In: Hajer, Maarten (ed.) (2010), Strong Stories. How the Dutch are reinventing spatial planning, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, pp. 140-152
The following story shows that what applies to philosophy, law, and politics, appears to hold good for spatial planning too. Successful planning is not about determination or planning procedures; it depends on good stories.
Let’s start with some facts. In October 2005, the Physical Planning Department (DRO) of Amsterdam’s municipal authority initiated a series of talks with political parties on the future of Amsterdam. Local elections were due to be held in March 2006. Duco Stadig, portfolio-holder for spatial planning in the outgoing municipal executive, had served for three terms. He told the officials of the Development Company (OGA) to draft a memorandum for his successor, outlining a gloomy financial picture: the money for new plans would soon be running out. The memorandum ‘Creating Space’ (‘Ruimte winnen’), blamed the depletion of the cross-subsidization fund (‘Vereveningsfonds’) on the collapse of the office market.
The DRO planners declined to endorse this gloomy outlook. On their own initiative they wrote an alternative memorandum entitled ‘Space creates money’ (‘Ruimte maakt geld’). They hoped to galvanize opinions and create a new impetus, and they believed that new ideas could also generate funds. They thought it wrong for those holding the reins of political power to hold up their hands in despair right before the election. They decided to set up exploratory talks with the main political parties, to discuss the city’s future.
Between October and December 2005, DRO met two or three times with each of those responsible for writing the local political programmes of the six largest parties. The parties could choose from a long list of topics that the planners gave them. But in each case the first question the politicians were asked was the same: what will Amsterdam look like in twenty years’ time? Surprisingly, this question remained unanswered in every single discussion. No one party was capable of presenting a political narrative about the city’s long-term future. When asked about housing, transport and traffic, water management, culture, the economy, they all had their positions. But there was no cohesiveness.
Write a Story
In the run-up to the election, the DRO planners decided to write a story about the future of Amsterdam. The story consisted of twenty chapters, each adressing a specific topical issue, with sections on what was conceivable, and possible paths for future development. Each chapter was projected onto a single layer, and together these layers formed a map. That map depicts a possible future of Amsterdam, presented within a wider context. The accompanying story discusses the conscious design of a metropolis, and it was presented at a gathering to mark the departure of a staff member in January 2006. Judging the applause, the presentation as a whole went down very well. Three weeks later, something remarkable happened: an official at the town hall asked DRO to come and repeat its story to the public administration department. The following month, twenty-five public administration officials gathered in a small room, and the story was told a second time. Since these officials were familiar with numerous dossiers, they reacted on the spot by providing a great deal of new information. The DRO spokesman used all these comments to amplify the story, and produced a new version.
Not long afterwards, DRO received a telephone call from the town clerk, inviting it to come and tell its story once again at the town hall, this time to the senior staff of the public administration department. So another presentation followed a few weeks later. The senior staff, including the town clerk, responded, and once again numerous suggestions were made.
In the local elections that followed shortly after this, the Labour Party (PvdA) together with the Green-Left Alliance (GroenLinks) won a sizeable majority on Amsterdam’s city council. By the end of April 2006, the new municipal executive had been formed. Shortly afterwards, DRO received another call, this time with an invitation to the mayor’s official residence, to tell its story about the future of the city to the new executive.
The invitations started flooding in: there was enormous interest in hearing this story of the future. Everyone who had seen and heard it passed it on to others. The mayor and the town clerk put the story on the agenda of their regional meetings. Invitations were soon coming from the business world, the Rotary Club, Amsterdam Council for Urban Development, the regional umbrella organization of housing associations, management training courses, the municipal council, borough councils, and the executives of neighboring municipalities.
The venues kept getting bigger, from small conference rooms to gymnasiums, lecture halls, theatres, work canteens, and eventually large conference centres. And the story itself – with its new title ‘Destination AMS’ (‘Bestemming AMS’) – kept growing too, since at each new presentation the audience provided new information and suggestions, which were constantly incorporated. No one presentation was the same. Nothing was put down on paper. Some people heard the story three or four times, but since the content was constantly changing and there were no booklets about it, no one got bored. On the contrary, many people kept coming back, eager to hear how the storyline would develop.
Interestingly, the story tied in with a growing number of listeners’ personal stories. Instead of a plan conceived in the offices of a municipal department or urban development agency, a vision of the future was gradually created to which many people had contributed with all their positive feedback. It seems that the story was absorbing all the knowledge, experience and insights from different parts of society, and giving them back to the city.
As time went on, this connection between personal stories and the story of the future metropolis spawned new initiatives. Projects were launched that related to the story or referred to it, some of them even arising from it directly. The story not only inspired people, but prompted them to identify with. More and more people became ‘co-creators’.
In the autumn of 2006, the DRO director distributed The Tipping Point, by the Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell, among the department’s employees. It is a book about the power of new ideas. From then on, story-telling became the department’s deliberate strategy. A team was set up with the specific mandate of developing new stories. This team, which was appointed at the end of 2006, consisted of a small core of planners and urban developers, assisted by interns and trainees.
Pending the launch of the ‘Metro Team’, the department presented to the new portfolio-holder a new story, a sequel, on the strategy to be followed in metropolitanization. The portfolio-holder then presented this story to the municipal executive. The executive wanted to see aspects of this story worked out in more detail before discussing it. The Metro Team started work straight away. Within the space of three months, it had produced three new stories: ‘Save the Arctic’ on globalization, ‘Goods make Amsterdam’ on the economy of goods and logistics, and ‘People for people’, which was about Amsterdam’s vibrant service economy. None of these stories were presented to the outside world; unlike the original one, they were intended to be confidential, and were written solely for the executive. They were, however, presented briefly at closed meetings of the directors of the Development Company (OGA) and the Pojects Management Bureau (PMB).
Then, things started to move.
In the spring of 2007, the directors of the three agencies OGA, DRO and PMB adopted a common mission: to pool their resources to develop the metropolitan region. Three other central agencies – Economic Affairs, Infrastructure, Transport & Traffic, and the Engineering Office – decided to join them. By the summer of 2007, the new Development Alliance was a fact of life. For the first time since the collapse of the powerful Department of Public Works in the 1970s, the diverse components of the bureaucratic apparatus were reunited, albeit within a loose cooperative framework. Despite this loose structure, the alliance had a consultative meeting of directors from the outset, and its ambition was eventually to achieve close cooperation on all fronts and to find shared accommodation. One of the initiatives of the Development Alliance was the inauguration of a joint strategy group called ‘Metropolitan Strategy Team’.
March 2007, the regional directors decided at a conference to create a development scenario for Greater Amsterdam, which was then still known as the ‘North Wing’ of the Randstad. The scenario was finished in just nine months. On 14 December 2007, at an animated follow-up conference, the North Wing was renamed Amsterdam Metropolitan Region: the change was even reported on national TV network news that night.
Meanwhile, in a relatively short period of time, much of Amsterdam’s organizational structure was refashioned: emulating the Development Alliance, the city’s central agencies in the social sector formed a Social Alliance, and those in the cultural sector formed a Cultural Alliance. At the end of 2008, the committee on ‘Improving the administration of Amsterdam’ submitted a proposal to revise the city’s existing divisions into boroughs. One of the tasks it identified was to find ways of improving regional cooperation. The portfolio-holder referred to the changes at one point as ‘a paradigm shift, but softly softly’.
The achievements in the planning process described above are far from cast-iron. In fact what determines success is not the hard edges of planning – money, the actual plans, procedures, planning instruments – but the ’soft’ edges: the shaping of a vision, whipping up enthusiasm, getting people involved. Interestingly, in the planning practice in Amsterdam that has been described, the design or plan as such no longer plays a prominent role. In fact, the designer in his familiar role of draughtsman of the future seems to be missing altogether. His place has been taken by the urban planner as storyteller, in which the story is just that: ‘an oral presentation of events, whether true or invented,told with the aim of entertaining and enthralling an audience.’ The narrative element actually plays a key role.
This raises the question of what it is that makes story-telling so successful. In psychology, five factors have been distinguished. I shall dwell briefly on each one in turn. They are receptivity, familiarity, trust, empathic witnessing, and recreating the self (Gergen & Gergen, 1986).
The first factor is receptivity: as soon as people hear a story, they become receptive. That is because story-telling is usually associated with pleasure, relaxation, sociability, or even togetherness. This was certainly borne out by the responses at the meetings. The stories were always received with great enthusiasm, and this enthusiasm proved to be infectious.
As for familiarity: because of their anecdotal quality, stories tend to strike a chord among listeners – far more so than maps or designs, which may be impenetrable for laymen. Stories tend to directly reflect the experiences of ordinary people.
The third factor is trust or confidence. Stories provide an opportunity to feel a sense of confidence. People tend to feel more confidence in the future when numerous recognizable situations are placed in a wider context. That was one of the key qualities of the story-based project known as ‘Destination AMS’. A variety of known spatial developments were extrapolated into the future and placed within a single reassuring, yet surprising whole.
The fourth point is that the audience is, as it were, listening to someone’s personal testimony. And personal testimony is far likelier to arouse trust and empathy than, say, a plan being presented by some official or administrator at a local residents’ consultation evening.
Finally, listening to stories creates opportunities for redefining the self. The audience is invited to identify with different roles and characters. As a result, stories tend to soften the us-and-them attitude that people naturally adopt when facing an unknown future. Where planning is concerned, this is extremely important. Stories are embedded in relationships with others. Because of this specific relational value, they can help to alter perceptions od numerous scenarios, making them seem more palatable or even making them look like interesting challenges. Since in a narrative process, people lay themselves open to criticism and negotiation, and are willing to modify their own convictions, it is easier to reconcile diverse interests.
There is something else. As we have seen, the story of the metropolitan region of Amsterdam was always changing, it was constantly being supplemented by contributions made by the narrator and audience alike. This not only amplified the story, it also made it easy to absorb a plurality of personal and social perspectives. While designs – drawings or maps – often bear the personal signature of the designer, stories open up a pluralistic perspective by constantly combining new insights. In fact, in a story, the contributions of others and the inevitable diversity of perspectives and meanings are actually right at the forefront of attention.
Story-telling thus reflects the fact that everyday reality appears by definition as contigent, in the sense of unpredictable and elusive. Well-told stories, as the philosopher Hannah Ahrend emphasized, give us ways of finding a provisional and acceptable point of clearly-defined meaning, in the face of unpredictable human actions (Ahrend 1985). In other words, stories acknowledge the complex reality of human life. They are modest and do not seek to give a conclusive interpretation of reality. Stories are by definition open. In their dynamic form, they manifest themselves as a never-ending creative process of construing.
In Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (2003), the developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner explores the nature of stories and the ways in which people use them in their lives. Stories, asserts Bruner, arouse instinctive responses. People only really understand how they work in an intuitive sense. We rarely take the time or trouble to reflect on the power and influence of stories in our lives. Bruner claims that stories are nothing less than the building materials of human experience. In the early 1970s he launched the theory that people’s ‘narrative consciousness’ is just as important as their ‘information-processing consciousness’, if not more so. In Making Stories, he shows that people are reluctant to admit their preference for stories. While the strict truths of logic and science strike us as pure and objective, the traces of rhetoric and beliefs in stories arouse our suspicion. That is why we always place our faith in legal proceedings, plans and formal agreements.
But it appears that stories play a far more fundamental role in our collective achievements than any formal arrangement or agreement. ‘Like scientific discoveries, stories show us ways to cope with error and surprise in our daily lives. And stories that are widely circulated become “collective coins” that begin to illuminate our world by revealing alternative ones,’ said the philosopher Richard Rorty. (Rorty, 1989) Rorty argues that Uncle Tom’s Cabin – the famous nineteenth-century novel bij Harriet Beecher Stowe – did more to abolish slavery than any political programme or philosophical pamphlet. And what applies to philosophy, law, and politics appears to be true of spatial planning too. Successful planning is not about powerful determination or planning procedures, but is contingent on good stories.
Bruner rightly draws attention to the dissemination of stories, pointing out that only those which are widely disseminated can fulfil their role as ‘collective currency’. But how did the story known as ‘Destination AMS’, for example, end up reaching so many people? The story was not printed and despatched to thousands of people. On the contrary. The strategy was precisely not to make a booklet out of it or post it to the internet. This was partly based on the idea that nothing is as contagious as rumour. The rumour that there was a fascinating story about the future of Amsterdam somewhere, but that it was impossible to order it or study it, fired the imagination.
If people wanted to hear the story, they had to make an appointment. And making an appointment meant taking action, making a commitment. The first invitations trickled in slowly. After a while, the requests increased in frequency, until their numbers exceeded the capacity, and many had to be rejected. It was also strange to note that at a certain point they gradually petered out again. The rumour spread like an epidemic: it started imperceptibly, grew slowly, suddenly escalated like a raging fire, peaked abruptly, and then gradually died out.
In total, the story was told more than sixty times. About 2.000 people in the Amsterdam region have heard it. Many times more have heard others discussing it. That counts too. ‘Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread like viruses do,’ writes Malcolm Gladwell (2000). His theory of ‘How little things can make a big difference’ was tested in Amsterdam’s planning practice. So marketeers are not the only people who can benefit from such knowledge: planners too can make it work for them.
This approach completely contradicts the idea that if plans are presented in beautifully designed publications, they will naturally take hold. Things don’t work like that. What applies here is ‘The Law of the Few’. Gladwell writes: ‘That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.’
Gladwell provides another surprising insight. The above description of the story’s dissemination drew attention to the epidemic-like growth of the requests received by DRO. Gladwell explains how social change takes place: not gradually, but at a pace that accelerates dramatically after a clear turning-point. ‘The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the tipping point.’ In Amsterdam’s planning practice, the tipping point was reached at the beginning of 2007. From then on, everyone was suddenly talking about the metropolis. It just happened. It was something that people generated together, without the intervention of a single planning expert. The relationship between this metropolis and the wider Randstad conurbation was no longer considered relevant. That point had been passed. This provoked reactions of surprise and not a little resentment on the part of other cities. They did not realize what had been going on in Amsterdam. Some even believed that the story posed a threat.
In short, good stories are infectious. And spatial planning exists by the grace of good story-telling. Although this narrative element is often overlooked in the planning literature, it seems crucial to its success. It used to be the designers who introduced the narrative element: their planning proposals had a certain narrative structure. So had the abstract spatial concepts of urban planners. But although this helped to dismantle the complexity of the spatial concepts, the abstractness of these narratives often made them elusive and sometimes lacking in credibility, as in the case of the ”Randstad’ and the ‘Green Heart’ proposals. What is more, the Dutch planning world has witnessed a trend towards ‘Balkanization’ of planning concepts in recent years, which has not yet exhausted itself (Zonneveld & Verwest, 2005). Some commentators even speak of a conceptual poverty in today’s spatial organization and structuring of society, and urge the need for renewed clarity. This is a sign that the narrative element is lacking. Regional designs may be more precise, but they often lack a narrative structure. The aesthetic element that they tend to highlight is less relevant in this context than designers would like to think, in spite of the recent upsurge of political interest in visual images (Hajer, Sijmons and Feddes, 2006).
Relationships between politicians and designers are always fragile, especially when decision-making proceeds along democratic lines. And any politician who uses a designer to impose his will is likely to place the relationship under extra strain: this is Louis- XIV-style patronage. Conversely, drawing techniques that set out specifically to create political will can be assigned to a category that the British journalist Deyan Sudjic recently dubbed ‘the edifice complex’: a kind of architecture that mainly nourishes egos (Sudjic, 2005). ‘Whatever the architect’s intentions, in the end they find themselves being defined not by their own rhetoric, but by the impulses that have driven the rich and the powerful to employ architects, and to seek to shape the world.’ It is not the relationship between aestheticism and power but narrative structure that is crucial to the success of planning. Narrative practices such as the one described in Amsterdam present opportunities to create a public space that includes both a sense of solidarity and trust on the one hand, and respect and understanding for the need for different perspectives on the other. Good stories confront us with our moral responsibilities and encourage us to act collectively. They provide the best safeguards against ‘blueprint thinking’ and undue faith in the ‘makeable society’. But none of this potential can be realized unless stories are first incorporated into our democratic planning procedures.
Ahrend, Hannah (1958), The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bruner, Jerome (2003), Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life.Harvard: First Harvard University Press.
Gergen, Kenneth & Gergen, Mary (1986), Social Psychology.Springer.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2000), The Tipping Point. How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.London: Brown and Company.
Hajer, Maarten, Sijmons, Dirk et al. (2006), Een plan dat werkt: ontwerp en politiek in de regionale planvorming.Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers.
Rorty, Richard (1989), Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sudjic, Deyan (2005), The Edifice Complex. How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World.London: Penguin.
Zonneveld, Wil, Verwest, Femke (2005), Tussen droom en retoriek. De conceptualisering van ruimte in de Nederlandse planning.The Hague: Netherlands Institute for Spatial Research.
Translation: Open Book Translation, Bookmakers