STORYTELLING THE CONTEMPORARY CITY
the Contemporary City
Storytelling is a key learning resource for the human being. It has been demonstrated that people think narratively rather than argumentatively or paradigmatically. People need to understand the context where they live and to express their desires and fears within it. Feelings and sensations are articulated through storytelling more than through other sciences or fields. Citizens have a personal and subjective relationship with their cities. In consequence, stories appear as a very valuable tool to make meaning and analyse the cities where we live, learning from the spaces we inhabit.
Stories make events and facts cohesive and intelligible. Narration offers the healing vision of order underlying the apparent chaos of reality. Just like the urban life is.
3.1.The big narrative / The outer vision
Every city carries with itself some simple and recognisable ideas and images that are projected in order to offer an identity for those coming from the outside. There is a first impression for the visitors that might be more o less coherent with the inner urban perspective. First of all physically, in the form of a skyline or cityscape. A collection of monuments and famous inhabitants as icons of the city has been the usual way of showing the city power, beauty and influence. Thinking about postcards views would be the best way of understanding the simplistic way of offering a recognisable image of a city.
Obviously, if we want to enhance the narratives related to the city, we need to understand it as the landscape, the stage, the context appearing in every specific story. The city is a leitmotiv inside its own narration. Stories need to be contextualised, and the city is the obligatory place for urban narratives.
The next step would be identifying and collecting the specific small stories happening inside the city. Those might follow the path or re-act and fight against that big picture, creating alternative inner visions.
3.2. The inner vision.
Participation, collaboration and co-creation
There is an inner vision of the city. Or, better, multiple inner visions. They are based on the experiences of the everyday lives of its inhabitants. We can find thousands of possibilities and points of view, from the strictly personal to the different collectives and groups according to ages, neighbourhoods, backgrounds, origins of the population... Contemporary city is complex and multicultural. So, from a cultural point of view, we need to take into account all this diversity.
All the interactions and voices inside the city need to be taken into account. In the storytelling field, it is a fact that stories and images are happening, are being done. Coming from all the neighbourhoods, ages and backgrounds. So it's not necessary to create them, but just identify them, collect them and share them. Institutions are not suppliers. They cannot be seen anymore as the producers neither the city or its narrative. There is no need for producing new material, but unveiling the best material that is being done every day. Crowdsourcing (Ridge, 2014) is the main concept and main methodology to understand the new possibilities open by the participation of the public (citizens) as suppliers/producers of culture and heritage.
The stories of the city deserve to be heard. They should be unveiled. If the city of the future wants to base its development on a sustainable and democratic position, institutions need to take into account and foster all the different perspectives and singularities. Participation is the clue for developing a strong community and identity, respecting the differences. Engaging the population is the best way of making it part of the foreseen city. Storytelling is a perfect tool for tackling these issues. And the most important condition to encourage participation in culture is direct and regular communication between citizens and institutions. In the end, this process should contribute to democratisation and decentralisation of knowledge.
3.3. Connection between the big narratives and the stories
Cities are mainly understood and remembered by images. They are mental maps
based on emotional attachment and memories
The big narrative, the whole landscape of the city, is the background that every good story need to be perfectly located and correctly identified. The stories inside one city should have a connection among them (even if they are coming from different areas or fields, types of heritage or institutions...). That connection is the city itself and the recognisable atmosphere (light, colour, mood...) inside it.
The city is more than a sum of parts. The city is mainly felt as a whole. It is experienced individually, through specific actions, events, moments. But, even though, it is able of transmitting a unified identity that is irreplaceable, a certain style and latent significance that inspire the sensation of the uniqueness of a city.
The city might be used as the core of the stories: the starting point where they begin or the endpoint where they finalise; or as the nest / umbrella / container of all then, the whole landscape / atmosphere where they occur.
3.4. Access, cohesion, inclusion. A common and diverse narrative
Storytelling has a strong potential acting as an empowering tool for communities at the cultural margins. It is a useful method for building trust and connection between people, strengthening relationships in fragmented communities. Through telling their own stories, people may discover new self-perceptions and understand better its position in a bigger context. Storytelling allows people to reveal and reinforce alternative perspectives that challenge dominant narratives. It is as well a way of building stronger collectives, and even of (re)constructing communities in dire straits.
A city or a region can be developed, shaped and transformed with the help of collective narratives. Narratives can be “transformational” (Espiau, 2017). Like that stories are not there only to express local values, attitudes and behaviours. Narration is a way of self-definition, but, moreover is a way of establishing future perspectives that support long-term strategies that can transform a society.
The process of storytelling incorporates elements of both personal and group empowerment. At a structural level of change, storytelling has the potential to uncover the knowledge that has been subjugated to dominant ideas, particularly when groups at the economic or cultural margins engage in a shared process of storytelling.
of content, and
3.5. Reactivating memory and spaces
Social and cultural aspects of memory have been deeply discussed in the last decades. It seems to be a general panic to the virtuality and speed of the contemporary world. Maybe we live in the age of amnesia (Huyssen, 2003 and 2012). There is almost an emergency to be attached to some kind of historical roots. Everything is being musealized. Everything is recorded and tagged. There is a fear of forgetting that might be solved by proper use and re-use of heritage and storytelling. We don't need more (old fashioned) physical monuments. Cultural transmission is the clue for remembering.
Storytelling conveys messages and images that preserve memory. But it is not about looking exclusively at the past, is a way of creating and transporting a heritage for the future.
But heritage is not only the reactivation of the time axis through the memories of the past and their extension to the future. It is about the reactivation of the spaces. While time and space are always bound up, CH must be understood as a way of recovering also space for public use. Even if originally it was thought as a private space (a castle, palace or industry). The re-use of CH in the city can be only understood as an act of unleashing a common good for the benefit of the entire community. Urban landscapes are especially powerful as a common resource (Hayden, 1997), physically and emotionally. The city spaces shape the way of living of the people that inhabit them; at the same time, they are shaped by the citizens. A complex two-way relationship.
Heritage as a common good, as a collective legacy, is after all a mechanism for empowering and boosting public spaces. Smart use of heritage can invigorate urban life, socially, economically and, of course, culturally.