A story can make meaning and compel people in a way that data alone, no matter how visualized, cannot. Cognitive psychology studies have found that communicating through narrative form makes it easier for us to relate to a message, absorb information, and formulate responses. Narration styles are often context-specific, written by individuals and created by communities over time. This creates opportunities for tapping into the collective memory of a place to communicate socially-relevant messages and engage local perspectives through storytelling.
In urban planning, we strive to foster participation amongst an area’s diverse voices, often having to overcome conflict, language barriers, and information gaps to do so. We encountered one such challenge while researching to develop cultural programming around Praça Tiradentes, a revitalizing historic plaza in downtown Rio de Janeiro. With so much cultural vibrancy and activity, Praça Tiradentes is a classic example of a Naturally Occurring Cultural District (NOCD) – an organic network of business clusters and economic activities that support cultural production and innovation. In these districts, production is driven by collaboration between clusters that emerges from strong trust networks and knowledge sharing. But competition among local organizations for the same limited resources – tax credits for facade improvements, for instance – created barriers to effective communication, collaboration, and sustainable growth.
So our focus became how to incentivize collaboration amongst local organizations to develop visioning and programming for the area’s overall revitalization and gain.
We tackled the challenge through a platform called ‘As Crônicas Tiradentes’ or ACT. ACT uses storytelling as an engagement tool to elucidate real people’s narratives and networks, presenting anecdotal evidence of how organizations are interlinked and stand to gain from each other. Our inspiration came from ‘As Crônicas Cariocas’, a 20th century literary journalistic platform that grappled with the city’s vast transformation through everyday stories. Similarly, ACT used colloquial language and graphic storytelling to translate complex information about social networks into ‘crônicas’ around the cultural industries and day to day activities in the Praça Tiradentes neighborhood.
Ana and Ernesto, for example, are user personas created from stories collected through a series of interviews with cultural producers. Their networks are representative of the daily cycles of economic activities and interpersonal exchanges in Praça Tiradentes.
Thusfar, ACT has provided immense opportunities to bring people together around their activities and highlight opportunities for mutually-beneficial programming – whether it be public realm improvements or industry-related events that attract pedestrians and customers. ‘A Crônica da Tiradentes Musical’, ACT’s first ‘crônica’, specifically illustrated the music industry and its interconnectedness with adjacent clusters such entertainment, theatre, textile, art and tourism industries. The Crônica and its background research is now being showcased at Studio X-Rio in an exhibition and workshop series with Tiradentes Cultural, an association of cultural organizations. The goal is to spur discussion on how public space programming can stimulate the musical industry.
Storytelling was critical for ACT, allowing us to: 1) make complex information accessible; 2) cultivate a shared sense of district identity; 3) gain support for new programming, and; 4) solicit participation to rethink how urban revitalization can enrich local flavor. It enables citizens to share their perspectives in their own voice and allows us, as planners, to understand how people in a given community are seeing, have seen, and would like to see their neighborhood grow. In Praça Tiradentes, storytelling revealed a communal set of neighborhood values, institutions, and meanings as perceived by the local citizens for a new ‘social imagination’.