Agency, crisis and possible worlds in city novels and urban planning

Speaking today at the Urban Studies Days (Helsinki) about the waterfront in crisis in literary fiction and urban planning, with a focus on Helsinki’s waterfront development and New York pre and post-Sandy.

What alternative worlds are visible, how are readers guided towards specific possible worlds, and what role is given to a sense of agency in describing possible turning points?

Amongst others, in addition to urban plannign documents, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against tomorrow, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Antti Tuomainen’s Parantja (The Healer), Annika Luther De hemlösas stad (City of the Homeless).


Emplotment in urban planning

Teaching today on literary tropes in urban planning- metaphors and emplotment in New York’s waterfront development, as part of my course “Space, the City and Literature” at the University of Tampere.

Below, some thoughts on emplotment, taken from my forthcoming article “Emplotting Urban Regeneration” (Datutop 2016).

“Emplotment is proposed here as a first central concept for approaching narratives in urban development, not in the least because of the concept’s semantic double-entendre, encapsulating the meanings of both spatial “plot” (location) and narrative “plot” (narrative intrigue). The use of “emplotment” as a narrative concept outside the field of literary studies is primarily associated with the work of Hayden White and his examination of historiography in terms of their narrative. White used “emplotment” to denote the processes by which events are contextualized into meaning-making totalities, receiving “the formal coherency that only stories can possess” (White 1981, 19). Drawing on the work of Northrop Frye, White distinguishes four “modes of emplotment”: romance, tragedy, comedy and satire. In planning theory, Hayden White’s examination of narrative tropes within historiography has been applied in re-examining planning histories (Kramsch 1998), and its usefulness for an analysis of urban planning has been illustrated by Mareile Walter’s examination of narratives of Karlskrona (2013).

What interests me here most is emplotment as narrative strategy that situates a specific event or events within a larger narrative framework, giving sense, structure, coherency and causality to what otherwise would remain a mere enumeration of actions. Especially when considering non-fictional texts that bear little resemblances to literary narratives, such as policy documents, the analysis of a text’s emplotment strategies – in other words, of how narrative elements direct the reader towards a coherent plot – would seem to be a particularly beneficial method. Unlike texts of literary fiction, few planning documents have strong authorial voice, explicit plot lines or distinct character dynamics. All planning narratives, however, will exhibit some thematic, linguistic and stylistic features that situate the planning area on a geographical map and within a narrative intrigue. These narrative strategies carry out what the literary theorists Paul Ricoeur has called the “mise en intrigue” or “situating into plot”, an “operation that draws a configuration out of a simple succession” (Ricoeur 1984/1990, 65, see also Kaplan 1993, 172).”


Ameel, Lieven 2016 (forthcoming): “Emplotting urban regeneration: Narrative strategies in the case of Kalasatama, Helsinki.” DATUTOP.