Story Collecting and Using Objects to understand place and plan better cities

This is a blog post in my on-going series on research methodology for urban planners which began with “Wait…people moved? The Story of Northern Uganda.  This blog post will look at nostalgia and memories role in shaping our perception of cities and then explore two methodologies (story collection and objects) to plan better communities

One of my friends posted the following poem on Facebook recently:

“Bulgaria” by Thomas McGonigle 

I left the train at five o’clock in the afternoon
and found love
dressed in a gymnazium uniform
black with sewn-on white collar
we talked
she took me to her house
ate fried cheese and drank red wine
her mother came in later
a fire was lit in the stove
i told them of coming from Ireland
waited while she translated for her mother
told them of coming from America
waited while she translated for her mother
told them of going to Turkey
waited while
told i could stay as long
nodded yes
which in Bulgaria means no
they nodded no
which in Bulgaria means yes.

[… it continues, but it is not relevant…]

That poem moved me, because it resonates so deeply with an experience that I’ve had.  When I tell people that I’m interested in Bulgaria, and I would love to move back there, this is often what comes to their minds:

Or this:

Bulgaria industry Varna

 Bulgarian countryside depressing

That’s just Bulgaria on a cloudy day.  Post-socialist countries are not permanently gray.  They are gray in the winter, just like Chicago is gray in the winter.

Rather, when I think of Bulgaria, I think of color!

Kukeri in Bulgaria in the Yambol Area

The Black Sea Balchik Bulgaria Balchick

Varna, Bulgaria train station

Memorial to Bulgarian Russian Friendship Varna

Cathedral Varna, Bulgaria

The poem evoked in me sentiment revolving around the history of Bulgaria, and my feelings towards Varna.  For most people, places have a  value or meaning attached to them.  Those connotations can be positive or negative, and are shaped by our interactions with sites.  For example, one justify’s  frequent visits to the same park because the place is “beautiful.” That beauty may be physical, but it can also be a beauty that we associate with it because of positive memories– a first date, great conversations, or just that it is the routine.  Our negative connotations of a place may be because of experiences, prejudices about the place, or prejudices about the people who frequent those places.

These memories can go even deeper, conveying what we think that the city should be.    Is the city supposed to be a hectic place of arts, culture, and business? Is the city supposed to be a quiet, tranquil, land-back place?  Thinking back on the small town where I grew up, Winfield, IL, if I were asked to work on an urban development there, I would try to maintain the small-town farming feel of the community rather than pushing for Big Box stores.

What are tools that planners can use to account for memory and nostalgia in our work?

This is a continuation of my post “Wait…people moved? The Story of Northern Uganda” where I began to formulate a research methodology and I explained the necessity of research to urban planners.

Here are two additional tools that I have found useful in my work,

1) Story collecting is an ethnographic research tool that can be used to engage stories of memories associated with a place.  Stories are something that tie us together as humans.  And in many cultures, stories are still handed down and shared.  Within these cultures, it would perhaps be easier to get at issues of urbanization, memories of a place, and where they want the community to go through sharing stories.  These stories provide evidence of a persons actions as well as their values.  Additionally, story telling breaks down barriers between the “outside” researcher and the “insider.”  Imagine the grandmother, who is hesitant to tell you specifics about her life and her values.  But, is is willing to sit with you and share stories.  Additionally, this method of data collection is incredibly “equal” in that collecting stories can be done by almost anyone in the community, allowing community members to take charge of the data being collected on their community.

 For example, while doing work in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago my colleges at the Field Museum used a research methodology of story collection to complement our semi-structured interviews.  As the report states, ” This has provided a more nuanced and holistic understanding of community dynamics and has broadened the contribution of community members and leaders in the research process” (pp7)    We had one community partner say, “It’s revolutionary! The storytelling project is really great. It is helping create awareness and change at the community level . . . It is practical . . . In fact, it is the new aged talking circle.” (pp 7).  For an example of the beauty of story and its implications on a community, you can watch this video.

2) Using objects is another useful way to get at ideas of nostalgia and understand attitudes that people have.  For example, a researcher can invite a group of community members to come to a discussion and they can ask them to bring with them an object that represents their views on the community or something that they wish would change in their community.  While conducting research on environmental issues and environmental attitudes, we found people bringing cloths pins into these meetings.    They represented a desire to be able to hang their clothes out to dry, but they were unable to do so because of regulations in the City of Chicago.  As a planner, you could then use that information to consider changing that policy.

In the Roma mahala where I worked, I wanted to conduct a similar ethnography, but for many reasons it did not happen. I wanted to ask my friends (and their friends and family) to bring their most prized possession to begin a conversation about what they valued.  I expect that if I were to do this research, many of them would bring their second-hand mobile phones, horse, hand cart, Bible, or sneakers.  Through their objects, we would then discuss why they valued that object so heavily– a means of communication, a status symbol, a means of employment.  Through those conversations, one would then be able to understand more fully what the values and perhaps needs of the community are.  The mobile phone was heavily valued because it was a means of connection–what was breaking down connection in the first place?  Knowing that one’s hand cart was the most valued possession so that they could pick trash, brings up larger issues of exclusion from the formal economy.

In sum, as planners we need to research so that we can better understand the communities that we are working in.    I will keep blogging on research methodology to help us in understanding cities.

Here’s some articles that I have skimmed in the writing of this post, they may be of interest to you.


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