planning and the humanities

Planning, Story-telling, and Maps

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Good plans tell a story about a shared vision of the future. Understood in this way, planning can make great use of the fields in which I have been trained, namely literature and rhetoric. The fungible literary assets can further be more finely distinguished as storytelling (or narrative), literary theory, and the poetic or what I like to think of as the plastic or sculptural  aspect of language. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, dialogue, and argument. Plans it would seem need both sets of skills to function successfully as machines that produce a favored futures, that bring us nearer ever to our vision of what could be a more sustainable, just, and livable world.


Today I want to focus on the storytelling aspect with respect to creating a shared vision–a persuasive one at that–and role of maps in telling such stories. In my view the most compelling stories feature well conceived characters above all else. How do we understand the characters in the context of a comprehensive plan? Certainly the groups of citizens, city staff, and consultants involved in the planning process are important, but they don’t seem to occupy center stage (to mix in theatrical metaphor). In fact, what seems to emerge in most plans is a sense of local character through the core values the plan articulates. So storytelling is vital yet we can already see character functions in a wholly different way than it would in a short story or a novel. To focus on select individuals or interacting ensembles might seem counterintuitive to the goal of creating a shared vision focused on the physical city. Plans are meant to accommodate a complex set of concerns about the built and natural environments and the way we interact with them. Perhaps the city itself then is the character. How do we get to know this character who isn’t an individual embodied person as we generally understand characters to be? After all effective characters often reveal themselves through action as much or more than description.


A very simple map I made showing the distribution of PhDs in Austin. Even scant data tell a story.

A map I made showing the distribution of PhDs in Travis County. Even scant data tell a story.

Maybe maps can help us understand how the city as character functions. They are essential visual components of plans, especially land use maps. Here I am thinking specifically about data rich maps and the transect mapping tradition in planning from Patrick Geddes through Ian McHarg and the subsequent development of the indispensable ARC GIS. These maps are composed of layers of data superimposed to reveal the character of the natural and built environment. They reach beyond mere inventory of what’s there–although that’s an important function too–to enscene the way in which many different complex systems operate in concert. Much like we think of getting to know a character as peeling back layers of onion to some perceivable core (although this metaphor conspicuously lands us in a poststructuralist view of the de/constructed performative self about which more later), these layers escort readers deeper into the living systems that comprise a city. I leave these thoughts here for now, but I think they may hold some promise in thinking about crafting better plans. The city as a character revealed through the narrative of a shared vision of the future, one performed through maps. Next we might consider what insight we may gain from looking at maps as performative. Maps don’t just say things; maps do things.