding of its basic mechanisms. This doesn’t mean that everyone needs a degree in urban planning. It can be achieved by recording and sharing our urban experiences.

And that is quite a challenge. Colin Ellard – director of the Urban Realities Lab at the University of Waterloo and author of the book Places of the Heart – points out “a failure of the average person engaging in the dialogue of city building”. He explains that the disconnect comes from a lack of understanding of the principles of urban design due to our reduced interactions in public spaces with the built environment and other people. The two main drivers for this reduction are the ever-increasing use of smartphones, and cars. 

In a very real sense, we are no longer there as we used to be, and our physical surroundings are no longer as real as they used to be.

Colin Ellard – Urban Realities Lab

Rob Forbes (author of See for Yourself: A Visual Guide to Everyday Beauty) argues in his TED Talk that the built environment we are exposed to every day actually “means a lot to people, and establishes a kind of groundwork and a dialogue.” In this sense, stories are a powerful way to reestablish this dialogue and inspire each other. To tell a story is a conscious act and this intentionality restores the awareness of the urban experience.

We believe the way people get around in the city affects us all, and our choices are affected by how our city is designed. Transportation is one of the core themes as it becomes one of our main interfaces of our urban experiences. Different modes of transportation shape different cities and we need to tap into the power of the community to bring out different perspectives.

Some reflections

Using personal stories and emotions to understand how to create cities that are more people-friendly is already a reality in Canada. Recently, I visited some of the public spaces in Vancouver where the Happy Streets Living Lab has been putting that idea into practice.

It’s important to make clear, especially for pragmatic minds, why improving urban literacy should be a top priority in any city that is serious about improving the quality of life for its residents. There are two main reasons:

1. Raising the bar in our discussions

We only care about what we know to exist. And as we said in the beginning, the overall trend is to engage less and less in public spaces to have those urban experiences. Public debates about Bus Rapid Transit, speed limits, heritage buildings, protected bike lanes, affordable housing, road widening or any other urban project, requires basic knowledge about the effects of the urban environment on us. Telling our stories increases our urban literacy – our capacity to read, interpret, communicate and write (build) the city we want. If we have a deeper understanding of the urban experience, we will be able to discuss urban issues in a more productive way by speaking the same language (even if we have different opinions) and focusing on what we have in common – a strong desire to lead safe, happy, meaningful lives.

“The act of creating and sharing stories about specific locations in cities and neighbourhoods empowers citizens to participate in the ongoing urban planning dialogue by adding their insight and lived experiences in the conversation. ”

Charles R. Wolfe

2. Participatory and inclusive process

City policies and urban planning may demand clear language and conclusions in order to move forward. Things like master plans, zoning regulations, public consultations, and permits do not allow for full communication of the actual, day-to-day lived city experience. Subjective, personal stories can provide policy and decision makers with insightful knowledge for a better understanding of the multifaceted reality of our urban environment, beyond the position of specific interest groups.

“The common ground for successful places is within each of us, and within the expression of our senses.”

Charles R. Wolfe – Seeing the Better City

We are always willing to talk about what really matters to us. Our passions and dreams is one of our favourite topics. From a city building perspective, we need to frame the conversation around creating an urban environment that is conducive to live our lives to the fullest. And how the built environment facilitates or hinders those conditions for the whole spectrum of the population.

To paint a rich inclusive picture, it is necessary to crowdsource stories from hundreds, even thousands of people. There are great examples like Jaimee Garbacik’s Ghosts of Seattle Past that memorializes a rapid-changing cityscape. Or a more focused approach adopted by Paths For People in Edmonton using photo narratives. They provide a great source of inspiration to emerging projects such as What Moves You? Those are much needed projects that can help us imagine a city where we can lead more meaningful lives and set the stage to take action.

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