On Building Stories and Creating Cities

I’m a planning professional by degree and career, but when I talk about urban planning I’m not talking solely about the work that goes on in a professional office.  What I’m actually referring to is every action of every inhabitant of a city, because whether or not it is our direct intent, it is our collective actions that shape our communities.  Planning is not just a resource consent or a district plan, it’s an interactive communicative activity.  Our local and national identities stem from core stories that give meaning to our collective lives.  By telling stories about our past and our present our intention is to shape the future.[i]

Story telling is not a passive experience, stories tell as much about the teller as the teller tells about events. In any situation there is only one set of events that occur, yet everyone who is present will tell the story differently based on their experiences and personal biases.  Stories provide details that can clarify problems and opportunities.  They provide descriptions of character, they invoke values and they raise questions. [ii]  Stories are not merely told, they are created.  When we tell a story about ourselves we are drawing on our past behaviours and on others’ characterizations of ourselves.  In re-telling our stories we are reproducing ourselves and our behaviours. [iii]   In choosing which stories to tell we are defining our personal characteristics and shaping our own lives.

A professor of mine who was involved in the post-Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans talked to us about how it was those personal characteristics of all the key players that really mattered.  He said that over and over again he saw examples of the right kind of person, or unfortunately the wrong, make an enormous difference because their actions would have ripple effects.  He said that this happened even at the very lowest levels.  And what I understood is that it’s not so much that individuals and their actions can make a difference, it’s that individuals and their actions are what make a difference.  Which is heavy because it applies to all of us and it’s something that we have to be aware of all the time.  But don’t let it scare you, don’t let it weigh you down – let it excite you!

I have a story that I like about Christchurch because it’s about the All Blacks and I’ve loved them ever since I was a student in Dunedin.  I’ve been following them for about ten years now so I know that nobody deserved that cup more than they did.  But what interested me the most about the All Blacks winning was an interview with Richie McCaw where he said that after the earthquakes normal wasn’t normal anymore.   He said that in every aspect of his daily life he was forced to look at things a bit differently.  He explained that instead of it being an obstacle it became a strength because he also started looking at his game and his team a bit differently.  And when he applied this new mindset to his captaincy he was able to take his team to higher levels than ever before.  So this is just one example of how the story of the city affected one of its inhabitants, whose personal story then affected the city. Because whether or not you are a big rugby fan I can tell you that the atmosphere in Hagley Park was pure magic when they won, and that is now a part of the story of this city.

So now that we know that our cities and even our lives are built on stories, let’s look at how stories are created.  Author Margot Livesy tells us to look for what she calls ‘the hidden machinery.’  She advises aspiring writers to read all that is good for the good of your soul, and then learn to read as a writer and search out the ‘hidden machinery,’ which is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend.[iv]  To find these building blocks you have to read the work that’s not so good, and read work that’s in progress.  You have to read your own work as if it were someone else’s.  She tells us to admit our judgments, because few writers get steadily better but many get unsteadily so.

I find myself experiencing cities in the same way.  I enjoy what’s good about them for the good of my soul, and there’s so much to enjoy in cities!  I love pedestrian precincts with quirky little bars, cafes and boutiques; I love architecture and art galleries.  I love street fashion and fine dining, street food and high fashion.  Public transportation, I love taking the metro in Paris or the El train in Chicago.  People watching, public parks, talking to strangers, public libraries.  Live music, live comedy, nightlong dance parties in industrial districts; all of the wild and unpredictable things that happen in cities, I love it!  But then I can’t help but experience the city as a planner.  I take note of the urban design, I educate myself on the policies, I listen to and watch for the stories being told.  I try to piece together exactly what it is that makes that city work.  What is it exactly that makes it such an exciting and dynamic place to be?  Or maybe I’m in a city that’s not so nice and in that case I try to figure out what specifically it is about that city that doesn’t work.  And as I explore and experience my new home, Christchurch, I remind myself that few cities get steadily better, but many get unsteadily so.

So where does this ‘hidden machinery’ come from?  Where do we get the inspiration for the building blocks that we use to build our stories and create our cities?  Author Susan Power tells us that instead of writing what we know, we should write what we need to know.  She says that if she relied solely on firsthand experience then she would stick to her journal and never imagine herself in another’s shoes.  But in fiction anything is possible, there are no boundaries, there are no rules, except to make it work.[v]  In planning as well, there are no boundaries that will hold us back.  There are some rules of course, but they are flexible, they are only there to ‘make it work’.  We don’t have to rely solely on what we’ve experienced firsthand, we have a multitude of examples from across the world that we can imagine for ourselves and create in our own way.  And as planners, or even as human beings, I think it does us good to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, to think about what their life might be like and about how our work and our actions might affect them.  And hopefully they’ll do the same for us.

James Alan McPherson is a professor at the Iowa Writers Institute, which is pretty much the creative writing program in the states, and he reminds us that the humanities are untidy.  He says the purpose is not closure along a single line of inquiry as we might find in the sciences, but illuminations that are hard won because they can only be discovered in the midst of life.[vi]  And life is also untidy, there is never a single right answer or single right way of doing things.  But McPherson reminds us that if we remain alert we may begin to see the meaning of events, the character of other human beings, and become more generous, wise, and effective in our actions.  McPherson says that what he enjoys most about teaching writing workshops is the range of backgrounds in his students. He says physics majors discuss theories of causality with religion majors; medical doctors learn mythology from classmates educated in the classics; engineers and music majors learn that technology and music derive from the same idiom.  Film students help lawyers master the essentials of narrative pacing.  He observes that stories encourage abstraction and recombination at a time when our society is becoming increasingly technological and trite.[vii] Despite his many accomplishments McPherson is also quite humble, because he says that best of all is that he as a teacher gains wider knowledge from this diverse body of students.  Cities that are designed with their core stories in mind and that allow space for a multitude of stories to be told will by their very nature provide their inhabitants with a similar space to thrive and to grow.

At the core of any livable city lies the ability to accommodate diverse and locally grounded lifestyles and practices.  The residents are the authority when it comes to understanding a community and policy makers should draw on their expertise.  Institutional processes must make space for stories, creating a ‘sense of place’ that is shaped by the environment, culture, and history.  Policy makers too often ignore this elusive ‘sense of place’ but community is capital, people are willing to pay for it.[viii]  The value of a strong sense of place varies from economic contribution as a tourism draw to the aesthetic value of good design, to the emotional value of a place as part of the regional identity.  Beyond the monetary boost of a tourism visit, there is economic value rooted in the presence of the established local population, whose locational decision is based on their perception of, and ties to their community.

For those who call Christchurch home, as I do, remember that stories are our heritage and our legacy.  Our personal stories are a powerful contribution to building our community because it takes more than infrastructure and policy to create a city.  If you work professionally with the rebuild, your contribution is not relegated to your office.  If you don’t work professionally with the rebuild, you are still accountable for the future of this city.  We are actively building our community every day by indulging in our hobbies and by being a friend, family member, or neighbour.  Share your interests, learn about the interests of others, enjoy the time that you spend with those close to you, speak candidly about what is important to you, and listen when others do the same.  There are no boundaries that will hold us back, all we have to do is imagine the future as we’d like it to be, and create it in our own way.

Dedicated to Andy Isserman, who taught me that stories can be found in even the most mundane facts and figures and who never stopped telling stories of his own.


[i] Throgmorton, James. Inventing ‘the Greatest’: Constructing Louisville’s

Future out of Story and Clay.  Planning Theory 6:3 (2007), pp. 237-262.


[ii] Forester, John. Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes Oxford University Press. 2009.

[iii] Sandercock, Leonie. 2003. Out of the Closet: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling in Planning Practice. Planning Theory & Practice 4:1 (2003), pp. 11-28.

[iv] Livesy, Margot “The Hidden Machinery.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[v] Power, Susan “The Wise Fool.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[vi] McPherson, James Alan “Workshopping Lucius Mummius.”  Frank Conroy, eds. The Eleventh Draft: Craft And The Writing Life From The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. New York : HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

[vii] Ibid.

8 Bolton, Roger. 1992. ‘Place prosperity vs. people prosperity’ revisited: An old issue with a new angle. Urban Studies 29: 185?203.