In June 2000 Barbara Eckstein (then an Associate Professor of English at The University of Iowa) and I conducted a two-day symposium entitled “Planning as Storytelling: Sustaining America’s Cities.” The symposium brought together urban practitioners such as urban and regional planners and urban social justice workers with scholars from the disciplines of urban history, literary narrative, and urban planning. In our view, this cross-disciplinary link of historical, literary, and planning narratives provided an unusual and much needed conversation. It brought the historian’s record of the past and the planner’s projection of the future together with the literary critic’s understanding that all such records and projections are constructed stories. It also extended the conversation beyond academia to include urban practitioners from Iowa and other states.
Underlying the symposium was the claim that the future of U. S. cities depends on, in large part, the ability of various urban practitioners and theoreticians to hear the multiple stories of all those groups and individuals who have a stake in the economic well-being, environmental health, social justice, and ethical vivacity of urban life.
As long as one assumes that numbers convey facts and that stories convey feelings, those who work to produce numbers and those who work to produce narratives are likely to misunderstand one another. This seminar was posited on the premise that multiple ways of defining and conveying persuasive facts are storytelling and that this storytelling is a necessary and sustaining humanistic activity. Maps tell stories. Tables of numbers tell stories. These and many other media are representations of reality that require knowledge to be read and interpreted. Each session of the seminar tested this humanistic premise.
In the first day and a half, six “storytellers” made presentations in which they positioned themselves within the conventions of their professions. By means of the stories they told, they explained what counts as facts in those professions and what tools of persuasion–linguistic, visual, numerical–are common. Three of the storytellers (two from Iowa) were non-academics and three were academics. In the last day and a half, four urban scholars–one historian, two planning theorists, and one geographer-planner–attempted to imagine how we might bring all of these six stories and their diverse ideas of fact and persuasion into the same conversation about the sustainability of U.S. cities.
Participants included: Larry Wilson, Campus Planner, U. of Iowa; Liz Christiansen, Administrator of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Land Quality and Waste Management Assistance Division; Carlo Rotella, American Studies professor at Boston College; Joe Barthel, private detective for prisoners on death row, Oakland, California; Jeff Davidson, Assistant Director of Planning, City of Iowa City; Ken Reardon, planning professor at the U. of Illinois, Chicago; Edward Soja, geography professor at U.of California, Los Angeles; Seymour Mandelbaum, urban historian and planning professor at the U. of Pennsylvania; Leonie Sandercock, planning professor, U. of Melborne, Australia; Robert Beauregard, planning professor of urban and public policy, New School for Social Research, New York.
Modified versions of the papers presented at the symposium, plus a few others, later appeared in book form as Story and Sustainability, edited by Barbara Eckstein and James Throgmorton.
The symposium was sponsored by the U. of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Graduate Collage, Office of the Provost, Department of English, and Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning, and by Humanities Iowa.