Longitudinal Stakeholder Engagement with Oral Histories and GIS

Here is my full presentation to National Planning Conference with the American Planning Association!
This is a starter-guide to spatial narratology, and how to build narrative infrastructure. I cover:
1. Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition as urban planning codes.
2. How to transform tragic narratives into comedic narratives

Cross-sectional stakeholder engagement has a limited shelf-life, high cost, often comes after an urban change is pre-conceived. Longitudinal approaches allows urban change professionals to leverage ethnographic GIS methods to map sentiment for reuse, research, and stress-testing of future proposals. Cities are frame-stories, therefore planners are storytellers. Mapping narratives takes subjective data and objectively anchors it to places. Narrative maps enable planners, developers, representatives, and the public to know the stories on a street corner, to compare them to neighbouring stories, and tell new stories as subsequent chapters of those stories from the past. This couching of proposals in the context of the past engenders continuity in the perspective of the stakeholders: their stories extended into the future.

Viewers will be introduced to the methods of spatial narratology and a case-study conducted at the medieval walled city Famagusta, Cyprus.

How to make Spatial Narratology:

  1. Leverage ethnographic methods to build a robust narrative infrastructure
  2. Identify narrative coding schemes to foster creation of new narratives in continuity with old narratives
  3. Guide stakeholders new stories away from tragic and toward comedic narrative-arcs


The Arendt Codes

It was a thrill to present to the Arendtian community, given how ingrained auntie Hannah is in Narrative Infrastructure. I’ve been reading with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College since 2019, and it is a highlight of my week. Between Dr. Berkowitz, Tara, and the regular members, I have found a tribe.
In March of 2022 Tara invited me to present the principles of Narrative Infrastructure as they reflect Arendt’s discussion in The Human Condition.
This one text is my answer to “If stuck on a desert island and you could have one book, which would it be?” Dr. Berkowitz has led the research team through two complete readings of this text, and all those recordings are available on their YouTube site.

There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking is dangerous

Join the VRG Reading Group


The Story of Sleeping Rough

Camping in the woods of Singapore for 30 years

Oh Go Seng. In a tropical country of 5,686,000 where only 1000 people are homeless, he lived in the woods.

Oh Go Seng at his encampment — Photo BBC

Singapore is an incredibly odd bird. They have absurdly powerful state powers, which I attribute to being only the size of one city. It’s much easier to effect mass-change on a single city level. Robert Moses had that kind of power in New York (demolishing several neighborhoods full of people). Mayor Jaime Lerner of Curitiba re-wrote the book on public transportation (60% of Curitibans use public transit daily). Singapore forced its population to accept public housing as a norm in the 60s and 70s, and really set the stage for building a strong middle class (with all the prosperity bonuses you get from that, particularly education).

Their approach was down-right authoritarian, so their rich citizens nominated themselves authors of a wholly Modern (capital ‘M) Singapore. That is the opposite of a generative-ly developed community like a European village. The generative community evolves in a million tiny steps over centuries, crating the rich fabric that demonstrates the 1001 stories that can be read in the stones, or glazing, if you know what to look for.

Narrative Infrastructure is still operating in Singapore: people are still telling stories and adapting spaces. But NI is diametrically opposite from authoritarian urban design, as it relies on ALL the inhabitants to contribute, not the dictates of the elite. That elite was born of a tension between Muslim principles, Chinese communist principles, and British colonialism. The result was a highly competitive city-state that regularly suffered race riots. The governing approach was to suppress individualism and democracy with the aim to pacify divergent stories and make a new people.

I would surmise Mr. Oh’s story has brought a counter-veiling story to the macro narrative of Singapore that focuses on progressive civilization. Discovering a gentlemen who’d managed to “live in a garden” in the city whose crowing-achievement is public housing is likely a psychic slap in the face to Singapore’s 50 year narrative. The story of sleeping rough is anathema. 

If I may indulge my own cultural bias, I’d call Mr. Oh’s counter-narrative poetic compared to the ongoing housing crisis around the world.  Industrialized cities like Los Angeles have 40,000 homeless people on the streets tonight. Compared to Singapore’s 1,000, the city of The Angles has a great multitude of souls shivering in tents tonight. These conditions are fueled again by a oligarchic mind-set of Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) wherein the voting rich of California have mandated development caps to keep their narrative fabric the way they like it.

The contradiction being that their own lifestyles are predicated on a massive service industry that they desire, but don’t want to house. So instead of accommodating the plurality of stories in proper homes, the plurality is blocking the sidewalks of Los Angeles with encampments.

This story was developed from the BBC article sent to me by Calvin Niles who correctly identified Mr. Oh’s story as being a significant exemplar of how counter-narratives are often our wake-up call.

Credit to Calvin for distracting me from the upcoming American Planning Association national conference where I’ve been invited to present Narrative Infrastructure to the city planning industry of the United States.

Escape Reality

Hubris in the design academy looking for in-roads to the industry.

Evidence-Based Design Practice?




I listened to two hours of research reporting that pushed the notion that we should be employing more evidence-based approaches to our industry design practices (particularly at urban scales).
While I understand that the extent of the work-product contracted by the European Union for this research demanded an answer to the potential methods for integration of evidence-based approaches, it glossed over the pertinence of such approaches.
This drives to the heart of the practice of urban change professionals: Are the conclusions derived from your sample generalizable?
My co-participants in KAEBUP’s presentation were of similar minds: we are being asked to disregard post-positive approaches and generative approaches. This feels like a regression to hubristic approaches from which the design industry is struggling to overcome.
Alvaro Valera Sosa’s response was largely focused on ergonomics, which we don’t need reminding of. The human body is and has always been a baseline design criteria.
The Alain Chairadia’s response was to highlight the role of policy in the built environment, but this is an inverted logic. Policy is a response to narrative. No policy is ever born without someone complaining about something to law makers. All policy is an attempt to codify a set of standards, which is just the end result of relying on a bell-curve. The job of lawmakers is to establish the bell-curve as a hard line between legal and illegal. But this realm is flawed as a rule, as it is reactive, and denies exceptionalism. 99% of all cities are evolved based on minute decisions made over centuries, not polices. You can certainly point to land-use policy as form-giver, but this is hardly the extent of the “sense of place”. Saying we cannot know what the micro-response should be is false if we intend to leverage continuity of that local evolution.
As rightly stated by both the penultimate and the final participants (Saket Sarraf and Tomislav Agustincic): the great leap yet to be made in the realm of evidence-based changes to urban change industry is constructivism, narrative analysis, and storytelling.

The tyranny of normal distribution as defined by large data sets.

“Yet the meaningfulness of everyday relationships is disclosed not in everyday life but in rare deeds, just as the significance of a historical period shows itself only in the few events that illuminate it.”
-Arendt, “The Human Condition” (p.42)



“If you do not look at history, you assume the present is the world” – @stewartbrand

“Storytellers rule the world” – Plato

 “I will argue that the way the word ‘value’ is used in modern economics has made it easier for value-extracting activities to masquerade as value-creating activities. And in the process rents (unearned income) gets confused with profits (earned income); inequality rises, and investment in the real economy falls.” – Economist Mariana Mazzucato


This trend for the “front line” healthcare workers (front line making a allusion to war) to be referred to as “heroes” has a disturbing subtext. If you study storytelling, you know the hero has the agency:

“…to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.”

– Phoinix to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad 

Health care workers should NEVER be heroes except in extreme singular events. A pandemic is a prolonged tragedy, not a crisis.

The hero must be taught to be a hero before his prophesied demise.

Two conflicting cultural tropes operating at once

The western medicine ethos pushed by the medical profession over the last century is that we must trust doctors with our lives without question. The result has been a declining personal responsibility for our own health.

The tendency to distrust authority in polarized political theaters has warped our relationship with the very people who we rely on to provide medical care.

Heroes die or become the villain

The story arc of a hero ends in their demise or the target of changing opinion. The only rule of political agency is “tear down your perceived oppressor” (or whoever is currently got the spotlight).

The medical professionals saving lives everyday are doing their jobs, not acting in public. It is an absurd disservice to them to equate their jobs as political acts in any shape or form. The real absurdity is the majority are unwilling to police a dying minority who endanger us all by their unwillingness to follow scientific authority.

But the dying minority’s response to the pandemic was eminently predictable based on the patterns of political discourse over the last twelve years. The dying minority will die on the hill of personal freedom. They will sacrifice their children and ailing parents on the hill of personal freedom. Their ethos is rooted in an anti-authoritarian (literally anti-author) that defines party membership through unwavering subservience to an ideology of personal freedom as the highest public good. Their righteousness is unrelenting: life itself is less valuable than freedom.

So they rebrand heroes as villains

Putting nurses and doctors on the “front line” was a general act of cowardice by the majority. This isn’t their war. They didn’t sign up to be heroes. Police the dying minority like a civilization. Conscripting heroes to fight in your place because you’re too comfortable and distracted is why the pandemic is entering its third wave.



Turkish mystery theater

how much do we understand? 

Does it matter? 

How much of a story do you even need to understand? Last night was the first “Mystery Turkish Theater”. We watched classic Turk comedy movie in Turkish, with Turkish subsite titles.


language learning advisory


What struck me was the frustration of understanding only bits and pieces of the dialog. My significant other was able to help fill in some gaps, but it reminded me of watching annoying television my parents and old siblings growing up. When I was a kid, their programs didn’t make any sense. Why did they want to stare at two people talking about nothing?


Setting week-night programming aside, my big television day was Saturday. Saturday Morning Cartoons was a vital ritual for kids in the 80s. There was a conspiracy to draw us kids out of our parents’ hair on their first morning off from the work week. Our parents knew we were occupied and sitting in one place doing nothing dangerous. Although I have no testimony to support this suspicion, I do suspect this provided time for parents to enjoy each other’s company.

So hot they’re cooool!

This suspicion is further supported by the ritual breakfast that accompanied Saturday Morning Cartoons: Pop Tarts(tm)—the one meal a child of four could safely make on their own, which means parents didn’t need to even get out of bed.


But there was more to this conspiracy. It went beyond the parents. Advertisers knew exactly when a captive audience of children were staring at their media. In the post-Star Wars, age, every children’s television show was effectively one long advertisement for merchandise that accompanied that show, be it, Transformers, GI Joe, or My Little Pony. Each show was explicitly created not to entertain, but to create backstories for toys that children would demand their parents buy, so we kids could enact the stories.


What we kids want most is to be in the story. Stories are how we learn—they lead to understanding and meaning. For a child, understanding is our purpose. The common world is a very confusing place with many layers of cultural complexity. Stories are how we learned about all that complexity. The most powerful learning mode is to do, to act out the story.


This is the big difference between play centered on fantasy and play focused on physical activity. The latter is activating the body in a laborious way, and it just feels good to be alive to dance, to run, tumble, to be in your body. Pleasure is rooted in the body by its very nature.

Fantasy play is another kind of pleasure. Both kinds of play trigger neurochemical rewards in the brain. This is why people will read the news incessantly, or watch TED talks into the wee hours each night.









But round about noon, when mom and dad emerge groggily from their private chambers with plates of sandwiches and glasses of Tang, the television suddenly shifted its programming. The older siblings would emerge from their comas and plunk down next to you on the couch. There were only four channels, so there was no arguing over what channel to watch. The programming would become increasingly mature, starting with reruns of M*A*S*H and classic Star Trek. These were incomprehensible to us kids, but there was still guys in army clothes (telling unfunny jokes) and spaceships floating around planets (with adults occasionally wrestling with ugly muppets.) But we kids could not understand the story plot or the character motivations.

We didn’t get the dopamine hit from the same as the cartoons. By the time the Saturday afternoon movie came on, we were restless and headed outside or to our rooms. 

Later, the family would reconvene in the night for shows like Dallas, Magnum PI, and Murder She Wrote. All of these shows were confusing, even frustrating as a kid. We knew many of the words, but we only knew to laugh when the left track on the show, told us to be mirthful. We wanted our siblings and parents to like us, so we try to understand what they saw in all these talkie-talkie shows. 


I don’t know when I toasted my last Saturday morning Pop Tart™. It was probably when I moved to Canada in the late 80s. I was dismayed to learn that this backward country didn’t have proper cartoons (WTF is Astroboy?!) They didn’t flood Saturday mornings with children’s programming (never really thought how insidious the term children programming really is, chills,) and no Pop Tarts! They had some cardboard substitute for Pop Tarts filled with carob. The horror—the root—of that shock in moving to Canada was that all of my pleasure rituals had been taken away at once.


My sister got me into knights and dragons fantasy novels and friends got me into Dungeons and Dragons. So my entertainment/product/acting out paradigm was reestablished. I started to learn to tell stories, got new friends, new rituals, and new brand loyalties (stupid GURPS.)


Last night I reexperienced the frustration of a child trying to watch adult programming (again, chilling.) My new self-programming and entertainment is to learn the Turkish language by watching old Turkish films. Now, I’ve taken steps to enhance the pleasure potential of this programming. I grilled şeftali, and made a kabob feast, complete with two generous servings of rakı. We put on Üç Kağitçi with native subtitles 3/4 speed and ate and drank the strange scenes as they unfolded before us.

We’ve studied enough Turkish to recognize past and present tense, ownership, which word is the verb, and we have a small Turkish vocabulary. We got all the way to the end and gleaned a glimmer of the plot, the gist of some of the side stories, and some insight into 70s Turk culture.

Many second language speakers have told me that it was television that really made the difference, and I believe it. The ritual consumption of media, the multi sensory experience is what made Saturday Morning Cartoons such a defining part of growing up in the 80s.


Why Spalding Gray is not yet a national treasure is a mystery to me.

Expert Storyteller

He developed a body of work that allows us to experience the classical hypodiegetic story, or frame story, which forms the core of every major story tradition or song cycle. This story structure, which predates settled civilization, is an excellent analogy for understanding sense of place.

Spalding Gray



In brief: a frame story is a macro narrative that is tangentially referenced occasionally by individual stories. Shahrazad and Shahryar are the frame story for the Alf Layla Wa Layla (aka Arabian Nights Entertainments), and the 1000 and 1 tales are framed by her struggle to entertain her murderous husband. Similarly, Manhattan, the city, frames a variety of modern entertainment that forgoes long-narrative arcs by maintaining an episodic format (such as Seinfeld, Friends, or Sex in the City). These situational comedies are situated in a particular place that frames the stories: Manhattan. We as story consumers (aka audience) are entertained but have our own frame (aka our lives) which we experience all other stories within.

We live in a frame story of which we rarely see the boundaries.

A eulogies is a frame story of our whole life, into which loved ones provide anecdotes to humanize us in the eyes of others (our last audience). Our lives will be meaningful depending on how much of our frame story influences the life-paths of others. Some of us take enormous risks, act in surprising ways, and shift the frame stories many of us share at a familial, neighborhood, city-wide, national, or (rarely) species-wide level. Those individual acts of such import are still within the frame story of the individual’s total life, so sensationalist biographers are keen to find a thread of continuity that transforms a great political actor into a classic hero or villain by suggesting the great action was always coming.

Any one person’s life-story is meaningful when related without theatrics.

This is what Spalding Gray demonstrates. He provides a significant scope of his life as defined by an outside event (ex. his first film, Swimming to Cambodia is framed by his experience making the film The Killing Fields, his second, Monster in the Box, framed by his process of writing his first fictional novel). While the outside event is occasionally referenced in the thread of his monolog, it is utilized more to close episodic stories and start new ones. The frame story allows us the audience to anchor our expectations into a big undertaking that sets up a domain, a kind of neighborhood to which the rest of the stories are giving deference.

The individual stories within a frame story are best when they show characters in different lights.

One story may seem heroic, another craven, and yet another loving. That diversity of themes allows the character to reflect the human condition that we share with them. This is how a character or storyteller behaves ethically: by showing they are neither divine nor deviant. This explains the fundamental power of ethos described by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. An audience is much more likely to take a teller seriously if there is an expressed honesty in the story, an honesty anchored in common human experience.

In a similar way, when setting is leveraged as a frame for many stories, it humanizes the characters by imposing its requirements. Manhattan’s imposition of subways and homeless people on the characters grounds their reactions in a real place that unites them, but also is meaningful to any city-dweller anywhere. The sense of place is a frame, and that gives us something powerful to work with: personal lives in a context are meaningful because of the colocation of those stories.

Spalding Gray: a national treasure storyteller 

Three full films by Spalding:

Monster in a Box

Monster in a Box

Eclectic ObsessionIt's a Slippery Slope

It’s a Slippery Slope


Image credits:

Kristin Baldeschwiler
Ken Regan
Ransome Center Magazine, University of Texas
Theatre Gigante
All About Actors

Mayor Sánchez says the town is the talk in the street

The small rural village he serves is seeking UNESCO recognition for their pastime of retiring to the street to chat with neighbors. In the hot months, the streets fill with chairs as inhabitants abandon their traditional (stifling) salons to enjoy the early evening breezes. Beyond saving on electricity, the social engagement galvanizes community inter-reliance as they share their woe, joys, and opinions with one another.

“My mother is 82 and sits on her street every day. There are days when I pass by after work, sit down and we catch up. It’s the most beautiful moment of the day.”

José Carlos Sánchez 

Mayor, Algar, Spain

“Residents come out onto the street and instead of feeling that they’re alone, what they get is a therapy session. They share their stories or the problems they’re going through and the neighbors try and help.”

Rural communities lend meaning to the cities

Algar, Spain (Province of Cádiz), is a rural village that follows the same pattern of population decline of many rural communities. In the last twenty-five years Algar has lost twenty-five percent of its population. The municipality of Cádiz grew it population by twelve percent over the same period. The cultural diversity of these regions fade as the draw of urban life continues to depopulate the hinterlands.

Is talk on the street an intangible cultural heritage?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has specific criteria for local rituals to be recognized:

“The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next… It contributes to social cohesion, encouraging a sense of identity and responsibility which helps individuals to feel part of one or different communities and to feel part of society at large.”

link to UNESCO, Intangible Cultural Heritage, (accessed on 020210819)


Sense of place 

is reasonably easy to quantify


Our senses have a place

Sense of place is assumed to be ephemeral or an intangible experience. Often is is given only poetic treatment by scholars, tourism boards, and developers. If we explore the terms sense and place we can come to a convenient definition of sense of place.

First, things (objects) must be sensible by the five senses routinely over the time scale of a year. Hence regional food that is seasonally dependent is a strong contributor to the sense of tasting and smelling a place. That same sense of natural seasonal smell is also is part of the bouquet of a place, be it the spring rains or sear fall leaves. Seasonal animal calls can be added to sense of ambient sounds of a place. Limiting the menu to only these items, clearly their combination will create an ambiance unique place-by-place.

Our memories have a place

To make something a place which can be sensed, there is a required intentionality by some actors. Place is not the same as space. Space is the definition of an absence into which energy or things are added. A place is a space that has yielded to the emplacement of energy or things. Something has to be emplaced routinely to convert a space to a place. To say this simply: things have to happen in a space over and over for it to become a place.

Natural settings can give rise to a sense of place in our minds if we ourselves routinely visit that natural space. We are adding our own energy to visit the natural setting, and a sense of place arises in our own memories. To do so adds that natural setting to our domain, it stores our memories for us.

Home as a stage

A cultural setting, such as a neighborhood or village, has a cast of characters who inhabit that space. The inhabitants routinely emplace their energy and things into that space. Their sense of domain over the space is reified daily, seasonally, religiously, gastronomically, and so on—and they will quite reasonably refer to it as home. All of these rituals of reification need to be practiced in the space, to be emplaced, so that the “sense of the place” manifests. The sense of place cannot be recorded in a book or video or artificial media.

Sans sensation, there is no sensing.

Sans live actors, there is no emplacement—only history.

“All the world is a stage
And all the men and women merely players”

As You Like It, Act II Scene VII Line 139, William Shakespeare

Appearing to our senses

Melancholy Jaques’ monolog from the play clearly describes the requirement of appearing in public to be a polis. Stepping onto the stage of community life is to invest your energy in the space, and those you share it with. Political thinker Hannah Arendt describes this prerequisite simply as appearing, demonstrating yourself in public to take a certain ownership of the common emplaced structure of the city (Arendt, Life of the Mind, Book one: Thinking; 1978). Like all actors, the inhabitants of a town emplace their story for others; though the story is evolving over the years. Regardless of the evolution of the stories, they are continuous.

Living Stories are not History

Do not confuse their stories with history as that would remove the potential to share in the sensory experiences. The sense of place arises as a contemporaneous experience of the stories being told with the literal sense perceptions specific to that location. The continuity of the senses and stories over time manifests the emplacement, the domain. Actual stones will be placed to shape gardens and homes based on the combination of stories and sensory experience. Remove the sensory experiences (as dead media or social media will) or the actors’ stories (as depopulation will) and continuity is broken. The emplaced culture is then lost forever.

Using community chats

as infrastructure to plan the future

The citizens of Algar share this use of the street with many communities across Spain and around the world. Famagusta, Cyprus, similarly takes to the summer evening’s streets of the old town by ones and threes. While acknowledging the necessity of being present, Famagustians have begun to experiment with capturing the stories on a map. While the cultural practice of sharing time together is irreplaceable, the value of the telling of stories has been amplified by mapping those stories of daily life. The stories are in fact a vital resource not for simply remembering the past, but for planning for the community’s future.

By emplacing the stories of the community, and demonstrating how stories overlap one another, the narrative infrastructure of Famagusta does a variety of interesting jobs for the community:


It helps neighbors see how their lives are thoroughly intertwined and interdependent. 


But developers can now review the local memories to sift for meaningful ways to shape economic projects.


Visitors and new villagers can quickly familiarize themselves with the fabric of stories that hold the community together.


Politicians have a greater sense of the meaning of each street corner.


All the world is a stage, but that stage is there to host our stories

In support of the UNESCO application, Algar should map their stories. This manifestation of the intangible heritage to provide depth to the sense of place converts a quaint practice into a civic duty. A villager’s stories explain how and why things are meaningful in a community. Those stories can then influence the future development, making the future full of meaning.

When we map our stories the intangible heritage can shape our tangible future.


This story is based upon the article by The Guardian, Ashifa Kassam, Sun 8 Aug 2021 12.46 BST @ashifa_k

Imagery here attached is the property of the City of Algar, Google Earth, and El Pais


At our biological root

we are subject to eating and breathing, drinking and eliminating. If you would desire to be free of necessity, you would be forced to forgo the need for food and water. You are slave to these necessities more than any indenture imposed by other men: your thirst will slay you in three days, hunger in thirty, air in mere minutes. In the simplest sense, to live is to need, to need is to be enslaved.

We have managed to develop elaborate cultural rituals to spice up our servitude. Often referred to as the “spice of life”, variety is only various flavors of our necessity. It is astounding that we create such extraordinary inter-cultural conflicts around our common needs rather than focusing on ensuring all in our genus are provided for.

There are no opportunities

only obligations

The drive to compete, to take more than our share, is ancient and the root of evil. We strive to stand taller, to see further, yet we find ourselves atop a lonely ladder, as imprisoned in solitude as much as when we were in cages.

Each new venture becomes territory for our own use that we would deny to others. Any boons we acquire instantly burden us with the threat of their loss. Loss being the normal result of all acquisition, we worry even though out cake is in our hand. Either we will eat our cake, or someone else will eat our cake, or it will spoil. We enslave ourselves to our homes, friends, and pleasures.

If you want to go fast,

go alone

If you want to go far,

go together

-African proverb

Whether in a cage or perched atop your accomplishments, to be alive includes enslavement to necessity. There is a place for the hermit in the wilderness, and those that choose to withdraw have taken their burdens upon themselves and seek little help.

Those of us who choose to remain in the community are tasked with this common world we share. It is an enslavement to our infrastructure that sustains us. In these works is the embodied stories that one person told another that started with “Hey would it not be great if we…” and so we listened to their story. We accepted the obligations associated with that new work be it child-care, potable water, or roads. All these improvements do allow us to live longer, but not forever.

“…life is slavery,”
Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition” (1998, p.121)