Place-based Knowledge: Perspectives from Literary and Cultural Studies, Keele University, 14 Feb

On Wednesday 14 February 2024 I virtually visited Keele University to present a paper on place-based knowledge from the perspective of literary and cultural studies.

The paper draws in part developed in The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning, in particular the section on narrative mapping and PPGIS, and Narrative in Urban Planning (with Jens Gurr and Martin Buchenau), in particular the section on polyphony.

Thanks for everyone at Keele for the lively discussion! Special thanks to Ceri Morgan, who has done brilliant work on (among other things) Montreal in literature, for inviting me!

Abstract below

Place-based Knowledge: Perspectives from Literary and Cultural Studies

Place-based information is of crucial importance for policymaking, urban planning, and regional management. With the increase of digitalized practices and geographic information systems, place-based information tends to be increasingly stored as quantitative data points on a digitized map. But how to move from place-based information to meaningful place-based knowledge? Knowledge that is qualitative rather than quantitative, relational and dynamic rather than individuated or static in meaning? In this paper, I argue that such a shift can be accommodated with the help of approaches from literary and cultural studies. Key concepts in this respect are metaphor, plot, and the idea of interrelational space. Central for a qualitative and humanities-informed approach to place-based knowledge is a view in which personal and communal experiences take shape not as easily quantifiable data points, but rather within a storified interaction of personal and communal trajectories, recognizable plotlines, and relationships between different locations (including imaginary, past or future locations).

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.

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.

London 4 June 2019 – Infrastructural reading workshop

Just arrived in London for the ”Infrastructural Reading. Fragments, Flows, Forms” workshop at the University of London – a workshop that ”sets out to explore how literary, visual and other narrative forms mediate and intervene into current debates on cities, urban spaces and sustainable infrastructure developments”.

Sounds like exactly the kind of thing I have wanted to participate in all these years!

The workshops includes participation and keynotes of a.o. Dom Davies, Matthew Gandy, Keller Easterling, Caroline Levine.

Really excited to have the opportunity to present my work to this interdisciplinary audience and to learn more from all the other attendants and from the artist’s and intervention speakers’ talks.

I’ll give a talk on ”Formal Adaptation and Retreat in Contemporary Fiction of New York and New Jersey” and on how in selected literary fiction, the engagement ”with climate change [and] … with disruptive practices in the twenty-first city, takes shape in literary form itself: in the adaptation of particular tropes and in the retreat of literary language through a deliberately sparser vocabulary, gaps at sentence level, or lacunae in the narration. Looking at such instances of retreat and adaptation on a formal plane may also reflect on non-fictional narrative models for living in a coastal city under threat, including those found in urban planning, policy, and future scenarios.” (Ameel 2019)
The talk is part of my broader project on future narratives of cities at the water in planning and fiction – more here.

A big thank you to the powers that be for freedom of movement and excellent train connections in Europe, which has given me the possibility to travel to Germany and now to London for work, and to France and Italy on holiday the past six months, all smoothly via rail.

The ‘valley of ashes’ and the ‘fresh green breast’: metaphors from The Great Gatsby in planning New York

Out now: my article “The ‘valley of ashes’ and the ‘fresh green breast’: metaphors from The Great Gatsby in planning New York”, with Planning Perspectives!

The article is part of my current, three-year research project, in which I look at narratives of cities at the water across different kinds of texts, from literary fiction to planning and policy documents.

Thanks to everyone at the University of Duisburg-Essen, where I gave a lecture 24 May 2018 that included some of the material that was reworked in this article. Thanks, in particular, to the Script Group, and prof. Jens Gurr and prof. Barbara Buchenau, for inviting me to Essen.

From the Introduction of the article:

“Visions of what a city could or should be tend to be constructed around metaphors, rhetorical tropes that crystalize the idea of a preferable future city. Such metaphorizations are never innocent: they draw on pre-existing cultural narratives and activate particular frames of expectations. Examinations of metaphors in urban planning have tended to focus on how they are used to insinuate a natural or causal logic to legitimize disruptive development. Zygmunt Bauman has traced the implications of metaphors, such as that of the garden, in legitimizing processes of exclusion, of ‘weeding out’ otherness. But metaphors are never straightforward: they are shifting and malleable, and as imaginative transposers of meaning, they are necessarily ambiguous. One and the same metaphor used in planning can be used for different, even opposite purposes in different historical contexts.

This article examines two metaphors used in the planning of New York City: the spectre of the ‘valley of ashes’ and the dream of the ‘fresh, green breast’. These metaphors, inspired by F. Scott Fizgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925), recur intermittently in the planning of the New York shoreline, from Robert Moses’s vision for Flushing Meadow to the 1967 policy report Threatened City by Mayor Lindsay’s urban task force, to Mayor Bloomberg’s waterfront development plans and Eric Sanderson’s 2009 propositions for a 2409 New York in Mannahatta. The implications of these metaphors for how they activate particular cultural narratives about the city’s relationship with its natural environment have so far remained underdeveloped, even in more recent critique of their use. Drawing on a reading of The Great Gatsby, and including critical responses by Louise Westling, Leo Marx, and others, this article examines how the metaphors of the ‘valley of ashes’ and the ‘fresh green breast’ have been adapted throughout decades of planning of New York City to accommodate changing relationships, conflicts and ideals, always infused by a pastoral undercurrent that is already questioned in Fitzgerald’s novel. For planning historians, an examination of these metaphors may offer important insights into how different historical planning contexts draw on the same metaphors for varying purposes.”

From the Conclusion:

“Since their appearance in The Great Gatsby, the tropes of the ‘valley of ashes’ – the dreadful nightmare of a pastoral landscape turned into a wasteland – and its counterpoint, the ‘green breast’, with its dream of a fresh start, have continued to haunt the planning of New York and its shores. During almost a century of planning New York, these metaphors have been adapted to fit a range of purposes, from early expansion (Moses’s parkways) and redevelopment (1939 fair) to more recent efforts at reframing the post-industrial city as green metropolis. But seen through the lens of The Great Gatsby, these tropes in planning also convey contradictory cultural meanings not necessarily intended: the destructive and disruptive impulses of the American dream, and the fraught pastoral gaze that continues to aestheticize the environment, lamenting its destruction while preparing it for renewed exploitation. Unlike what Moses, Bloomberg, Sanderson, and others, imply, the metaphors from The Great Gatsby remind us that past mistakes, lurking in the environment, cannot be redeemed – they have to be lived with.”



If anyone from Taylor & Francis is reading along: Planning Perspectives is a Taylor & Francis journal. The recent developments (time of writing: spring 2019) in the dispute between Taylor & Francis and Finnish national and university libraries have caused me, and most academic researchers I’m aware of, to reconsider whether or not we will want to continue publishing in Taylor & Francis journals. Current publishing practices are not sustainable and a move to increased open access publishing will be necessary, hopefully in collaboration with publishers and with university research assessment schemes.


Out now! “Agency at/of the waterfront in New York City”, in Textual Practice

Really glad to see the latest article in my research of future narratives of cities at the water, “Agency at/of the waterfront in New York City: Vision 2020 and New York 2140” just being published in Textual Practice. The article approaches the question of narrated agency in future narratives through the lens of the New York waterfront, explored as a site for enacting and critiquing the possibility to act towards the future. Who is described as having the possibility to act at the waterfront, and to what extent is the water seen as a force in its own right? These questions are addresses by examining two key texts imagining a future New York City: the New York Comprehensive Waterfront Plan Vision 2020 (2011) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). I argue that both texts gesture towards an acknowledgement of possible agency of the water, while continuing to reiterate an instrumental relationship with the environment that focuses on processes of appropriation, distribution and production. Ultimately, this article considers the implications for the implied readers’ agency, and for their possibilities to take meaningful action to interact with, and make changes in, their relationship with the water.

Ameel, Lieven 2019. “Agency at / in the waterfront in New York City: Vision 2020 and New York 2140.” Textual Practice. ahead of print

From the introduction:

“The future, in the words of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s The Art of Conjecture – a founding textbook of futures studies – constitutes a ‘field of uncertainty’ and a ‘field of liberty’ – the domain of the not-yet, onto which everyone is free to project anything one wants. But the future is also a ‘field of power’, and, as de Jouvenel points out, ‘the future is our only field of power, for we can act only on the future’ (emphasis added). In a time of global warming and radical climate change, I would add, the future has also become the field of both a shared and individual ethical responsibility. Examining narratives of the future is one important way to address this interplay between uncertainty, liberty, power, and responsibility. From literary fiction to planning and policy visions, narratives frame, question, and shape the future and our possibilities to act upon it. Crucial for how different forms of storytelling act as storehouses of knowledge with which we approach the future is the question of agency. Who is described as possessing the possibility to act, and how is this ability carried out?

This paper approaches the question of narrated agency in future narratives through the lens of the New York waterfront, explored here as a site for enacting and critiquing the possibility to act towards the future. In the texts examined here, the urban waterfront appears as an arena of transformation, both in material and in allegorical terms, the place where the city’s – and city dwellers’ – coming-of-age rituals are performed time and again. But this is also an area where the water itself appears as a force in its own right, acting upon the environment. The texts examined here are the New York Comprehensive Waterfront Plan Vision 2020 (2011) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017).”

From the conclusion:

“Rather than an optimistic and ‘surprisingly utopian’ view of human defiance, as some critics have it, I would argue that New York 2140 offers a bleak examination of the limits set to action by monetary structure, and the power of financial liquidity to embrace even the noblest of causes and have them enmeshed in the ebb and flow of global finance. Such a view is in part compatible with a range of recent research, critical of the prose novel’s affordances to describe meaningful possibilities for action beyond the immediate personal circle. Similarly, Vision 2020 can hardly be blamed for doing what a planning document is supposed to do: setting out how it will order, arrange, and develop the planning area for the overt benefit of its citizens (and that of the less explicated vested interests jostling for predominance). If neither of these two texts give exactly cause to celebrate the possibilities to act towards a better future of and at the waterfront, Vision 2020 and New York 2140 do provide a number of insights. Citizens can act, in Vision 2020, to propose change, protected as they are by the New York charter and in the form of ‘197-a plans’ that enable communities to initiate development initiatives. In both texts, the water can be thought of as possessing legal status and independent agency, even if only as a thought experiment. The waterfront, even if relentlessly reclaimed, appropriated, redistributed, capitalised upon, does retain a measure of its transformative power regardless; a sense of openness from which a new order can arise, only partially shaped by conscious and intentional efforts – and so does the future.”

Thanks to everyone at the research seminar of comparative literature, University of Turku, and Tintti Klapuri, in particular, for helpful comments. Thanks are due also to the anonymous reviewers.

Many thanks to everyone at Textual Practice for excellent work on the volume and providing a stimulating forum for literary research.

If anyone from Taylor & Francis is reading along: Textual Practice is a Taylor & Francis journal. The recent developments (time of writing: February 2019) in the dispute between Taylor & Francis and Finnish national and university libraries have caused me, and most academic researchers I’m aware of, to reconsider whether or not we will want to continue publishing in Taylor & Francis journals. Current publishing practices are not sustainable and a move to increased open access publishing will be necessary, hopefully in collaboration with publishers and with university research assessment schemes.

The Sixth Borough – Metaphorizations of the Water

Excited to see the appearance of the first article of the New York City part of my research project on future narratives of cities at the water. This new article, published with Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, examines Foer’s story of the Sixth Borough in view of other metaphors of the New York waterfront, and with reference to the comprehensive waterfront plan Vision 2020, in particular.

In my research more broadly, I examine metaphorizations and future narratives of the urban waterfront across disciplines, with cross-readings of planning, policy, and literary texts.  A number of articles on the Helsinki waterfront in literature have also been published so far, with a few forthcoming. One study I also look particularly forward to seeing published soon is an article forthcoming with Textual Practice in which I look at Vision 2020 in connection with Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and drawing on Carl Schmitt’s concept of nomos and Deleuze & Guattari’s smooth and striated space.

The Sixth Borough: Metaphorizations of the Water in New York City’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan Vision 2020 and Foer’s “The Sixth Borough”


In visions of future New York City, the waterfront appears as a highly symbolic space, a site of possibility and transformation, imbued with complex cultural meanings. Crucial for the understanding of the urban waterfront and its development are the metaphors used to describe changing relationships to it, across genres. This article focuses on one specific metaphorization of the watery edge of New York City, that of the “Sixth Borough.” It examines the 2011 New York comprehensive waterfront plan Vision 2020 and Jonathan Safran Foer’s short story “The Sixth Borough,” part of the novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but published as a separate short story in the New York Times (2004, 2005). Read side by side, these texts offer a compelling—if contradictory—view of how the words to describe the city engage with eruptions in the material world.

Free access to the first 50 readers here:

Picture Source: New York City, Vision 2020.

Pirkko Saisio’s Concrete Night (1981) and the suspect “realism” of the concrete high-rise suburb in literary fiction

I’m participating in the 21.9. ALUS symposium “Large-Scale Housing Projects as Productive Space in Literature and Culture” at the Tensta konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden.

I will present a paper on Pirkko Saisio’s Concrete Night (1981) and the suspect “realism” of the concrete high-rise suburb in literary fiction.

The starting point of my presentation is the observation that the novel has been widely read as a “realistic” depiction of the high-rise suburb, and consequently, as providing reliable insights into the supposed social and moral state of depravity in these environments. But a closer examination shows that this realism is far from accurate. The environments of the novel cannot be placed on any actual map of Helsinki, and most of the descriptions of the surroundings provide a reflection of a troubled, hypersensitive mind, rather than a detailed depiction of space. The evocation of the high-rise suburb thus has to be set against a complex cross-examination of the naturalist and symbolist undercurrents of the novel, as well as against the overall poetics and ethos at work in the oeuvre of Saisio.

Very much looking forward to the full program and to having a symposium in what promises to be a fascinating venue in an urban peripheral environment – the Tensta konsthall. Many thanks to Lydia Wistisen of Stockholm University for bringing this all together!

More information can be found here.

9.00–10.00 ALUS members meeting (closed)
10.00–10.15 Welcoming
10.15–10.45. Erik Stenberg & Erik Sigge (KTH Scool of Architecture): Structural Systems of the
Million Programme Era: People, Factories, and Housing
10.45–11.00 Coffee and refreshments
11.00–11.30 Lieven Ameel (University of Turku): Pirkko Saisio’s Concrete Night (1981) and the
Suspect “Realism” of the Concrete High-Rise Suburb in Literary Fiction
11.30–12.00 Caroline Merkel (Stockholm University): Suburbs as Creative Space in German
12.00–12.30 Hanna Henrysson (Uppsala University): The Hochhaus Experience: Coming of Age
in West Berlin’s Gropiusstadt
12.30–13.30 Lunch at Tensta konsthall
13.30–14.00 Jason Finch (Åbo Akademi University): Myth and Materiality in The Pruitt-Igoe
14.00–14.30 Alexander Scott (University of Wales Trinity St David): From “Corbusian
Piggeries” to “Toytown Cottages”: Urban Regeneration, Housing Policy and Responses to Post-War Modernism in 1980s Liverpool
14.30–15.00 Coffee and refreshments
15.00–15.30 Lydia Wistisen (Stockholm University): The Million Program in Swedish Teenage
15.30–16.00 Roundtable discussion
16.00–17.30 Showing of museum collections and walking tour
19.00– Dinner (for invited guests)

Contested Planning, Persuasive Storytelling – with James A. Throgmorton – 15.8., Helsinki

Ever since I began to be interested in the narrative structures in planning, I have been quoting, teaching, and using the work of James A. Throgmorton. Throgmorton’s texts on planning as a form of persuasive storytelling are still some of the most accessible and lucid reflections on the fundamentally narrative features of planning – and they remain part of the foundation of any narrative theory of planning.

(source: Chicago UP)

So I’m understandably exited to participate in the event “Contested Planning, Persuasive Storytelling”, with James A. Throgmorton, in Helsinki, 15.8. The event is organized by the Academy project SCENSLECO – “Strategic spatial planning with momentum gaining scenario storytelling: legitimacy contested?”, with ao. colleagues from the time when I was a visiting researcher at the YTK Land Use Planning and Urban Studies Group at Aalto University.

I will present on metaphors in the planning of the New York waterfront, and in particular on how metaphorizations from The Great Gatsby have had a continuous influence on thinking of New York’s development.

More on my current research here – and on my publications here.