Chinellato / Narrating the City

Narrating the City A Narrative Typology of Place-making Process Through Script, Storytelling and Performance

Author: Enrico Chinellato, Designer & Ph.D. Student, University of Bologna

Research stage: Doctoral application

Category: Extended abstract

“Objects alone do not make a place. It is how people feel about and respond to the elements in their environment, as well as other people who share their space, that help determine what a place is.” Leonardo Vazquez 1

The heterogeneous nature of the contemporary city’s transformations concerns a multitude of aspects which cannot be grasped through a mono-disciplinary lens. Cities are called to face complex challenges that do not find solutions in monosemic paradigms of intervention. There is in fact a tension laying at the crossroad of stability and adaptability 2 which is leading to the emergence of a polyrhythmic reading of mechanisms that allows cities to exist in a dynamic state while maintaining cohesion. Across the fields of architecture and urban design, an ever-increasing number of practitioners experiments with complexity-based creative approaches drawing from principles of arts-based civic engagement, community-driven design, and social change. These are translated into transdisciplinary creative place-making activities. As introduced in 2010 by economist Ann Markusen and arts consultant Anne Gadwa, in creative place-making:

“(...) partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative place-making animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” 3

During the past 30 or more years, this practice has started developing around the concept of narratives, with scholars such as James Throgmorton 4, Leonie Sandercock 5, and Lieven Ameel 6, exposing the emergence of what Sandercock defined a “story turn7.

In this sense, creative place-making becomes a process addressing the issues of the built environment by pursuing civic dialogue, promoting the inclusion of communities' often conflicting points of view into the public narrative. This is then achieved through a design-led creative and dialogic understanding of place-related symbols, cultural references and stories in such a way that they form a coherent whole 8, so that a place is therefore brought into being through a series of public performative acts 9. Lynda Schneekloth and Robert Shibley emphasized that the first “most important activity of professional place-makers” is to generate “an open space for dialogue about the place”, where “all knowledges are valued, shared, and used in the process of decision making” 10. As there is never only one story of a place, nor a correct one, they also noted that “to appreciate a place and people does not, however, imply an uncritical stance towards it”. In fact, “to act responsibly in the historical moment requires knowledge of that time/place/cultural reality; wisdom to recognize that one never has sufficient information or insight on which to base a ‘rational’ decision; and courage to proceed anyway.” 11

This research explores a narrative typology of place-making process by studying its implication in the context of urban renewal through three primary tools: the script, the storytelling, and the performance. Through these notions, the research will sketch out an applicative procedural model as a guideline for the articulation of a place. This model aims at: first, examining how stories of, and for an urban environment, rising from events involving human and non-human actors placed in a temporal and spatial setting, are built on top of older ones; second, evaluating how a new understanding emerges along the way thanks to its implementation through design-led and art-based participatory activities.

The research is structured on three levels of investigations as follows. The first section operates a literature review, examining and defining the notions of script, storytelling and performance as they relate to different kinds of narratives at stake, as well as to where they originate, while circumscribing what can be recognised as narrative in creative place-making process with regards to the context of urban renewal.

The second section connects these strains in order to elaborate an applicative procedural model as the base for the theoretical definition of a narrative typology of place-making process. The notion of script/scripting is here understood as a process of three phases: in-script (mapping of the existing stories of a place), de-script (formation and performative execution of novel acts as a mean of intervention on a place), and re-script (evaluation of newly generated stories for a place). (fig.1)

Applicative procedural model (script process) [Diagram: Enrico Chinellato]

Figure 1: Applicative procedural model (script process) [Diagram: Enrico Chinellato]

With the third section, the research presents a design-led textual/visual report of an early-stage application of the procedural model on a localised case study focussed on the Mahane Yehuda market and the Beit Alliance site in the historical center of Jerusalem. This is an instance of a site characterised by difficulties with establishing and maintaining a unified narrative, as formal top-down planning codes find themselves opposed by a highly polarized reality through which sub-groups shape the place according to their own set of informal urban stories.

For more than 20 years the area had been fought over both in the political arena and in the public opinion. The spatial analysis of the built environment reveals a fragmentation of the public space system, which is caused by a concentration of ‘leftover’ abandoned or underused urban spaces, as well as of parking areas, and worsened by strong physical divisions between the neighboring residential districts, ultimately failing to become a place of collective exchange and meeting.

Historical development of the Beit Alliance site [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Figure 2: Historical development of the Beit Alliance site [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

However, it is argued that the paradoxical disconnection between the Mahane Yehuda market and the nearby Beit Alliance site is to be found in the lived condition of the place, rather than in the spatial one. Abandoned in 1990, since 2016 the Beit Alliance building has received new life thanks to the Jerusalem-based NGO ‘New Spirit’, who reactivated the building through temporary uses by renewing only the bare essential while hosting cultural events and coworking spaces for creative practices and start-up. Nevertheless, although being physically connected to the most lively place of the city, the area experiences a condition of alienation in its spatial and lived dimension.(fig.2)(fig.3)

During a period of eight months I conducted studies through ethnographic fieldwork in this area, focussing on the ongoing activities happening in and between the Alliance building and the market, the surrounding neighborhoods, and their relation to the planned future of the site. The fieldwork entailed semi-participant daily observations, study of relevant documents, spatial surveys, mapping, meetings with residents and members of the NGO, and various actors involved in the Jerusalem creative place-making scene, and interviews with about 20 actors, which were aimed at highlighting citizen’s perception and awareness of the place, as well as its stories.(fig.4)

Current happenings inside the Beit Alliance building [Photo: New Spirit]

Figure 3: Current happenings inside the Beit Alliance building [Photo: New Spirit]

In short, following the procedural model this data formed the base of the in-script phase, which was then translated into the de-script phase representing the conceptualisation of novel acts as a means of intervention on the place. In the case at hand, together with the NGO’s support and the involvement of several local artists, this phase was elaborated through the organisation of a creative public participatory workshop, aimed at confronting existing narratives while imagining new stories for the area through the development of a one-year long event. The stories were reconstructed mostly from conversations and visual/textual observation notes with the participants. They were then interpreted into a script of the event through visual storytelling as an illustrated calendar. Each month a particular temporary happening will take place in the spaces in and around the Beit Alliance building, gradually reshaping them in physical and perceptual terms: each physical action, which develops the event in space in material terms, corresponds to a story, apt to build awareness in terms of new uses of the space and personal identification with it through making -performing. Month-by-month, an illustration and a short text tells a story that seeks to portray an imaginary in-person experience of what is happening in the place. (fig.5–7)

Examples of interviews responses from various citizens [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Figure 4: Examples of interviews responses from various citizens [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

This process helped the actors to formulate what is relevant to them. It is important to note that this conceptual scenario, or plan, has the capacity to tell an explicit story. However, scenarios and plans themselves are not a story 12. In fact, these newly generated stories rather represent a way to talk about what is going on in a place and what should or can be done with that place. The evaluation of these newly generated stories was carried out in the re-script phase by operating a new round of interviews with the participants of the workshop, which highlighted how stories of decline were starting to be followed by stories of hope.

The case here introduced, together with the findings derived by its investigation through the application of the procedural model, is used as an illustration of what more we can learn about creative place-making processes from a narrative perspective.

Illustrated calendar, months I-IV [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Figure 5: Illustrated calendar, months I-IV [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Illustrated calendar, months V-VIII [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Figure 6: Illustrated calendar, months V-VIII [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Illustrated calendar, months IX-XII [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

Figure 7: Illustrated calendar, months IX-XII [Content: Enrico Chinellato]

  1. Vazquez, Leonardo (2012): “Creative Placemaking: Integrating Community, Cultural and Economic development,” white paper.
  2. Rosner-Manor, Yaara/Borghini, Sayfan G./Boonstra, Beitske/Silva, Paulo (2020): “Adaptation of the urban codes - A story of placemaking in Jerusalem”, in: Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science 47, pp. 251–267.
  3. Markusen, Ann/Gadwa, Anne (2010): “Arts and Culture in Urban or Regional Planning: A Review and Research Agenda”, in: Journal of Planning Education and Research, 29(3), pp. 379–391.
  4. Throgmorton, James (1992): “Planning as persuasive storytelling about the future: Negotiating an electric power rate settlement in Illinois.”, in: Journal of Planning Education and Research 12, pp. 17–31.
  5. Sandercock, Leonie (2003b): “Dreaming the sustainable city: Organizing hope, negotiating fear, mediating memory”, in: Throgmorton, J. and Eckstein, B. (eds) “Stories and Sustainability: Planning, Practice, and the Sustainability of American Cities.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  6. Ameel, Lieven (2020): “The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning: Plotting the Helsinki Waterfront”, Routledge, London.
  7. Sandercock, Leonie (2010): “From the campfire to the computer: An epistemology of multiplicity and the story turn in planning.”, in: Sandercock, L. and Attili, G. (eds) “Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning”. Dordrecht: Springer.
  8. van Hulst, Merlijn (2012): “Storytelling, a model of and a model for planning.”, in: Planning Theory 11, pp. 299–318.
  9. See Fischer-Lichte, Erika (2009): “Culture as Performance” in: Modern Austrian Literature, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 1–10.
  10. Schneekloth, Lynda/Shibley, Robert (1995): “Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities”, Wiley, pp. 6, 14.
  11. Ibid., pp. 8, 10.
  12. Albrechts, Louis (2005): “Creativity as a drive for change.”, in: Planning Theory 4: pp. 247–269.