Narrative Mapping and Polyphony in Urban Planning

Lieven Ameel

*   *   *

“Standing between planners and designers and the sites
on which they hope to act are socially embedded narratives.
And, while these place narratives can be ignored,
they cannot be wholly erased. Places are never empty.”
(Beauregard 2005, 39)


Shaping the city through narrative

In a 2013 article entitled “Shaping the Future through Narrative”, Noah Isserman and Ann Markusen take stock of the importance of narrative in planning. Their conclusion: “… not only do narratives matter in planning, but their centrality is not sufficiently examined or taught, and their premises and implicit causal links are not adequately subjected to scrutiny” (Isserman & Markusen 2013). Regardless of the long interest within urban and planning studies in the linguistic production of knowledge and meaning, Isserman and Markusen give a bleak assessment of how little systematic research there is on narrative in the context of planning: “We were shocked to find so little concerted planning literature acknowledging the power of narratives and their ubiquitous (but implicit) presence in planning discourse and practice. … Will planning finally pay attention to its own rhetoric?” Isserman and Markusen called for a greater interdisciplinarity in order to “extract from other fields of study what is useful about the concept of narrative and the use of storytelling …” (ibid.). In their own text they, too, however, turned a blind eye to the fields of study that could arguably make the biggest contribution to the study of narrative in the context of planning: literary and narrative studies.

Narrative is a concept that has increasingly been used during the last decades in discussing urban planning, as have cognate terms such as “discourse”, “rhetoric”, “story”, and “storytelling”. Narrative and literary studies have contributed little to these discussions in planning theory. The aim of this article is to critically assess some of the most important recent approaches to story-telling in urban planning theory, and to examine the role concepts from literary and narrative theory could play in this field. I will start out with an outline of existing approaches to planning narratives, in order to elucidate some of the considerable differences in methodology these use. Three key narratives in the context of urban planning will then be identified: narratives for planning, narratives in planning, and narratives of planning. The central part of this article will examine two specific contributions of narrative studies to the field of urban planning. A first concept proposed here is that of narrative mapping: an analysis of the narratives of a specific location, carried out by drawing on existing key concepts in literary and narrative research such as plot, metaphor, and character development. A narrative mapping of the manifold mosaic of narratives as narratives could be beneficial for planning practices geared more towards the diversity in voices and perspectives encountered in the city. This diversity is approached here drawing on Mikhail Bahkhtin’s concept of polyphony, defined as the “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” within a narrative frame (Bakhtin 1984, 6–7; original emphasis). I argue that Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony should be developed further as a useful conceptual framework for incorporating diverse narratives in planning in a way that avoids these narratives to be usurped or appropriated by an authoritative master narrative.

Narrative is defined here, following the literary scholar James Phelan, as “the telling of a story by someone to someone on some occasion for some purpose” (Phelan 1996, 8; original emphasis). The narratives examined to illustrate the theoretical approaches in this article consist of textual narratives related to the long waterfront of the Finnish capital Helsinki, where considerable parts of the post-industrial waterfront are currently under development. Literary texts, as well as media and marketing and official planning documents issued by the Helsinki Planning Department are taken into consideration.


The narrative turn in planning: a critical overview

During the last decades, an increasing interest in issues of language and storytelling in planning theory can be discerned, a paradigm shift that has been tentatively called a “narrative” or “story” turn in urban planning practices and theory (Ameel 2014a; Cohen 2008, 111–115; Sandercock 2010). At the background of this interest are the recent demands made on urban planning to be more inclusive, democratic, more compatible with local experiential knowledge and aware of the layers of meaning embedded in the city. Far from being a clearly-outlined paradigm, this turn consists of a number of more or less interlinked approaches to planning that often deal with rather different aspects of cities and their planning. They are all rooted to some extent in the long-lived “linguistic” turn in the humanities and the social sciences, and in an interest in the importance of language as conveyor of meaning. They differ considerably, however, in the kinds of research questions they aim to answer, and in the subject matter (or narratives) they scrutinize. The following critical overview aims to show what a rich literature concerning storytelling and planning has come into being, but also to clarify the many considerable differences in methodology these use, as well as diverse understanding of what is meant by narratives.

A first approach, visible mostly in architectural research of planning, is grounded in semiotics, and examines environment as a sign (Greimas 1974) or collection of signs (e.g. Gottdiener & Lagopoulos 1986). The architect or planner can be seen as a (co-)producer of the architectural landscape as readable sign. If this line of thought is followed through, the vision of the architect or planner can be juxtaposed with that of a poet: the planner, a creative genius of sorts, uses his or her imagination to produce a potentially powerful communicative work. This “poetic” approach towards planning and architecture uses “narrative” more as a metaphor, according to which particular planning styles can been seen as the signature “handwriting” of planners, and every city as speaking a “language” (Ziegler & Bouma 2010, 25; Barthes 1986/1997, 167). Theorists that draw on this perception of architectural landscape and its planning include Mathew Potteiger and Jamie Purinton (1998), and Bernardo Secchi (see e.g. Secchi 2002). The work of Klaske Havik on the intersections between architecture and literature can also be partly related to this research tradition (Havik 2014). For Secchi and others, an interest in narratives meant also an interest in the various scenarios that could be drawn up for a specific area. Scenario planning, in turn, moves urban planning in the direction of future studies, a field of study with its own approaches to narrative (cf. Dammers 2000; Hoch 2016; Mäntysalo & Grisakov 2016).

Secchi, Potteiger & Purinton, and others were also interested in how planners could be inspired by the existing narratives of a specific place, and this interest moves the focus from the creative, story-telling process of the architect/planner aspect to the local stories existing prior to the planning process, and the ways in which these often experiential forms of knowledge could be included in planning. This approach to the urban environment as a repository of local stories has a broad range of tributaries in the humanities and the social sciences, including, among many others, anthropology (e.g. Finnegan 1998), urban history, literary urban studies, and ethnography (see e.g. several of the articles in this thematic issue of the Finnish Journal of Urban Studies). In planning theory and urban studies, the interest in grassroot narratives is inspired by a desire for a more democratic and inclusive forms of planning, in the wake of communicative, deliberative and participatory paradigm shifts. This perspective is summed up by Jude Bloomfield, when she argues that “[c]ities should draw on the diversity of social perspectives through research on citizens’ narratives to forge a more democratic, pluralist and inclusive urban imaginary” (Bloomfield 2006: 45). Similar arguments can be found in a range of other authors (e.g. Isserman et al. 2010).

Perhaps the most coherent and dominant approach to narratives in the context of planning is that which sees narrative as an instrument of power, used in the complex processes of policy-making. A key work in this tradition, inspired by Habermasian philosophy and Foucauldian thinking concerning the language of power, is Frank Fischer and John Forester’s volume The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning (1993), which includes a range of papers by authors that would continue to influence this debate for decades to come, from advances in the field of communicative planning, the importance of rhetoric in planning, to story lines in policy, and others (Innes 1995; Hajer & Wagenaar 2005). In planning practices, new approaches on planning and its narrative characteristics have resulted in a new planning paradigms that sees planning as a form of “persuasive storytelling” (Throgmorton 1996) and the planner not as an architect-hero, but as curator deliberating between various voices and producers of narratives. Following this paradigm shift, planning is summarized in distinctly narrative terms in the Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning:

Planners use theory to answer questions about the reasons and causes for urban order and change.

In making a plan, planners compose these answers as narratives, explanations, and arguments about changes in the pattern of urban activity and form that provide the plot line for stories and models that then describe and simulate alternative futures. (Hoch 2012, 247)

In Finland, important publications pointing in this new direction are Sanat kivettyvät kaupungiksi (“Words Petrify into the City”; Mäenpää et al. 2000); Rikhard Manninen, who was one of the co-authors, is currently heading the Strategic Planning Division of the Helsinki Planning Department. Some of the new practices inspired by the narrative turn have been summed up in the publication Yleiskaavoituksen uusia tuulia (“New Directions in Strategic Planning”; Koivu et al. 2013), which mentions the conceptualization of the strategic plan as a “rhetoric plan” in the case of Jyväskylä, and the continuous strategic planning process in Lahti, which is structured emphatically in a narrative form. While Jyväskylä and Lahti illustrate the interest in narrative within the planning profession, it remains somewhat unclear in both cases whether the rhetoric and narrative dimension of their planning strategies goes beyond being merely a more sofisticated communication practice vis-a-vis the general public.

A last approach to narratives in planning contexts I would like to single out here looks not at policy and planning processes proper, but at the ways in which an imagined identity of an area is constructed parallel to, or after, the planning of an area. This is an approach that looks at how specific strategies can influence local narratives and the way these depict an environment. It includes research on “placemaking” (see e.g. Fleming 2007) and branding in relation to urban planning projects (e.g. Jensen 2007; Ilmonen 2008).1

As the above overview shows, examinations of narratives in the context of planning are concerned with different kinds of questions and different kinds of narratives. This has complicated the way in which these various approaches communicate with each other, and diminished some of the impact a narrative approach could have had on planning practices. A typology of the various kinds of planning narratives constitutes a first important step towards clarifying these methodological concerns. I identify three different categories of narratives in the context of planning: 1. the pre-existing narratives of a location (local, everyday stories, artistic representations, historical or other documents). 2. The narrative strategies involved in planning (either seen as the creative process of a hero-architect, or the much more complex deliberative processes of postmodern planning). 3. The narratives parallel or posterior to the planning proper (for example in branding or placemaking strategies, but also the way local stories react to, and communicate with, planning and development of an area). I call these three categories here respectively narratives for planning (narratives that can be drawn upon by planners), narratives in planning (rhetoric strategies in planning texts and processes), and narratives of planning (media coverage, branding, later reactions to a location’s development) (see Ameel 2014a).

An analysis of narratives in the context of planning can focus on any of these three contexts, or, more usually, on a combination of these. One could, for example, examine the interaction between local narratives of a specific area, and the way these are taken into account in planning rhetorics (dynamics between 1 and 2, see e.g. Finnegan 1998), the rhetorical strategies and storylines put into place by planning actors (category 2, see e.g. Throgmorton 1993), or the way in which a branding agency spins the imagination linked to an area (dynamics between 2 and 3, see e.g. Jensen 2007). Narratives in the context of planning theory can also be involved at a meta-level. A research process and the way research outcomes are presented can be carried out with the help of narrative, as happens in Bent Flybjerg’s influential Power & Democracy in Practice, which proceeds along a “narratological method” (1998, 7–8). Planning histories, theories and paradigms themselves can also, in turn, be examined in terms of narratives, as has been done by Olivier Kramsch (1998).

A particularly interesting course of inquiry would be to trace the trajectory of specific narrative elements from a local, experiential context to the institutional, planners’ context, and onwards to a branding context, from which it feeds back into the local context. Planning practices draw on, mend, and inject narratives back into a variety of contexts in the course of planning processes. This is especially so given postmodern planning’s structure as a “spiral”, in which planning processes move back and forth between formal and informal, local, political and technical or bureaucratic contexts (see Horelli 2002). A second important consideration that arises from this taxonomy is the question of what type of narratives are affected by participatory processes in planning. The promise of participatory planning practices is that citizens can have impact on the chore story lines of planning itself (narratives in planning). The reality, however, could as easily be that material provided by locals is used merely to legitimate decision made in narratives in planning, or employed by placemaking strategies in the forms of narratives of planning.

Figure 1. Narratives in the context of planning.

Three distinct possible roles for a narrative theory in urban studies and urban planning can be singled out. The first one is related to the epistemological project of charting and understanding the city’s various layers of meaning. This project would amount to what I call here “narrative mapping”, an examination of narrative layers of meaning in a specific environment. A second contribution would be the examination of narrative strategies and rhetoric in planning (see, e.g. Ameel 2016). The third is concerned with developing new conceptualizations and methodologies that could reconcile local narratives with planning perspectives. In this article, I examine examples from the first and the last contribution, focusing on the narrative mapping of the Helsinki waterfront, and presenting one specific conceptualization that could be further developed: polyphony.

Narrative mapping

The cartography of narratives of place has been advocated by several urban thinkers as a method to enable planners to form an idea of the broader narrative framework within which they are operating. It can be traced to Patrick Geddes’s aphorism “survey before plan”; Geddes, working in the early twentieth century, firmly believed that planning should start out with a rigorous and broadly understood survey of the resources of an area in question (Davoudi & Strange 2008, 17). More recently, theorists have given this approach a distinctively narrative twist. Mark Childs, for example, argues that, since “[s]torytelling is part of urban design”, taking into account “stories of place can inform designers about the narrative fabric that is as much a critical part of the context of a site as the soil type” (2008, 185). Or, as Bond & Thompson-Fawcett argue in a call for more qualitative methods in urban research, “[t]he tiny details, often reduced and overlooked in analysis, can reveal the depth of the meaning people have for places and spaces with which they identify. Narratives provide a means to make sense of and understand social phenomena and individual experience” (2008, 56–57). This argument has been further developed by Filep et al (2014), amongst many others. In Finland, Panu Lehtovuori is one of many planning theorists who has drawn attention to the importance of urban layers of meaning as “keys to the future” (Lehtovuori 2012, 25). One of the key challenges that arises from a focus on the “narrative fabric” and “narratives” as keys to understand social and individual experiences is that more traditional architectural and planning theories largely lack the concepts and methods to account for these. Narrative mapping, taking into account questions of plot, metaphor and character experience, could provide answers.

One note should be made concerning the relation between what I call here narrative mapping and the concept of “cultural mapping”, which has appeared in recent literature on planning, and in particular in the cultural planning paradigm. Franco Bianchini has in various publications called for a better understanding of urban “imaginaries”, and advocated for a “cultural cartography” of such imaginaries (2006). He has drawn up a detailed overview of what constitutes the “image bank” of a city, as well as the resources that could be uncovered by way of a cultural mapping – resources including media coverage, local narratives, and literary and other representations of place (2006, 14). While “cultural mapping” could thus be understood as providing broadly defined “cultural resources” (Lehtovuori 2012, 15), including all aspects of a particular culture (information concerning its built environment, people’s everyday activities, local stories), recent usage has understood “culture” much more narrowly, in terms of artistic communities and practices, and has seen cultural mapping as the “identification and inventorying of local arts, culture, and heritage resources” (Bain & McLean 2012). Such cultural mapping has gained some legitimacy; the Australian Capital Region, for example, has an extensive Cultural Map Project (Young 2006). The narrow understanding of cultural mapping as the cartography of the “cultural assets” of an area, in the idiom of creative cities industry (Stevenson 2014, 47), however, is distinctly different from the wide-ranging narrative survey I envision here. Hence, I prefer the term “narrative mapping” for the broader assessment of the place narratives relevant for the planning of an area, and including personal, historical, as well as official narratives.

Narrative mapping as defined here embraces a heterogeneous set of textual narrative data, from historical documents, diaries, policy documents, transcribed interviews, to newspaper accounts. Analytical coherence can be provided by treating all these dissimilar sources in terms of their narrative structure, and focusing on a key set of narrative elements, such as plot, character development, metaphor, and genre.2 This enables a structured and equal treatment of the material, and lays the ground for a rigorous interpretation and comparison. The resulting overview of a location’s manifold’s narratives would thus be able to reflect its polyphony in Bakhtinian (1984) terms: the many-voiced perspectives of stories told within specific contexts and for specific audiences, undisrupted by an overarching authorial voice. In literary and narrative research, narrative mapping can draw on an upsurge in interest in questions related to space and place, such as the historical and literary research method “Deep Locational Criticism” developed by Jason Finch (see also his article in this issue), the “topopoetic reading” envisioned by Pultz Moslund (2011), or the recent geocritical approach to narratives advocated by Bertrand Westphal (2011) and Robert Tally Jr. (2011), and literary geography (Alexander 2015).

Narratives are continuously in motion. There is always a hero on a quest, hoping to bring his mission to a close, or an emotional state to be handled, or a moral question to be resolved. A narrative mapping of a particular area, guided by conceptualizations from literary and narrative theory, would approach narratives not in the way these describe (rather statically) a particular environment. It would, instead, want to establish the role location plays in these dynamics, focusing on uncovering a narrative topography – the dynamic manner in which a specific area functions in relation to plot and character development, as well as the metaphorizations of the area, and the interaction between the location and the literary frames or genre features it triggers. Questions that could be answered in such an analysis would be: How does the location act in regards with a specific plot line, and is it possible to discern specific generic features in the narrative? Is the location related to a story of recovery, to a trajectory of development, to a “tragic” plot of exclusion or a “comic” plot of inclusion and reconciliation (cf. Frye 1957)? What kinds of relationships does the area evoke or provoke between a character and the area?  What metaphorizations are used in describing the area and the activities carried out there? As appears from these questions, the key concepts in such an analysis are plot, character, and metaphor.

Mapping the Helsinki waterfront: a concise literary case study

In the analysis, I have chosen to examine the waterfront as a coherent area as it appears in literary texts, rather than to focus on specific referential relationships between fictional environments and their real-life counterparts (such as the Kaivopuisto park, or the Helsinki South Harbour). As outlined above, my concern is not with the descriptions of space per se, but rather with the way the location functions within the broader narrative context, with its relation with character development, and with the way it is metaphorized.

It should be noted that the selected literary texts thematising the Helsinki waterfront depict radically different periods in the history of the Finnish capital, from fairly early stages in its industrialization to the post-industrial contemporary city. During these years, the relationship between the waterfront and the rest of the city structure has undergone considerable changes. The various experiences, metaphors and plot developments linked to the waterfront, however, tend to be closely related. Summarizing here the key outcomes of analyses of a selection of literary texts, which is based on research that has been presented elsewhere at more length (Ameel 2014b, 2016; Ameel & Kankkunen 2016), the following key points concerning the way in which the Helsinki waterfront functions within narratives can be singled out. The sea shore tends to be, first of all, an area of transformation. This quality is linked first of all to the shore itself, which is often described as being under construction, and as subject to change (e.g. in the opening scene of Arvid Järnefelt’s Veljekset [“Brothers]; 1900, 1–5). But this is also the area where a metamorphosis is initiated or carried out, for example in Saisio’s debut novel Elämänmeno (“Vivid Life”; 1975, 152–160), in which the confirmation party of the teenage protagonist is set on a Helsinki island. This is also an area that in various forms enables the evocation of an alternative form for society, for example in the revolutionary vision by the protagonist during a nightly trip at the shore in Järnefelt’s Veneh’ojalaiset (1909/1996, 58–65), or in the near-utopian suburban development on a Helsinki island, satirized in Henrik Tikkanen’s Brändövägen 8 (Kulosaarentie 8; 1976). Or the overturn of the patriarchist order by a feminist city guerilla with its headquarters in Helsinki’s muddy margin, in Anja Kauranen’s Pelon maantiede (“The Geography of Fear”; 1995). The waterfront, then, appears as a metaphorical space of possible transformation; a liminal space where life and death as well as past and future possibilities collide (cf. Doody 1996/1998). The relation of the characters to this space reflects the sense of this area as an environment that engenders, enables and/or channels the transformative power for both the protagonists and society at large.

A schematic visualization of the key functions of this location, the way in which it is experienced and metaphorized, as well as the generic frame within which the narrative unfolds, sums up the key arguments:

  Function of the location vis-a-vis character & plot development: location enables/evokes Character experiences location as Metaphor Generic frame
Uurto 1935

Holappa 1954


romantic encounter pastoral space “locus amoenus” (or “pleasant, idyllic place”)


“comic” plot
Järnefelt 1909

Joensuu 2003

Hirvonen 2005

threat of death/suicide liminal space


border zone



exclusion from society (critical Bildungsroman), “tragic” plot
Tarvas 1916

Hämäläinen 1941

place of contemplation, possibility of rebirth liminal space mirror of the soul


inclusion into society, “comic” plot
Järnefelt 1909

Joensuu 1993

Kauranen 1995


recognition of fault lines in society/city heterotopian space mirror of society


social problem novel (“tendency novel”)


Figure 2. Key narrative functions of the waterfront in Helsinki literature.

In its most positive form the area appears as a pastoral space, a park-like environment outside of the normal, built urban fabric. It is metaphorized as the “locus amoenus” of romantic literature,  and enables passionate encounters, especially the kind of encounters that cannot be carried out in the normal urban fabric on moral or social grounds (because one of the characters is married, for example, or because they are from different social classes). The romantic context means that this location tends to be set within the generic frames of the “comic” plot (Frye 1957), which aims at inclusion of the character into society (through marriage for example), although the conciliation at the waterfront tends to be a temporary state, and these novels are generally speaking more tragic in outlook. This is a place, then, which is distanced from the city proper, and which also enables a detached view both on the character, and his/her relationship with the surrounding world.

This environment (and the open sea, in particular) functions also as a mirror of the soul, and as a location for soul-searching, and self-questioning. Several of the protagonist in twentieth-century Finnish literature set in Helsinki are troubled characters, and their contemplations often include considering the possibility of committing suicide by drowning (e.g. in Waltari 1928; Holappa 1953; Joensuu 2003). While the sea offers this ultimate possibility of dissolving into a grander totality, the almost religious presence produces not only negative experiences, but is also a place for reconciliation, or of possible rebirth (e.g. in Uurto 1930; Hämäläinen 1941; Hirvonen 2005). Again, then, the sea shore constitutes the location for a negotiation between radical exclusion from society (self-doubts, suicide) and a reconciliation and re-entry into society.

If the urban waterfront constitutes a liminal space, and a mirror of the soul, it also functions as a mirror of society of sorts, in which the cracks and ruptures in ordered society appear as threatening, uncanny forces. At the sea shore, hidden dangers and possibilities are revealed. In this sense, the shore, and perhaps the archipelago of Helsinki, in particular, appears as a profoundly heterotopian space, mirroring and contesting the organized spaces of the society to which it belongs (see Foucault 1986; Ameel & Kankkunen 2016). The overall generic frame for this function of the waterfront is more often than not the tendency novel (or social problem novel), or a close relative of this genre, from Arvid Järnefelt’s politically conscious Veneh’ojalaiset to Joensuu’s critical crime novel Harjunpää ja rakkauden nälkä (To Steal her Love; 1993).

The Helsinki waterfront, then, appears as a liminal location outside of the normal order and urban fabric, but from this characteristic it also draws its transformative power. New visions of society are summoned up, new perspectives opened up, both for society at large and for the personalized perspective of a literary narrator or character. This narrative functioning of the waterfront in literary narratives is partly concomitant with the historical development of the Helsinki shore line, which often literally constituted the muddy, dirty, unclear margin of the Finnish capital, and which tended to be at least partly closed for the general public by military or industrial activities. As Panu Lehtovuori notices, the liminal quality of the shore (which he identifies in particular with its occasional function as waste land), could play an important role of “catalyst and innovator” in twenty-first century Helsinki (2012, 24).

Narrative mapping and narratives in planning the waterfront

What is the relationship between key narrative features, as they appear in narrative mapping, with the way in which planning documents represent the development of the same area? Given the predominance of experiences of liminality and peripherality in the literary texts discussed above, one specific feature of planning narratives can be singled out to illustrate the contrast between the narrative structures found in the narrative mapping described above, and those found in narratives in planning.

A key argument found in planning documents is that redeveloping waterfront areas are located (or will be located) in the Helsinki city centre – that they will drawn from the periphery into the centre. In the strategic spatial plan of Helsinki, for example, the former industrial harbour Jätkäsaari is unequivocally designated as part of the “main city centre” (City of Helsinki 2009, 18). In an early planning document concerning the effects of the opening of the industrial waterfront, Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama, also a former container harbour, are both described as “central areas of the city centre” (Hk 2000, 4, 19). A similar narrative of these area’s centrality can be found in a range of planning texts, from official leaflets to the proposal for the Helsinki city plan (Hk 2011a, 2014; see also Ameel 2016).

Whereas in the literary texts analysed above, the shore line derived its particular characteristics and its transformative power from its peripherality, the perceived centrality of the Helsinki waterfront in narratives in planning documents points towards different narrative dimensions. The visions for Kalasatama and Jätkäsaari in planning tell a story of integration and inclusion into the existing urban fold. Development is envisioned from the inner city outward, rather than as starting from this area’s peripheral characteristics, a development that can be visualized by the image of the “expanding city centre” (in dark red), with arrows pointing to Jätkäsaari, Pasila, and Kalasatama (Hk 2011b, 7). Not surprisingly, while the array of literary texts discussed above is defined by polyphony, a variety of voices in describing the Helsinki waterfront, the many documents emanating from the Helsinki Planning Department present one strong central storyline – that of integration into the centre – that subsumes all other perspectives on the function of this location.

Image 1. In red The Expanding city Centre
Image 1. In red: the “expanding city centre” (Hk 2011, 7)


Towards polyphonic planning?

What arises from any narrative mapping will be a multitude of different voices. This variety of urban voices can be considered as one of the most important reasons why planners have become interested in the mapping and conscious utilization of narratives to begin with – the intersection, in other words, between local, experiential narratives for planning, and the narratives in planning. Several theorists emphasize the polyphonies, the “plurality of narratives” that arises from a closer look at local narratives (Finnegan 1998; Attili 2003; Jensen 2007). Perhaps the biggest challenge encountered in the current postmodern planning paradigm is that of enabling planning not just to reflect on urban diversity of narratives, but to incorporate the local narratives, in such a way that “

olicies and plans … represent a collective authorship between people and planners …” (Hillier 1996, 296). One of the principal aims of the “discursive”, “dialogic” or “narrative” turn in planning practices was to let the hitherto passive recipients of planning narratives become a more active part of the story-telling in which they are enmeshed, to let the “objects” of formerly mono-voiced practices be active producers of the meaning-making that affects them. The last decades have seen the development of a number of methods and conceptualizations towards such a collaborative narrative, such as “authentic dialogue” (Innes & Booher 2003; see also Innes 2015) and Forester’s concept of the “deliberative practitioner” (1999).

Approaching the subject from the perspective of narrative and literary theory, polyphony provides a potentially key concept with which to encompass the urban multiplicity of voices, told from different perspectives, into a single body of texts, in our case, that of a particular development project, Helsinki’s waterfront. It could provide a framework with which to move forward from a descriptive method for the analysis of existing narratives towards developing methods aimed at accommodating the different kinds of narratives evoked by a locality.

In literary studies, polyphony is connected first and foremost with the figure of Mikhail Bakhtin (1984), who developed his theory of polyphony in an influential study of the work of Dostoevsky. While polyphony is not new to urban theory, the connection with Bakhtin’s writing is often insubstantial. In geography and urban theory, if used at all, polyphony has for the most part seen as a research approach. Several planning researchers refer to what they call “polyvocal” narratives as part of their analysis, drawing the link with ethnographic research. The relation of the term to Bakhtin’s work is often much more implicit (see Dormans 2008; Hubbard 2006, 122; Llewellyn 2004; Sandercock & Attili 2010), although there are notable exceptions (see Holloway & Kneale 2000). In his article on planning as persuasive storytelling, James Throgmorton, for example, drawing on the philosopher Arran Gare, does mention Bakthin’s concept of “polyphonical, dialogical narrative”, seeing similarities between his own views on planning and Gare’s reading of Bakhtin, but this literally does not amount to more than a footnote (1993).

For the study of urban planning narratives, Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony has particular relevance because of the way it examines different voices within one and the same body of text. The inclusion of a multitude of voices, in the terminology of Bakhtin, does not come from outside the text, then, to enrich it (as sometimes seems to be the case in adaptations of ethnographic polyphony, see Crang 1992), but it is part and parcel of the text itself, within it, and taking the form of a dialogic imagination.

The idea of the objects of narration that are taking active and equal part in the narrative process by providing independent perspectives in their own voice, and as part of a dialogic process, is at the heart of Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony. Instead of one dominant authorial voice, Bakhtinian polyphony entails “a plurality of consciousness”, and the protagonists in a dialogical text are, not only objects of authorial discourse but also subjects of their own directly signifying discourse” (1984, 6–7; original emphasis). When read against the backdrop of the narrative turn in urban planning, Bakhtin’s descriptions of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels read like the current ideal of what contemporary urban planning narratives should amount to: a narrative that “is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other …” (Bakthin 1984, 18) Interestingly, for our purpose, Bakhtin does not define polyphony as merely a literary method, but also as a principle of human relationship (cf. Sidorkin 2005, 283).

If we consider the various texts and practices emanating from the Helsinki planning department in the context of the development of the waterfront as a single narrative body, containing a number of narratives about the area in question, its development, its future and the relationships inhabitants have with this locality, how should polyphony and a “dialogical imagination” in planning be envisioned? A few caveats should be kept in made about the extent to which local perspectives could exist as “unmerged” voices in the Bakhtinian sense in the context of planning. It would be near-impossible, in practical terms, to give all affected citizens the possibility to include their most personal narratives of a locality in word-for-word form in planning documents. Endeavours in such a direction would necessarily result in cumbersome affairs that easily get stuck in incremental procedures, devoted to planning details, specific building blocks, park spaces, traffic solutions, and the like. Current advances within participatory planning geographic information systems (PPGIS) carry the promise to make such large-scale projects technically possible, but are yet to develop the methodologies to come to terms with the wealth of qualitative data PPGIS may produce.

A laudable example, in the context of the Helsinki waterfront, of small-scale “polyphonic” planning in which citizens were given the possibility to design and name a public space, is the playground “Katiska” (“Fish Trap”) at Kalasatama. This location, however, has disappeared from the map as fast as it has appeared (SRV 2015; Eskus 2015). I believe a more lasting polyphony in planning could be achieved, first, by aggregating selected local narratives of a location into key narrative characteristics as outlined in the narrative mapping above. The resulting set of narrative characteristics, including key metaphors, plot structures, and functions of location within a narrated plot, could then be used to enrich narratives in planning, not as transcripts of citizen meetings or word-for-word quotations in appendices, but as a more varied set of storylines in the planning documents. Bakhtinian polyphony contains the suggestion that a narrative text may contain contradictory narratives, and I believe that this consequence of polyphony is worth considering. Returning to the Helsinki waterfront, and to the question whether this is an area that derives its identity from a perceived peripherality or liminality (as found in narratives of the location in literature) or from its location in or close to the city centre (as in narratives in planning), it is perhaps not necessary to resolve this polarity by excluding one of the two views. “Liminal” does not have to be opposite to the idea of “centrality” – indeed, perhaps a stronger, more creative vision of the waterfront, more attuned to the area’s cultural layers of meaning, could have enabled the co-existence of these two seemingly contradictory narratives. Some of the dynamics of the area’s development could have arisen from a dialogue between these two key storylines.


Cities are always, in the words of Doreen Massey, “the intersections of multiple narratives” (1999, 165). It is a concept of the city that resembles Robert Park’s famous notion of the city as a “mosaic of little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate” (1915, 608). The statements by Park and Massey, respectively, reflect two different visions of how the city’s narrative complexity functions: either diverse city worlds that closely interact (in Massey’s view) or that, in Park’s view (and as the consequence of processes of segregation in the city) are merely casually touching upon each other. If we take seriously this idea of the city as repository of multiple narratives, and the desire to incorporate these into a democratic and inclusive form of planning, a first important step would be a heightened awareness about the narrative complexity of an area. A concerted narrative mapping of an area, taking into account metaphor, plot, and the relationship between location and character development, would be a powerful tool with which to produce a survey of a location in a way that accounts for its narrative diversity, and that could feed into a narrative framework of planning. A narrative mapping of the Helsinki waterfront, on the basis of a selection of literary texts, revealed that this area features in narratives often as a peripheral, liminal space – a border zone between land and sea, past and future, history and possibility. The dominant storyline that is recounted in narratives in planning, by contrast, emphasizes how this area is, or will become, part of the Helsinki centre. In future research, this narrative mapping could be expanded to take into account also other textual narrative sources, such as historical documents, transcribed interviews, autobiographical documents, or narratives gathered through public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS). A full narrative mapping could combine an analysis in width (taking account of a broad range of narratives related to a similar kind of area, such as a city’s long waterfront, or, say, its working class areas), with an analysis in depth of one or two narratives focusing on one specific location.

Contemporary planning increasingly aims to encompass a more diverse range of urban voices, to facilitate the inclusion of more diverse voices, and to take into account more diverse kinds of knowledge. In other words, it aims at more polyphonic planning: planning that is aware of, and embraces, the manifold voices it caters for. Polyphony, as outlined in Bakhtin’s literary theory, may provide a helpful conceptualization with which to further develop the current, increasingly narrative planning paradigm. In translating the diverse local narratives of a location to the more strategic level of multi-voiced practices and narratives in planning, concepts such as metaphor, character and the individualized experience of place vis-à-vis plot development could play an important facilitating role in moving towards such polyphonic planning.



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Lieven Ameel

Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies, University of Helsinki