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Glass-House Chats: How Can We Use Stories to Change Places?

Posted on 2 December 2022

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

Our November Chat explored how we can use stories to change places. We are all storytellers in our own right. Stories have the power to teach us important lessons, connect realities and share first person experiences. But what power do stories have to change places and how do we champion stories in a world that increasingly values neatly parcelled statistics over human experience? 

We were joined at our Chat by an eclectic mix of individuals and professionals which made for a rich session,  within which we shared knowledge, experiences and methods of using the power of stories to come together to shape the places in which we live, work and play.

Key Themes

We started the Chat by asking participants what stories meant to them and what stories can mean when thinking about placemaking. Stories hold different meanings for different groups of people, and when used in different contexts. Stories at a personal level are people’s lived experience and when shared, stories have the power to build empathy and understanding with one another. When framed under the context of placemaking, those lived experiences and shared stories could be considered as a way of making places and enriching our homes, streets and neighbourhoods.

There was much contemplation about the ways in which storytelling can be used as a powerful tool for city-making: be that bringing communities together; remembering or reframing the heritage of places and communities; imagining just and future visions of society; or using storytelling as an accessible gateway into various discussions around placemaking.

Tales of Hope, the Future and Past

Tales of hope can be a powerful mechanism for thinking about the future of a place and a powerful example of how we can begin to use stories to catalyse change in the places we live, work and play. When thinking about the design of a new urban realm, neighbourhood or estate, provoking the questions ‘How could we live here’?, or ‘How would you like to live here in 10 years’ time?’, is a way to invite individuals and communities into a design journey. Collaboratively crafting hopeful stories is one way of creating space for communities to develop and share collective and just imaginings for their futures.

Beyond imagining collective future visions of places, stories also have the potential to reframe people’s current perceptions of place. We discussed this in relation to the idea of regeneration, which, if mishandled, can often be synonymous with tales of distrust, disrepair and hardship. We asked, “Can we use stories to reframe a narrative of decline into one of hope?“. If we used storytelling as a precursor to engagement (and long before designing starts), could it help build bridges between different groups of people, connect realities and build hope into a neighbourhood’s future?

As discussed, stories can be a powerful tool to build hope, but to use stories to invite and engage people, is not one to be taken lightly. Misusing stories, or ‘story-washing’, will only result in a less engaged and more distrustful community in place.

Stories can also be used as a vehicle not only to look forward to a hopeful future, but also to look backwards and learn from people and communities before us. One participant gave an example from the project they had been working on in practice, where they had been unearthing and gathering lost stories of this particular place’s agricultural history. Farming had been a historic use of land in the area, but much of the generational knowledge about farming that land was at risk of being lost. Reclaiming their history and retelling forgotten stories of the past created an impetus for reimagining the future of that place. There is a duty to continue stories and keep them alive.

Responsibility of Stories

When thinking about placemaking at all scales it is important to hold space for sharing stories. Stories have the power to build empathy for places, and for each other. They can often be the best way of understanding a place, and offer a window into understanding what is important to different groups of people. Whilst stories have the power to share personal or collective experiences, it is the responsibility of placemakers to utilise, retell and share stories in ways that are not exploitative or extractive.

People should be able to tell their own stories about the past, present or future of their place, especially as these stories can catalyse action and contemplation about how we need to change moving forward. Without holding space for individuals and groups to share their own stories, there is a risk people will feel left behind or share feelings of ‘this will not benefit me’. Stories are a great way of including and empowering individuals and groups as protagonists of their own futures.

We considered the potential danger when using storytelling to shape places. It’s important to recognise ‘who is telling the story?’ and ’where is the story coming from?’. We discussed the importance of being careful of how we highlight and promote stories, and the importance of bringing in multiple voices. If there is only one voice there is only one version of that story. There is a duty of care in telling and sharing the stories of others, and for those who hold or make space for storytelling. They need to ensure they are inviting diverse voices into the conversation.

Stories Told through Different Mediums

Stories are often our first experience of the world. They are used as tools for learning and teaching during childhood, and continue as a medium of expression into adulthood.

There are many mediums through which to express stories, verbally/aurally, through visual media or performance, to name just a few, in addition to the many ways stories can be used as tools for learning. Stories can be a way to test ideas around a place, or a way to measure or sense check a design with a target audience. When reflecting on more formal placemaking processes, such as masterplanning, stories can be used to communicate complex ideas and create an accessible route into wider conversations. The same stands for policy, local or national plans, which are often contained within text and jargon heavy documents. Could these be made more accessible if we used stories to convey the information in a variety of different mediums?

The medium in which a story is delivered holds its own individual power. Two participants spoke of their engagement through illustration and spoken word poetry. Inviting participants to co-produce a public art structure as a culmination of that engagement, created space to catalyse conversation. Inviting participants to share their stories through the medium of illustration and spoken word meant that there were various ways to access a conversation, and contribute to a collective vision.

Wrapping Up

Each of us in the virtual room felt it was important to continue to make and hold spaces for stories both professional and personally. There was an overall agreement about the positive impact stories have due to their ability to connect people, and offer us a view into other people’s realities or to collectively imagine new futures together.

In addition, the power of imagination and creating hopeful stories emerged as important pillars for encouraging an equitable future in placemaking. Stories can inspire just visions of society, connect us back to the people, communities and places that came before us, and transform our perceptions of both existing and new places. We ended our Chat with a provocation from one of our participants; ”If you didn’t bother with stories, what would you lose?”.