Storytelling for urban change: a narrative for Thriving Streets

Author: Simone d’Antonio, Ad-hoc Expert Thriving Streets

At the occasion of the World Storytelling Day, a focus on how the partners of Thriving Streets are integrating narrative element into their local strategies and actions. The topics was focused also by a Masterclass, which recalled some of the most interesting examples currently carried out at international level, serving as inspiration to the strategies created by the ten partner cities active in exploring the links between mobility and public space.

Storytelling is a key tool for improving any urban planning process, both for engaging residents in different dimensions of the spatial regeneration as for helping professionals in better understanding users’ needs. These elements are even more important when local authorities are dealing with projects and topics, such as the design of better mobility for all as carried out in the framework of the network Thriving Streets, which have a tangible impact on the everyday life of people. At the same time, urban storytelling can be crucial for promoting a collaborative narrative of change, where residents are not only informed of the changes happening in different dimensions of urban sustainability but are the core of the narrative and in some cases also co-producers of engaging contents. Improving the command of tools and techniques of urban storytelling is important not only for decision makers and practitioners but also for all the stakeholders involved in designing strategies of urban change. Combining a series of actions improving mobility and its impact on public spaces, the topic at the core of Thriving Streets network, with a solid narrative strategy can be fundamental for highlighting urban stories emerging from the local community and improve the perception of the urban transformation fostered by the network.

How cities in Europe and around the world used storytelling in process of urban transformation

The use of storytelling tools is proving to be decisive to generate dialogue on projects of urban regeneration, fostering engagement in local communities while offering new opportunities for decision makers and practitioners. The definition of narratives that are people-driven and place-based is often paired with a wider angle of view on neighbourhoods and streets that are the core of the interventions: this action is not only part of the narrative, but helps in creating a sense of belonging giving voice to areas of the cities which are not usually under the spotlight. Detroit developed one of the most interesting experience in this sense, being the first city in America to hire a Chief Storyteller Officer who was in charge, among the different projects, of launching The Neighbourhoods (https://theneighborhoods.org/), a digital magazine narrating the stories of the different areas of the city. Created in collaboration with the residents of the city districts, the magazine offers a fresh view on what is happening in the city supporting the creation of a narrative exploring a series of innovative services and projects carried out by the local administration.

Other cities in America tested a variety of tools for informing residents on the transformation of public spaces, giving voice not only to experts and project managers but also to the members of the local community. The New York City Department of Design and Construction produces a series of podcasts called Intersection which is aimed at promoting the dialogue on new infrastructures developed in different areas of the city. The episodes accompany the planning process while informing the public with a clear narrative on the effects of urban changes on public spaces and mobility, but also informing on innovative projects such as the creation of new pedestrian bridges or how geothermal energy is used in the city.

Storytelling was also a crucial element for improving community spirit in Turin and fostering the realization of Pacts of Collaboration between the Municipality and groups of residents in the framework of the UIA project Co-City, which is currently transferred with the use of the URBACT methodology in the framework of the UIA Transfer Mechanism network Co4Cities. The creation of a blog on the Medium platform contributed to highlight the stories of civic engagement emerging in the suburbs of the city, putting the action of the residents taking care of public spaces under the spotlight. This action of collaborative storytelling activated in the framework of the UIA project went hand in hand with a visual communication campaign and a photo exhibition portraying the residents who drove the Pacts of collaboration for the reuse of abandoned areas or under-used public spaces in the city.

How storytelling can improve the action of Thriving Streets?

Making residents part of the narrative of change is crucial for the success of Small Scale Actions and Integrated Action Plan on medium and long term. The cities of the network are using different tools for making their actions on mobility and public spaces more visible at local level. The use of storytelling strategies can be crucial for better communicating the use of schools courtyards for an open-air cinema Igoumenitsa or the regeneration of Lower Road in Southwark seen from original angles of view, such as the ones provided by the residents or small shop owners of the area.

Many ideas emerged in the framework of the Masterclass on storytelling, in which every city was asked to design its own communication action connected to the Small Scale Actions or the implementation of the IAP, are currently discussed with local stakeholders and can improve the way in which the partner cities engage residents and dynamic stakeholders on medium and long-term. Issues such as the reduction of the number of cars parking or circulating in the city centre as in Klaipeda, Oradea and Santo Tirso, the creation of new public spaces as in Antwerpen and Nova Gorica, or the change of habits in terms of private mobility as in Debrecen and Parma show the variety of the debate on the relationship between mobility and public spaces. At the same time, the stories of the partners of Thriving Streets offer also promising elements for the definition of collaborative and inclusive forms of storytelling, where city makers, innovators and city users can bring different perspectives that are useful to orientate the local debate with concrete solutions and a proactive approach for creating more vibrant and inclusive streets.

Submitted by Francesca Blamonti on 22/03/2022
Author image

Francesca Blamonti

See all articles