Redemptive Scripts in the City Novel

Out now with Ohio State University Press: the edited volume City Scripts: Narratives of Postindustrial Urban Futures (Buchenau, Gurr & Sulimma). The book is available open access! (pdf here)

From the abstract:

“Storytelling shapes how we view our cities, legitimizing histories, future plans, and understandings of the urban. City Scripts responds to calls by literary theorists to engage a new kind of narrative analysis that recalibrates close reading and interpretation to the multiple ways in which narratives “do things”—how they intervene in the world and take action in everyday life. A multidisciplinary cast of contributors approaches this new way of looking at cities through the stories people tell about them, looking especially at political activism and urban planning, which depend on the invention of plausible stories of connectedness and of a redemptive future.”

The book comes out of the interdisciplinary work of the City Scripts group formed at the American Studies Departments of the University Alliance Ruhr (Duisburg-Essen, Bochum, Dortmund), with whom I had the privilege to collaborate over the past years. Really happy to see this work culminate in this brilliant collection!

The book includes my own article “Redemptive Scripts in the City Novel“. Drawing on a corpus of New York novels, the article argues that endeavors towards personal, communal, and national redemption have provided a powerful script in more than a century of writing literary New York. Literary works discussed include Edith Wharton’s short story “Autres temps…” (1911), F. Scot Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999). The article connects the notion of redemption to broader discussions on narrative closure, as well as to modes of storytelling in contemporary urban planning.

From the conclusion:

“Redemptive plots, then, continue to be important narrative frames of meaning in American lives and American cultural representations. Such plots are hinged upon the desire to see balance restored, sins atoned for, freedom gained. Redemptive plots are also about finding a voice to salvage something meaningful from the broken world order. Some authors will hope that this redeeming aspect will be replicated in their readers or audiences. Other texts will engage with redemptive plots in ways that draw the readers’ attention to the dangers of believing that order can be restored painlessly—The Great Gatsby and, more recently, the planning document Vision 2020 gesture toward the possibility of redemption while warning the reader not to be blinded by the promise of new beginnings or easy solutions. In the American context, redemptive scripts are also the arena for processes of exclusion and differentiation, and in a work such as Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, the promise of redemption is considered in light of its universalist pretenses and complicated by connecting it to America’s history of racialized inequality. Moving into the present century, new challenges—such as catastrophic man-made climate change—will undoubtedly further complicate how redemptive scripts are drawn upon to deal with past traumas and future threats.” (169)

The article is part of a broader research project that looks at notions of redemption in literature and culture, with a recent keynote lecture on the same subject presented at the Making the City conference in Chemnitz, Germany.

Cities beyond Redemption?

In Chemnitz, Germany, to deliver a keynote on “Cities beyond Redemption” at the Making the City conference (30.6.23). Many thanks to prof. Cecile Sandten and her colleagues at TU Chemnitz for the invitation and for putting together this brilliant conference!

Fascinating to be able to discuss literary approaches to (post)industrial cities with this interdisciplinary crowd, in this European cultural capital of 2025.

About the conference:

“The central idea of the conference on “Making the City” is to explore the cultural, economic and political factors of industrialisation from its start to its ‘finish’ from a diachronic perspective and also focus on an active engagement of citizens in urban transformation processes. The conference is intended to provide the theoretical foundation for the conceptualisation of the exhibition “European Manchester” (2025) in the Saxon Industrial Museum Chemnitz.”

Keynote abstract below:

Cities beyond Redemption? Literary Approaches to Urbanization from Romanticism to Contemporary Climate Fiction 

Lieven Ameel

In literature, there has always been an uneasiness about the urban environment, a guilty awareness of urbanity’s failures as well as an awareness of impending urban collapse. In the past two centuries of fossil-fueled modernity, the sense of the city as a profoundly fraught environment has taken on new meanings. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the city has become the embodied form of modernization’s out-of-control juggernaut, and the symbolic site of humanity’s fall from grace and existential alienation. Recent discussions regarding a tentative “renaissance of the city” have done little to alleviate fears about the city’s problematic nature. If anything, working from home during the COVID19-epidemic has given a new impetus to critics of the city. And many of the most pressing challenges of the twenty-first century, from social inequity to the effects of catastrophic climate change are set to have their gravest impact in urban environments. And yet the city is also the location where decisive action – for example in climate change mitigation – is possible, and in literature it remains a chosen site for personal and communal restitution and reinvention. In my talk, I outline literary approaches to urbanization from romanticism to contemporary climate fiction, focusing on the continuous oscillation between guilt-ridden uneasiness about the city and a more optimistic view of the city as undiminished site of personal and communal redemption.

Presenting ”Symbolic Cities Beneath Brussels” at the Underground Imaginaries Conference, Alcalá (24-26 May 2023)

At Alcalá University, Spain, for the Underground Imaginaries conference. I’ll be presenting about “Symbolic Cities beneath Brussels”, with an examination of Brüsel and other underground cities in two graphic novels by François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters.

The conference is organized by Fringe Urban Narratives and EROSS@DCU, with a host of collaborating networks and institutes, including the Association for Literary Urban Studies and the European Society of Comparative Literature. Very much looking forward to meet with friends and colleagues, old and new. Thanks especially to Patricia Garcia for bringing this all together and for inviting me to be involved in the Fringe network and this conference.

My presentation is part of the ALUS session “Underworld Cities”, with Riikka P. Pulkkinen on Athens’ underworld in literature, and Hanne Juntunen on urban and human underworlds. I’m especially keen on some of the upcoming sessions on thresholds, sewers and mines, underground anxieties and utopias, among others.

I’ve also had the opportunity of a quick visit to Madrid, going to the Atocha Station and the Prado to see Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross – following in the footsteps of the protagonist in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011).


Abstract of my presentation below:

”Symbolic Cities Beneath Brussels”: Brüsel and other underground cities in graphic novels by François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters

This paper examines underground cities located underneath the Belgian and European capital, Brussels. It focuses on two Belgo-French graphic novels by François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters:  Brüsel (1992) and Le Dernier Pharaon (2019). I will draw on existing research on literary urban studies in the context of graphic novels, including work by Jan Baetens, Giada Peterle and Benjamin Fraser. This paper aims to provide a tentative classification of the functions of underground cities by adapting James Phelan’s character classification of synthetic, mimetic, and thematic functions to the functioning of literary spaces.

Image source: Schuiten, Gunzig, Van Dormael & Durieux: Le Dernier Pharaon (2019).

Guest lecture at TU Braunshweig, 11 May 2023

Very much looking forward to give a guest lecture at TU Braunschweig today, on the topic of “Literary Urban Studies: Comparative Perspectives on Future Cities across Genres”. I will start out with an introduction to the field of literary urban studies, with the second part of my lecture a comparative approach to future cities, by way of a reading of two texts (Odds Against Tomorrow and Solaris korrigert).

One of the aims of the talk is also to give an update on my research project on cities at the water, and to present some of the key findings of the book (currently under review) that come of that project.

Image source:

Many thanks to prof. dr. Eckart Voigts for the kind invitation to participate in his course on city literature – this is for me also a fascinating window into how courses in literary urban studies are planned and taught at other universities.

I have published (and co-authored) several articles on teaching city literature (references below) and teaching is one field in which the resources of literary urban studies scholars could be further developed through international collaboration.

Of course, I hope I to visit TU Braunschweig in person at some point in the future, and there is increasing collaboration between my home university, Tampere University, and TU Braunschweig in a variety of fields.


“Teaching Literary Urban Studies.” In Lieven Ameel (ed.): Routledge Companion to Literary Urban Studies. London: Routledge, 2022, 11-25. With Chen Bar-Itzhak, Jason Finch, Patricia Garcia, Silja Laine, Liam Lanigan, Anni Lappela, Juho Rajaniemi, and Markku Salmela.

“Panoramic Perspectives and City Rambles: Teaching Literary Urban Studies.”  In Tally, Robert Jr. (ed.): Teaching Space, Place, and Literature. London: Routledge, 2017, 89-98.

New Publication: “Narrative in Urban Planning: A Practical Field Guide”

What do planners need to know in order to use narrative approaches responsibly in their practice? What makes narratives coherent, probable, persuasive, even necessary – but also potentially harmful, manipulative and divisive? And how can narratives help to build more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive communities? This practical field guide makes insights from narrative research accessible to planners through a glossary of key concepts in the field of narrative planning. The authors are literary scholars who have extensive practical experience in planning practice, training planning scholars and practitioners or advising municipalities on how to harness the power of stories in urban development.  

This is the first book to synthesize the theory and practice of storytelling in urban planning into a usable handbook for practitioners. It makes available key insights both from research and from practical experience in training planners and in working with municipalities. The emphasis is on accessibility and applicability: in clearly structured entries, this practical field guide defines key concepts, provides examples and illustrations, and discusses possible applications. The book aims to allow a practitioner in the middle of a project to quickly look up a relevant key concept, but also to provide pointers to in-depth research.  

Book details and link:  

Lieven Ameel, Jens Martin Gurr & Barbara Buchenau: Narrative in Urban Planning:A Practical Field Guide. Transcript 2023.  

Published Open Access, March, 2023:  

Many thanks to co-authors Jens Martin Gurr and Barbara Buchenau for a truly inspiring collaboration over several years on this book! I am grateful also to colleagues at Aalto University, Turku Institute for Advanced Studies, and Tampere University (Narrare, in particular). We also would like to express our gratitude to the students who attended our various seminars, workshops and guest lectures about narratives in the context of planning – your genuine interest and questions have provided inspiration, food for thought, and important reference points for our work.

FRINGE/ALUS Symposium Urban (Im)mobilities and Borderland Narratives

Looking forward to participate today and tomorrow (14-15 October) in the symposium “Urban (Im)mobilities and Borderland Narratives“, a collaboration between the Fringe network and the Association for Literary Urban Studies. The symposium is hosted by the University of Alcala, Spain. Unfortunately, we will not be able to meet in person – hope I will the opportunity to visit Alcala in person in the not-too-distant future!

Thriled by the promising array of keynote speakers, and especially looking forward to the talks of Anna-Leena Toivanen on “Mobilities and the City in Francophone
African Literatures” and Tania Rossetto on “From the Cartographic Fringes: Map
Mobilizations and the Urban”.

My own presentation, ”Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist: Contesting Elevation in the Modern City”, will approach the allegory of the elevator in The Intuitionist as figure that contests urban modernity’s promises of universal upward mobility.

Conference abstract:

“Our symposium builds on recent contributions of literary scholarship on mobility (Marian Aguiar, Charlotte Mathieson and Lynne Pearce) and is rooted in the “new mobilities” framework developed by the sociologists and geographers (Miloš N. Mladenović, Catherine N. Nash, Andrew Gorman-Murray, Mimi Sheller and John Urry). This framework is sensitive to the intersecting dimensions of power and discrimination that shape urban kinetic features. We invite scholars across disciplines and geographical contexts with an interest in examining how (im)mobility in the city is constructed and narrated by intersections of race, nationality, disability, class, gender, sexual orientation and other social categories and status markers. We are particularly interested in work that addresses liminal or queer identities, urban borderlands (alleyways, bridges, roads, borders between neighborhoods) and experiences that operate in or between peripheral urban environments, from post-industrial zones in capital cities to (sub)urban environments that are situated outside the canonized capitals of modernity and postmodernity.”

Many thanks to the brilliant Patricia Garcia for hosting the conference, for bringing together exciting scholars from a range of background!

Literatures of Urban Possibility

Out with Palgrave: our latest volume Literatures of Urban Possibility (eds. Salmela, Ameel & Finch). The book is the third volume in a trilogy of literary urban studies books that developed around the Association of Literary Urban Studies (previously Helsinki Literature and the City Network) and the international conferences we organized every other year. Earlier books were Literature and the Peripheral City (2015) and Literary Second Cities (2017).

Thanks to Markku and Jason, to all contributors and the participants in the conference (Im)Possible Cities in Tampere, to Palgrave and all encouraging members of ALUS in supporting work within literary urban studies!

Some of my personal favorites among the articles are “From Utopia to Retrotopia: The Cosmopolitan City in the Aftermath of Modernity” by Chen Bar-Itzhak, “Possibilities of Translocal Mapping in Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician” by Lena Mattheis (who recently published this brilliant monograph in our Literary Urban Studies series), and Anni Lappela’s “‘Cartographic Ecstasy’: Mapping, Provinciality and Possible Spaces in Dmitrii Danilov’s City Prose”.

Literatures of Urban Possibility also includes my latest article “Rising Towers, Rising Tides: Competing Visions of the Helsinki Waterfront in Planning and Fiction”. Abstract:

“This chapter examines the Helsinki waterfront as a site of the possible, a space onto which possible futures of the city are projected and where competing visions of future urban possibility interact. The first part examines Niniven lapset (‘Children of Nineveh’, 1915) and its connection to the cultural narratives of the waterfront in twentieth-century Helsinki, as well as its relation to more recent developments, such as the plans for a Helsinki Guggenheim. The second part examines near-future novels such as Beta: Sensored Reality (2018), De hemlösas stad (‘City of the Homeless’, 2011), Totuuskuutio (‘Truth Square’, 2015) and Parantaja (The Healer, 2010), and focuses on the interaction between the pessimistic vision of a possible future Helsinki in fictional texts, and the optimistic visions as presented by the Helsinki City Planning Department.”




The Antwerp Quay Poem as interrogation of urban open form, polyphony and radical dialogue

Out now: “‘A stream of words’ the Antwerp Quay Poem as interrogation of urban open form, polyphony and radical dialogue”, in Textual Practice. The article is published open access here.

The article looks at questions of open and closed urban form by examining Peter Holvoet-Hanssen’s Quay Poem, an in-situ poem painted in 2011 on the floodwalls of the Antwerp quays.

The article is the final part of a triptych of articles I wrote on Low Countries urban flood narratives, with the other articles:

Ameel, Lieven & Stef Craps 2020: “Flooded Cities in Low Countries Fiction: Referentiality and Indeterminate Allegory in Renate Dorrestein’s Weerwater and Roderik Six’s Vloed”, published in Green Letters 24 (1): 36-50.

Ameel, Lieven 2020: “The Destruction of Amsterdam: Flood Allegories in Contemporary Dutch Literature.” Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde / Journal of Dutch Linguistics and Literature 136 (4): 224-243.

The articles are part of my research project on future visions of cities at the water in planning and fiction.


“This article examines polyphony and open form as key concepts connecting literary theory and urban planning. It focuses on Peter Holvoet-Hanssen’s Quay Poem, an in-situ poem painted in 2011 on the floodwalls of the Antwerp quays during Holvoet-Hanssen’s tenure as city poet. The long poem in public space provides important insights into how literary city texts and the discourses of urban development draw ultimately on similar narrative structures, in close dialogue with past layers of urban meaning and in the shadow of future material transformations. The poem gestures also to insights planning can gain from literary forms of storytelling, in particular in the way Holvoet-Hanssen’s poem produces a remarkable openness of form; in the way it articulates a radical variety of different voices; and in the way it continues to speak after the text itself has disappeared from the public built environment.”


“The Quay Poem was originally commissioned as an act of communication by the planning department of Antwerpen, with the intention that it would be a temporary poem in public space to communicate the redevelopment of the waterfront. But when the destruction of the quay walls on which it was written began, in 2018, the sudden and violent disappearance of parts of the poem took many by surprise. Members of the public had become attached to the poem; Holvoet-Hanssen was dismayed by the fact the demolition began without prior warning or announcement, and lamented the fact that no efforts had been made to preserve some parts of the poem. But the Quay Poem was never merely a one-directional act of communication. In its formal openness, its polyphony, and in how it enacts a radical dialogue with the city’s material environment and its immaterial layers of meaning, it constitutes a powerful and tangible intervention that produces new perspectives on the city, its past, and its future development. It foregrounds formal questions of open and closed form in ways that go at the heart of contemporary discussions about city form and about social and political forms of entrenchment. In its remarkable polyphony and in how it includes unfiltered and contradictory voices of the city, it provides a blueprint for possible polyphony in planning and policy. It enacts a compelling dialogue with other structures in the built environment, with previous experiences of the waterfront, ‘carried on the winds’, and with the palimpsestic remnants of past moments of political contestation. When visited on the ground along the river, it proposes a profound material and physical positioning within urban space, inviting the reader to scale walls, to take new perspectives, even to breach the concrete on which the text is written. Finally, in its ecocritical gestures towards the powerful agency of the river, it questions not only the rationale of floodwalls, old and new, but cuts away at the roots of its own literary materiality.”


La Puissance Projective

For more than two decades, I’ve been working on and off together with scholars of the Ghent Urban Studies Team, and in particular with Bart Keunen, on questions of city literature, narrative urban planning, and the urban humanities. As part of that collaboration, I’ve been involved in collaborating on the volume La Puissance Projective – Intrigue narrative et projet urbain, which has just (5 March 21) been published with the Geneva publisher MétisPresses.

The book examines the narrative properties of urban planning, drawing on a wide range of examples, from post-I-World War Ypres to Disneyland Paris. As can be expected from a book published with an architectural press, the book is beautifully illustrated. Throughout, it connects well-established narrative theories of plot structure and narrative rhetorics with in-depth analysis of particular planning cases. The book brings together, in particular, long-standing work of Pieter Uyttenhove in the field of architecture and planning (architecture, Ghent University), the extensive work of Bart Keunen in the field of chronotopes and urban planning (comparative literature, Ghent University) with some of my more recent thinking on narrative and planning (see, in particular my recent book The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning).

With the collaboration of Johanna Godefroid, Noemi Loeman, Hendrik Sturm, Sofie Verraest & Tom Ysewijn.


“L’imagination narrative, telle qu’envisagée en littérature, joue un rôle tout aussi important dans la conception urbaine et paysagère. Concevoir l’environnement urbain, n’est-ce pas aussi raconter et imaginer un réseau qui réunira en une trame consistante des personnes, des espaces, des objets, des activités, des images éparses?

Depuis les années 1990, le «tournant narratif» nous aide à mieux comprendre les processus créatifs qui accompagnent la conception de projets urbains et de paysage. Par le récit, urbanistes et paysagistes anticipent des situations futures, les organisent en des ensembles cohérents composés d’une multiplicité d’images et de leurs interactions — comme le ferait un écrivain.

Le présent ouvrage, faisant référence à des figures mythologiques comme à des penseurs modernes, jongle entre textes, projets et images, analyses et analogies et approfondit par là ce parallèle littéraire. Différentes disciplines sont conviées: l’anthropologie, la chronophotographie, l’art de la promenade, la philosophie, la sémiologie, la mythologie et l’histoire de l’art. Des ruines du Saillant d’Ypres à Disneyland Paris, de la périphérie romaine à la Défense, cet ouvrage développe des études de cas variées et crée ainsi un terrain fertile pour repenser l’urbanisme et ses enjeux.”

More information here.

Out now: “The Destruction of Amsterdam: Flood Allegories in Contemporary Dutch Literature”

The final days 2020 saw the publication of my latest article, “The Destruction of Amsterdam: Flood Allegories in Contemporary Dutch Literature” in Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde / Journal of Dutch Linguistics and Literature 136/4.

The article examines representations of urban destruction and of rising waters in Pieter Boskma’s poetry collection Tsunami in de Amstel (2016) and in Guido van Driel’s graphic novel De ondergang van Amsterdam (2007).

source: van Driel: De Ondergang van Amsterdam

The article is the second part of a triptych of articles I wrote on Low Countries urban flood narratives, with the other articles:

Ameel, Lieven & Stef Craps 2020: “Flooded Cities in Low Countries Fiction: Referentiality and Indeterminate Allegory in Renate Dorrestein’s Weerwater and Roderik Six’s Vloed”, published in Green Letters 24 (1): 36-50.

Ameel, Lieven 2021: “‘A Stream of Words’ – The Antwerp Quay Poem as Interrogation of Urban Open Form, Polyphony, and Radical Dialogue”, an article forthcoming in Textual Practice 2021, which examines Holvoet-Hanssen’s Antwerp Quay Poem, a public poem painted on the Antwerp flood walls in the early 2010s.

The articles are part of my research project on future visions of cities at the water in planning and fiction.

From the introduction of “The Destruction of Amsterdam”:

“The last years have seen a marked interest in representations of destructive climate change and flooding in literature (see e.g. Dobraszczyk 2017, Bracke & Ritson 2020), with a strong tendency in ecocritical approaches to read such representations in terms of their implications for understanding radical climatological and environmental change. In the context of Dutch literature, critics have foregrounded a perceived lack of such representations (Bracke 2016; see also Anker 2018; Craps & Mertens 2019; Rouckhout 2019). Pieter Boskma’s Tsunami in de Amstel (Tsunami in the Amstel) and Guido van Driel’s De ondergang van Amsterdam (The Destruction of Amsterdam), two contemporary texts that imagine a flooded Amsterdam, would seem to respond to this perceived lack of engagement with flooding on the part of Dutch literature. In Pieter Boskma’s poetry collection Tsunami in de Amstel (2016), rising waters, evoked in lofty iambic heptameters, flood Amsterdam until only a few iconic towers – the Westertoren; then the Rembrandttoren – are left standing. Similarly, in the elegantly painted panels of Guido van Driel’s graphic novel De ondergang van Amsterdam (2007), water is shown rising up from the earth to overwhelm the Netherlands’ first city, causing chaos and devastation. While Van Driel and Boskma draw in these works on contemporary tropes of radical climate change, the tropes of the flood and of urban destruction in both books are not easily recoverable for ecocritical readings. In a way that is closely bound up with the formal features of both works, something more complex than the vocalizing of climate concerns is at stake here, with Boskma and van Driel utilizing the trope of the flood to evoke a range of possible meanings, from personal reckoning with past poetics, reflections on loneliness and homelessness in the contemporary city, to metapoetical considerations about art’s ability to convey catastrophe.

This article examines representations of urban destruction and of rising waters in Boskma’s Tsunami in de Amstel and in van Driel’s De ondergang van Amsterdam, suggesting an allegorical reading of these tropes. I foreground the ways in which these texts reflect productively on visualisations and narrative frames of catastrophe, and how they propose alternative temporalities (in the case of Boskma) and alternative visual perspectives (in van Driel) for imagining possible urban end-times. The focus on allegorical readings is concomitant with an interest in the specific media utilized by Boskma and van Driel, with the ritualistic mode of the lyrical poem (cf. Culler 2017) and the subjectifying focalizations of the graphic novel (cf. Mikkonen 2017) arguably geared toward complex allegorical associations, rather than toward mimetic strategies. I will set out by a brief contextualization of flood representations in the Dutch context, and by outlining the groundwork for an allegorical reading of the trope of the flood.”

From the conclusion:

“In Boskma’s text, the potential presence of the reader is linked with the possibility to participate in the ritualistic properties (as outlined by Culler) of lyrical poetry, and in how they can participate in producing lyrical enunciations in a way that is coeval with the lyric I, or to identify with the addressee. In Boskma’s poetics, that enunciative function has demiurgic, world-creative properties, the power to awaken a world into being by the act of naming, as in the poem ‘Zonder Titel’ (p. 25). For all its metric prowess, the final, epic part, by contrast, evacuates such immediacy of presence. ‘Tsunami in de Amstel’, if anything, sketches the limits of the epic, narrative poem in contemporary treatment.

In van Driel’s De Ondergang van Amsterdam, the possibility of presence is one of aligning different perspectives and competing visualizations, and announced in the intricate mise-en-abyme in the opening panels: the protagonist looks at a painting to make sense of possible future destruction, while we as readers look at him, invited to consider both the possibility of destruction and the extent to which visual or narrative interpretations can give us access to possible future destruction. In the form of his graphic novel, then, van Driel has provided a tentative answer to the question Titus starts out from, in front of Rembrandt’s painting of the destruction of Jeruzalem: ‘kan ik mij daar iets bij voorstellen?’ (p. 6) – ‘is this something I can imagine?’”

source: van Driel: De Ondergang van Amsterdam

I’d be happy to share a pdf of the article to anyone interested in my work – just contact me at lieven.ameel [a]