Your Story Goes Here: A Case Study Investigating Digital Storytelling and City Building
“…To imagine the ultimately unrepresentable spaces, lives, and languages of the city, to make them legible, we translate them into narratives.”
Civic engagement in city building is often a difficult process, testing the patience of professional urban planners and the will of dedicated citizens. Your Story Goes Here is an online teaching kit offering guidance on creating digital stories or narratives that can empower citizens to contribute meaningfully to city building dialogues. At consultation meetings between citizens and urban planners, these types of narratives help articulate a community’s vision for a particular development site, a neighborhood, a park, or a well-used street corner. Your Story Goes Here offers practical steps for telling effective stories while also drawing on a conceptual framework that probes the idea of public space, considers the role of narratives in urban planning, and leverages the affordances of digital media as an engagement tool. This framework enriches the storytelling experience for kit users and deepens the practice of creating digital stories that contribute to the city building process.
Your Story Goes Here is built on the open source Mozilla Webmaker teaching kit platform, an easily sharable and highly customizable website building resource. Community groups and workshop facilitators can use the original version of the Your Story Goes Here teaching kit or are welcome to remix the content to produce their own versions.
Through completing the five teaching kit activities, users learn to create a digital multimedia story about a particular space or place using video, photographs, audio, or another medium of choice. As the teaching kit is designed for individuals without urban planning expertise, it begins with a brief introduction on how citizens can become engaged in city building by seeking out community planning groups and by sharing stories with neighbors. Ideally, participants follow the activities sequentially; however, the modular design of the teaching kit also allows for a reconfiguration of the storytelling process.
The first three activities are divided into paired sections—a thinking activity involving creative thought and a doing activity requiring kit users to explore their outside environment. To make storytelling more manageable for novices, the activities revolve around the creation of 10 keywords that describe the place where the digital story will be set. These keywords, which are created in the first activity set, provide a narrative framework on which kit users or ‘citizen planners’ can build their story. Once the keywords have been selected, and participants have gained a better understanding of the components of a digital story, they are encouraged to travel to their story setting to conduct a location audit (Peyton). In this activity, users reflect on why their location is a good place to be in—or what features make it unfriendly. In our beta testing of the kit activities, much time was spent on watching how the location was used and how people traversed the space; on recording the wind, light, sound, and other conditions; and on recording the many details of the physical environment that contribute to a more effective urban planning story. After the storytellers have captured their video, sound, or still images on location, the next set of activities explains the storyboarding process and presents options for choosing one of several ‘storytelling machines’(Transom) —websites for creating multimedia stories. Concluding activities focus on how stories can be shared in the planning context, both locally and through social media. Throughout the kit, participants are prompted to pause and consider the storytelling process. Creating reflective practitioners (Schön 1987) is fundamental to Your Story Goes Here, as the kit aims to help participants crystallize thoughts and ideas about the development of neighborhood spaces and the design of resilient cities.
Urban planning processes differ widely from city to city; thus Your Story Goes Here provides a descriptive framework for creating and sharing digital stories rather than a detailed, prescriptive method. The kit functions as a thought-starter for citizens who want to engage in city building, but are unsure of how non-experts can participate in an often bureaucratic process. Each activity includes additional resources and references to encourage users to explore the possibilities of storytelling in their particular city building context, while the openness of the Mozilla Webmaker platform enables individuals with basic web skills to use the kit’s framework while adding their own content.
Your Story Goes Here is designed for small groups of five or less, developing stories in a facilitated workshop setting. Typically, it is more rewarding if each group member assumes a particular role; for instance, writer, director, videographer or photographer, and editor. Although the kit is targeted at a broad audience, potential users include youth groups, high school and university students, and community planning groups. The kit was initially tested with the latter, and graduate students will use a remixed version in a Fall 2014 course on design and wayfinding. Although Your Story Goes Here uses free storytelling tools, it requires potential participants to have access to some form of digital recording technology such as a camera or smart phone, an Internet connection, and the ability to use web-based multimedia tools.
Your Story Goes Here is rooted in the essentiality of public space within the built environment. These shared, walkable spaces are “where meaning is made, shaping lives and sense of community” (Sanders 2009). For people to become active stewards of common areas they must be able to articulate the importance of public space and to identify how urban development affects the physical and emotional lives of citizens. The “story turn” (Sandercock 2010) in urban planning offers one way for citizens to share their viewpoints, and to become purposefully engaged in city building. Digital storytelling, as imagined here and by numerous other organizations (e.g. DIY Days, Center for Digital Storytelling) is taking its place as a legitimate tool for civic engagement. City building is a complex, and often disenfranchising, process. By leveraging freely available online tools, Your Story Goes Here aims to empower citizen planners through the digital alchemy of storytelling.
A detailed overview of the teaching kit activities.
Peyton, Tom. “Project for Public Spaces | The Placemaker’s Guide to Transportation: Street Audit.” Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.pps.org/reference/the-placemakers-guide-to-transportation-street-audit/.
Sandercock, Leonie. 2010. “From the Campfire to the Computer: An Epistemology of Multiplicity and the Story Turn in Planning.” In Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning, edited by Leonie Sandercock and Giovanni Attili, Vol. 7. Urban Landscape Perspectives. New York: Springer. http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://site.ebrary.com/lib/utoronto/Top?id=10223117.
Sanders, Rickie. 2009. “The Public Space of Urban Communities.” In Public Space and the Ideology of Place in American Culture., edited by Miles Orvell and Jeffrey L. Meikle. Amsterdam; New York, NY: Rodopi.
Schön, Donald A. 1987. Educating the Reflective Practitioner : Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
Transom. 2014. “Transom Series: Story-Making Machines.” Accessed June 27. http://transom.org/series/story-making-machines/.