Landscapes are like living things, metamorphosing to the rhythm of human development, generally with little thought to the long-term viability of a community. The stories of those who have directly experienced these transformations are of historical, social and educative value to the public and can also inform urban designers on ways of including the environment in sustainable development.

Environmental Awareness

The 1960s and 70s heralded a turning point in public awareness of the environment. Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring (1962) is mooted by many to be “the catalyst for worldwide acknowledgment of environmental problems”. Other works such as Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) also increased public awareness of global development issues (Barrow 2005, 12; Department of Environment & Heritage 2005).

In more recent times, the climate change narrative has heightened public awareness of environmental issues like never before. Scientists have been talking of global warming for many years with little penetration into the general public. When the story was told in a different way it started making inroads. Two examples are: Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers (2005), which relates the phenomenon in an engaging manner, and especially Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which had worldwide exposure. Suddenly everyone was talking about global warming and the need to reduce our carbon footprint. Climate change, whether it is as bad as the research says it is or not, has raised awareness of environmental issues on an unprecedented global scale.

What is meant by “narratives of place”?

Dan Firth (2008, 82) defines narrative “as a fundamental way in which people shape and make sense of their experiences, giving them meaning”. We have been telling stories as long as we can remember. They contain the essence of humanity expressed in countless forms and genres. They cover every topic imaginable. We humans, as individuals and collectively, are products of our culture’s narratives which are passed on through bedtime fairytales, legends and myths. Communities also have their history, as does the land they sit on. Everyone has a story to tell about the place they live and how they have seen it change over time.

According to Firth, place is not just a location with terrestrial coordinates because “it has character, and the space it occupies is determined by the area over which this character extends”. The character of a given place is determined by its ecology, weather and human activities (2008, 82).

Narratives of place reflect the relationship between the author and where he or she lives. Firth states that they:

Link the sense of time, event, experience, memory, and other intangibles to the more tangible aspects of the place, the physical form, living inhabitants and the processes that have shaped it. Because narratives sequence and configure experience of place in a meaningful way they offer ways of knowing and shaping the place not typically acknowledged by the objectivity of science or maps. Place narrative assumes there is a past in which the events it contains took place, a fictitious narrative would not count. (2008, 83)

Narratives of place could also be called “environmental narratives”, which, according to Robertson et al. in a study on how these stories could contribute to ecological restoration, “encompass oral environmental histories and other anecdotal sources of knowledge and perceptions that are bounded by the narrator’s experiences, observations, and attachment to place”. The authors of the study argue that experience of environmental degeneration by locals “can be vital to the restoration effort” (2000, 1). Tamsin Kerr, using a slightly different terminology, says that “landscape memoir tells of ‘tru-stori” connection to place  a mythic archaeology that creatively speaks that which lies at the heart of every geographic community” (2008, 5).

Why narratives of place?

Narratives shape our identity and worldview; the stories we adopt form our attitudes to other cultures and how we position ourselves with regard to the environment. Baker (2006, 3) argues that narratives are dynamic and constantly changing as new information is assimilated through experience. Moreover, according to narrative theory, people’s behaviour is more dependent on stories they identify with, rather than their race, gender or colour. By writing about their memories of place, people declare their interest in the land beyond what is necessarily measurable. It becomes what Kerr calls “a process of acquiring identity, a process of becoming owned by a place” (2006, 41).

Humanity faces enormous environmental challenges and can no longer afford to sit back on its heels and do nothing. Our resources are finite and our life-system, the planet Earth, is a fragile entity in need of care. Design is part of our lives and dictates how we live. Yet it has rarely been questioned as to its ability to deliver sustainable community living on a grand scale. Future design has to change. It has to modify its representations to take into account the way we interact with our surroundings (Fry 2009).

Subharajit Guhathakurta suggests that empirical data alone is insufficient to create appropriate models as they “do not generate meaning”. He argues that storytelling has the capacity to generate meaning and “it is the power of the narrative and storytelling that substitutes meaning for the straightforward copy of the events recounted. Therefore, it follows that the absence of a narrative is an absence of meaning itself” (2002, 909). Uprichard and Byrne recognise the need for empirical data but think that it is not enough because “we also need forms of data which can convey meaning and the potential for social action. Narratives have this capacity” (2006, 666).

Uprichard and Byrne argue that “narratives. . . are crucial for the representation of complex  urban spaces”, and that they “enable human actors to express the meaning that underlies their own agency as part of their account of the trajectories of places” (665) (cf Foth, Burgess & Hearn 2008). The role of people and their stories cannot be underestimated:

The point is people build cities and urban regions. Therefore, however we chose to model complex places, we need to integrate real people not our representations of them. Narratives help us to explore not only how people do describe their world, they can also be used to learn about how they want their world to change. (Uprichard & Byrne 2006, 675)

Foth et al. (2008) suggest there are three ways narratives can be advantageous to design processes:

Narratives provide a way of connecting with real identities and meaning making, which is essential to the community engagement process.

Narrative approaches underlie various methods that may be useful in community engagement (e.g., narrative ethnographies for evaluation, digital storytelling, scenario development, computer game storyboarding).

Narrative approaches can be related to systems thinking and formal systems modelling.

In the past, the inhabitants of most communities had little say on development matters. This is changing. More and more individuals want to have their say in what they think is best for the community and they are starting to affect outcomes. Urban planners are increasingly using community narratives to inform urban planning processes that attempt to address sustainability issues (Foth et al. 2008).


Barrow, C. J. (2005). Environmental Development and Management. London & New York, Routledge.

Burgess, J. (2006). “Hearing Ordinary Voices: Cultural Studies, Vernacular Creativity and Digital Storytelling.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20(2): 201 – 214.

Firth, D. (2008). “The Role of Aesthetic Considerations in a Narrative Based Approach to Nature Conservation 1.” Ethics and the Environment 13(2): 77.

Foth, M., H. Klaebe, et al. (2008). “The Role of New Media and Digital Narratives in Urban Planning and Community Development.” Retrieved 17/12/2009, from

Fry, T. (2009). Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Sydney, UNSW Press.

Guhathakurta, S. (2002). “Urban modeling as storytelling: using simulation models as a narrative.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 29(6): 895-911.

Heritage, D. o. E. (2005) “What is Sustainable Development.”

Kerr, T. (2006). “Who Speaks Land Stories? Inexpert Voicings of Place.” Limina 12: 40-51.

Kerr, T. (2008). “If I say I love my place, what’s with the bags I’ve packed? The cultural changes required by landscape memoir and eco-reionalism.” Art Monthly Australia 214(October 2008).

Robertson, M., P. Nichols, et al. (2000). “Environmental Narratives and the Need for Multiple Perspectives to Restore Degraded Landscapes in Australia.” Ecosystem Health 6(2): 119-133.

Uprichard, E. and D. Byrne (2006). “Representing complex places: a narrative approach.” Environment and Planning A 38(4): 665-676.

One Response

  1. Fascinating ideas. This would make a great community discussion…where to from here?

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