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Cities & Stories

Aaron Howes
5 min readApr 22, 2021

As a group, one of the first things we started to do when discussing cities and possible futures was to place them within the context of stories. Travel stories, love stories, food stories. The stories we tell about cities help us to tell stories about ourselves, the spaces we inhabit helping us to construct our identities and define who we are. Loosely translated the German word heimat means homeland. But it does not simply refer to a geographical location, rather a relationship between a person and their environment, how places are shaped by the values of their inhabitants and how people’s values are shaped by the places they inhabit. This is something I felt worth exploring — how might this influence the ways we choose to design our cities?

Anyone who has lived in a city knows that that city becomes a part of you whether you like it or not. In either embracing or rejecting that place, it becomes a part of your identity and story. For some, it allows them to recreate their identity. Philosopher Costica Bradatan reflects on this in The New York Times:

“Uprooting gives you the chance to create not only the world anew, but also your own self. Deprived of your old world, your old self is left existentially naked. It is not only worlds that can collapse and be rebuilt, but also selves. Selves can be re-made from scratch, reassembled and refurbished. For they, too, are stories to be told in different ways.”

In much the same way that our movements and activities are limited by the affordances offered by cities (or any spaces we inhabit), the stories we tell about ourselves, our identities, can be both enabled and limited by those spaces too.

In 2016, aged 22, I moved to Berlin. According to my friends back in London, I became “sooo Berlin”. What does this mean, to be identified with a place? I didn’t speak German, I worked for an international company and I rarely ate German cuisine. Yet, somehow, I had embraced a particular story about Berlin and it had become part of my own story.

What then of the stories we tell about cities? Our cities inspire stories but they are not wholly accurate depictions of geography. They are shaped by the unique experience of the storyteller. Even our collective stories are not objective. Yet these stories come to define a city’s identity and even how it is physically shaped. Again, there is a feedback loop at play. Cities are shaping the stories we tell about ourselves, our values and identities and, in turn, that’s influencing how we choose to shape the city.

“A place that can’t be mapped by its buildings and streets but by the events and people and minds that make them.”

Video essayist Evan Puschak explores this relationship through the lens of Batman and Gotham City in The Evolution of Batman’s Gotham City. Puschak describes Gotham City itself as a living and breathing character within the Batman universe, “Gotham is a city that’s performed,” he says, “we know it by the stories that happen there.” Batman and Gotham are constantly shaping one another’s stories in much the same way people and cities shape one another in the real world. The multitude of stories and inconsistencies, “cohere into perhaps a new way to think of cities. As a site of constant reinvention and varied interpretation. As an expression of the traumas that are reenacted by those who have suffered. And as a place that can’t be mapped by its buildings and streets but by the events and people and minds that make them.” Puschak explains that it is too simplistic, absurd even to attempt to map cities in the form of streets and road names, cities are ever-evolving, mapped instead through the people, their experiences and the stories they create there.

Bradatan makes a case similar to Puschak’s, suggesting that cities are formless and ever-evolving: “the world does not simply exist, but it is something you can dismantle and piece together again, something you can play with, construct, reconstruct and deconstruct.” But this often does not happen at the level of physical structures, at least not as first. It is not in tearing down and rebuilding places like Brixton, Brooklyn and Kreuzberg that they become new. It’s in constructing new stories about them, stories that come from the people and minds that inhabit them. But, what stories do we want to tell? Who gets to tell them? Whose stories do we choose to listen to?

There have to be problems because designers are, on one key level, the ones who solve problems.

Early in The Evolution of Batman’s Gotham City, Puschak highlights an intriguing connection that bears a comparison to the relationship between designers as storytellers and cities. “There has to be crime in Gotham,” he says, “because Batman is, on one key level, the one who fights crime.” Similarly, there have to be problems (in cities or elsewhere) because designers are, on one key level, the ones who solve problems. Puschak continues, “This highlights the inseparable connection between Batman and his city. It’s actually more like a circular connection in that one is always creating and perpetuating the other.” This begs another question, if the one who fights crime inspires greater crime, in what ways do the ones who solve problems create more complex problems?

What does this have to do with our group project? I think, in our group at least, we are each storytellers narrating existing and speculative stories about the city. Therefore, we need to keep these questions in mind — What stories do we want to tell? Who gets to tell them? Whose stories do we choose to listen to? This also links to a point I made in the previous entry around what we deem “worth remembering.” We’ve created a rough five-year timeline that explores possible stories related to our concept for an experiences archive or empathy library. In response to some of the questions, the timeline includes both positive and negative consequences of our design choices.

Our mid-term crit focused mainly on our process and inspiration in coming to work on empathy and we only briefly introduced the archive/library concept following a video I’ll talk more about in another entry. Going forward, the timeline should help us to tell more of this story in our final crit.

Read the next entry: Video-Making

Read the previous entry: Image-Making