Future cities in literature: perspectives on climate change

Speaking today (2 June 2021) at the Climate Conference of Finnish Communes on perspectives from literature on future cities and climate change.

A few takeaways from my talk:

  • Literary perspectives are not (primarily) about communicating climate change or climate action. Rather, literature and other cultural representations provide important insights into the frames and language availabe to envision our complex relationship to the environment, about our agency towards the future – frames and language that guide how we can work towards solutions
  • Future literary cities provide important information on the “what” and “how” of future urban infrastructure, but also about the qualia or “what it feels like”, including contextualized perspectives on possible turning points along pathways to the future
  • Quotations from literary texts always need to be embedded in the broader framework of a particular literary work, genre, and period if we want to understand their functions and meanings.
  • Future-oriented literature tells the reader first and foremost about the present moment (of publication), about the frames of knowledge at our disposal today, about what may be lost, and about our current possibilities of agency.

More on the subject in my recent article:

  • “Rising Towers, Rising Tides: Competing Visions of the Helsinki Waterfront in Planning and Fiction.” In Markku Salmela, Lieven Ameel & Jason Finch (eds.): Literatures of Urban Possibility. London: Palgrave, 2021, 45-64.

Interview on the subject (in Finnish) here.

La Ville dans les Fiction Climatiques – 5-6.5.2021

Participating today in a “mosaique” session as part of the colloquium “La Ville dans les Fiction Climatiques”, organized by the PARVIS project at University Gustave Eiffel, Paris. My own brief intervention will examine cities in climate fiction on the basis of my research project on cities at the water in planning in fiction, with a focus on New York, Helsinki, and cities at the water in the Netherlands and Belgium.


Full programme here.

Programme of the “mosaique”:

Série de d’interventions brèves, live ou vidéo, où chaque membre du comité scientifique dira ce de quoi la cli-fi est le nom. / Series of short interventions, live or video, where each member of the scientific committee will say what the cli-fi is about.

14h : Introduction

Intervenant.e.s/speakers :

14h05: Andrew Milner : Qu’est-ce que la cli-fi? / What is cli-fi?

14h13:  Carl Abbott :  La fiction climatique américaine : de l’élégie à l’urgence / American Climate Fiction from Elegy to emergency

14h21:  Lieven Ameel : Les formes futures de la ville contemporaine dans une perspective comparative / Future Forms of the Contemporary City in Comparative Perspective

14h29:  Pierre Schoentjes : Eviter le désastre : la cli-fi… sauvée par l’ironie?/ Avoiding disaster: cli-fi… saved by irony?

14h37: Simon Bréan : Cli-fi francophone : le cas J-M Ligny / French cli-fi : the J-M Ligny case

14h45:  Sébastien Févry : La cli-fi, un grand dérangement narratif ?/ Cli-fi, a great narrative derangement?

14h53 : Irène Langlet : Les kaléidoscopes formels d’une folksonomie / The formal kaleidoscopes of a folksonomy

Many thanks to Irene Langlet, Nadege Perelle, and Sami Cheikh Moussa for putting together the programme!

Narratives of Body and Mind – Young Researchers Conference April 2021, Aachen

I’m presenting a keynote lecture at Aachen, Germany, at the “Narratives of Body and Mind” conference, a Young Researchers Conference, April 8-9, 2021.


The title of my talk is “Knocking on the Door: Presence in Literature”.

image source: aachen.de


“How is a sense of presence created in literature? And how are presence and embodied memory tied to a reading-for-meaning in the interaction between reader and literary text? I will address these questions by examining instances of fateful knocking on doors, from Plato’s Symposium to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and more recent historical young adult fiction. In my readings, I will draw on enactivist approaches to literary studies, as well as on the work of Thomas De Quincey, James Wood, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, and Agneta Kuzmicova.”

Conference abstract:

“Since the cognitive turn in narrative theory opened up a new research field for literary
studies, new and innovative approaches have been developed in various research areas,
including the study of narrative. Starting from computational models that gave rise to
situational or mental models, to the recent move towards embodied approaches in
cognitive literary studies and empirical research with actual readers, cognitive literary
studies turned into a broad field that lends itself to complex combinations of different
research areas. In this interdisciplinary conference, we examine the various research areas in which narrative theory meets narratives of the body, narratives of the mind or the common ground between them.”

It would’ve been great to come in person to Aachen, hopefully another time!

Many thanks to Kai Tan and her colleagues at Aachen University for the kind invitation.

MLA 2021

Taking part in the first conference this year – MLA 2021, and the first time I participate in the MLA. The conference is obviously an online conference. It is most likely that I would not have been able to participate, for a variety of reasons, in the conference otherwise, so this is a good opportunity to listen in to talks by colleagues from my home sofa. But I obviously miss all the informal discussions that take place in the fringes of conferences, the inspiring encounters, surprising comments, reunions with old acquaintances… and the way a conference thrives also on the material embeddedness within a city or campus.

One session that stood out for me yesterday was the session on “Rural Modernity, Metropolitan Modernism, Global Circulations.”

Very much looking forward to today’s session “Literary Urban Studies now”, presided by Liam Lanigan of Governors State U, and with several colleagues presenting. Abstract below:

“Literary urban studies connects historical, interdisciplinary, critical, and narrative-led approaches to the city and literature. Following an urban renaissance in Western countries and a huge expansion of Global South cities, the city’s future as a physical entity is deeply uncertain. Participants give five-minute talks on changing conceptions of the city in the twenty-first century, followed by discussion welcoming audience participation.”
Some of the (many) other sessions I’m interested in:
167 – The Abstract and the Particular343 Form and Space in Latin American Literature

405 – City Myths

Hope to start seeing more colleagues in real time later this year!


Approaches to “Solid Objects”

For this autumn’s course in methods in literary theory, I decided on Virginia Woolf’s short story “Solid Objects” (1920). Over the course of six sessions, we applied a range of methods and approaches to the text. Each week, I gained new insights about the text and about literary studies’ ability to draw out meaning. Delving into the text like John with his fingers into the sand, only to come up with something that is strangely nondescript and still full of power and meaning. Not surprising to see that materialist approaches to the text have been particularly foregrounded in the past few decades. Thanks especially to all the students who actively participated despite the difficult circumstances.

The approaches and methods we applied:

Close reading

Theory of mind



Writing as method


Any approaches or methods that should definitely be included if I teach the same class again next year? Contact me with ideas at lieven.ameel [a] tuni.fi

Course: KIRA2 – menetelmät ja sovellukset / “methods and applications”



“Future Days” session on narratives of the city – 2 Dec 2020

It was a virtual conference rather than a physical meeting in Paris for this year’s “Future Days” (1-3 Dec 2020), where I had the honor to chair a workshop on storytelling and the city (“Mettre en récit la ville”) together with Anne Jarrigeon of Université Gustave Eiffel. Fascinating papers on silence and disputed memories in cities, climate fiction and urban futures, a case study from Thailand, and an intervention from the president of Timescope, a company involved in urban storytelling through virtual reality and augmented reality.

How to negotiate absences and silences in urban history? How to map, study, and develop stories in an urban context? This hour-and-a-half session was far too short to do more than scratch the surface and I would have loved to have heard more from all of the participants.

Much of what was discussed connected with earlier work I have been involved in, e.g. in the co-edited book The Materiality of Literary Narratives in Urban History (2019), with  for example the article by Huday Tayob on “The Unconfessed Architecture of Cape Town”, which examines how literature can help complement archival silences and absences. Several of the approaches in my recent book The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning (2020) examine the complexities at work in examining and developing urban narratives in a historical and planning context.

Great to see colleagues at least virtually, hopefully next time in Paris we’ll meet in person!


Out now: “The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning”

Published this week: my book The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning: Plotting the Helsinki Waterfront (Routledge).

What constitutes a story in the context of urban planning, and what doesn’t? What Helsinki waterfront area was briefly conceptualized as “woman city”? Did a prominent developer really claim that “segregation is good”? Why is the sledge hill in Jätkäsaari not a sledge hill? This and much more in The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning.

Please order it to your libraries, review it for your journals, read it – engage with what works, and critique what doesn’t.

From the generous preface by James A. Throgmorton:

“… I enthusiastically welcome the publication of Lieven Ameel’s new book. … his project takes past work on stories and storytelling a big step forward. Claiming “there is no comprehensive study of how narrative – and concepts from narrative and literary theory more broadly – can enrich planning and policy,” he has crafted his book to serve as the first go-to text for students and researchers who engage with urban planning in terms of narratives. He asks: (1) What is meant, exactly, when we speak of narratives in urban planning? (2) What kind of typologies can we begin to draw up? And (3) how does a narrative analysis unpack different, always politicized, visions of a better future city? With this focus and set of questions in mind, he draws upon methods and concepts from literary studies, narratology, and rhetoric. He defines key concepts, offers a functional typology of different types of planning narratives, and applies those concepts and theories to two case studies from contemporary planning for Helsinki’s waterfront.”

From the conclusion:

“Cities are always, in the words of Doreen Massey, “the intersections of multiple narratives” (1999, 165). It is a concept of the city that resembles Robert Park’s famous notion of the city as a “mosaic of little worlds that touch but do not interpenetrate” (1915, 608). The statements by Park and Massey, respectively, reflect two different visions of how the city’s narrative complexity functions: as diverse city worlds that closely interact (in Massey’s view) or that, in Park’s view, are merely casually touching upon each other. The challenge of planners is to be aware of the narrative complexity within which they operate; to be able to survey, to incorporate, and to foster the city’s repository of multiple narratives.

Planning, as this book has argued throughout, is fundamentally concerned with narrative. Planning processes and planning documents reveal, shape or contest existing narratives, and in planning, power relations and language are firmly entwined. Planners are involved in a form of “persuasive storytelling” (Throgmorton 1996) that looks backwards, by defending particular choices, as well as forwards, in the way they project visions of the future. They act within a broad ecology of narratives, including media narratives, everyday citizen narratives, and cultural representations of space. In dialogue with such various modes of storytelling, planning draws on existing narrative frames and rhetorical elements to select, choose and formalize particular stories of an area, city, or city-region, which are consequently materialized into the built environment as construction gets underway.

This book has set out a range of perspectives and methods for approaching the narrative complexity of a planning area, for developing planning with narrative, and for analysing narratives in the context of planning. The framework for such an analysis is provided by the threefold typology that distinguishes between narratives for, in and of planning. Narratives for planning consist of the existing narratives of a location, prior to planning: everyday stories, cultural representations, historical documents. Narratives in planning include the narrative texts and practices produced by planners or from actors within planning and policy (other agencies within the city, regional government, private actors operating in cooperation with planners). Narratives of planning are the stories of a development area told parallel or posterior to the planning proper, for example in branding or place-making strategies, but also in the way local stories react to and communicate with planning and development of an area. This threefold taxonomy of narratives in the context of planning provides a hermeneutic tool for scholars, planners and the general public to talk in more precise terms about authorship, context and objectives of planning narratives.

In the context of the increasing “storyfication” of planning and policy, and of the “narrative turn” in planning theory, it has been particularly important to set out by clearly defining the key concepts for a narrative analysis of non-fictional modes of storytelling, starting out with definitions of narrative, story, and narrativity. Narrative denotes what happens when someone tells someone else something, on a particular occasion and for a particular reason. What is told is the story. In this definition, maps, pictures, and elements in the built environment are not narratives, but they can contain narrativity – the potential to evoke a particular story.

All planning begins with some kind of survey of the area. A narrative mapping, which aims to chart an area in terms of the stories it has generated, will put a particular focus on metaphor, plot, and the relationships between the location and personal or communal development. The examination of a century of writing about the Helsinki waterfront, in Chapter Three, shows a rich and sometimes contradictory set of cultural meanings associated with the area. The Helsinki shoreline appears in this mapping as a liminal space of possibility for individuals as well for the transformative powers of society, enabling romantic encounters across social boundaries, but also individual moments of contemplation and rebirth. It functions as an environment in which the (social, gendered, ideological) fault lines of the city become apparent. Most of all, this is an area that gains its transformative powers from its peripheral location outside of the regular urban fabric, its closeness to the sea and its connection with other shores.

A narrative approach can be applied to all the phases of planning, from survey to participation, from the planning text to the interaction between the eventual built environment and new narratives of place. With the help of narrative mapping, local experiential knowledge can be foregrounded and used to challenge and supplement more quantitative place-based information. For researchers interested in how narratives in planning are rhetorically structured, a narrative approach can provide crucial insights, by drawing on questions such as: To what extent do plans draw on archetypal modes of emplotment or on particular textual genres? Who are the leading characters and actors within the planning storylines – planners, citizens, tourists, developers? What metaphors are used, and how are rhetorical tropes used to provide implied causality to particular decisions? Are there contradictions within the narratives in planning? Finally, narrative approaches can be instrumental in providing insights for developing future planning with narrative. They can identify a lack of cohesion or degree of contradiction within proposed planning storylines, or help identify blind spots in terms of forgotten actors or voices. In its most radical form, planning with narrative can result in planning that allows for greater polyphony, including contradictory voices or multiple storylines, and for planning without closure.

From a narrative perspective, some recommendations suggest themselves in terms of how planning with narrative could be further developed. Attending to the role of protagonists is one element that deserves closer attention: planning documents have come some way from the distanced and passive voice still prevalent in the final decades of last century, but more could be done to ensure that the set of actors and voices in planning narratives displays a genuine diversity, and that citizens, too, are visible as actors, in addition to planners and institutional forces. Enabling citizens to speak in their own voice within planning texts, even when their perspectives run counter to planning narratives, is an important element in moving towards a degree of polyphony in planning.

Finally, a greater attentiveness to the fundamental narrative characteristics of planning can result in planning narratives that are more coherent and more convincing, but also in narratives that are grounded in local layers of meaning and flexible in the face of future change. Similar to literary novels, plans tend to have clearly delineated endings. Cities, by contrast, continue their relentless cycles of change and transformation, regardless of the completion of city plans. To develop planning with narrative, including the possibility of planning without closure or with multiple and even contradictory storylines, is one way to prepare for inevitable change and for future uncertainty.”


Full acknowledgements can be found, of course, in the opening pages of the book – let it suffice to say here that I would not have been able to write this book without the support, help, and feedback of numerous students, colleagues, and my family. THANKS!



Literary Approaches to Possible Futures – KULTVA seminar on future cities

Today I went back (at least virtually) to the University of Turku, where I presented a paper on “Literary Approaches to Possible Futures” (“Mahdolliset tulevaisuudet – näkökulmia kirjallisuudesta”).

On the programme also Kimi Kärki (speaking of Blade Runner) and author Hanna-Riikka Kuisma, who discussed her recent novel Kerrostalo (“High-Rise”).

We had a good audience and an animated discussion, and thoroughly ran out of time to talk of all the questions that came up.

Thanks to all participants and the KULTVA Cultural Interaction Researcher Network who organized the seminar.

The themes of the seminar resonated also with the course I taught earlier this year on hope for the future, a course which developed in a short article (co-authored with the students) which will be published in the next Avain journal (2020/3)



“The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning” – out with Routledge in November 2020

My research project on planning narratives in the Helsinki waterfront, and specifically in the planning of the postindustrial districts Kalasatama and Jätkäsaari, comes to a close with the publication of a book that brings together the conclusions of several of my earlier articles, and that includes a wide range of new materials. The book, entitled “The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning: Plotting the Helsinki Waterfront”, will be published with Routledge in November of this year. It can already be pre-ordered here.


“This is a fine contribution to the planning field and will be especially helpful to those interested in the stories told around planning strategies and projects. It draws together and enriches the literature on narrative and storytelling, both generally and specifically in relation to planning and urban studies. It contains two well-developed case studies of major redevelopment projects in one of Northern Europe’s major cities which illustrate the different ways narratives inform, get used in and are generated by planning activity. Many will find this book a really helpful resource.”

– Patsy Healey, professor Emeritus, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, UK

From the Introduction:

“Narratives, in the context of urban planning, matter. This is not a new argument – if anything, it has become something of a commonplace in thinking and writing of the contemporary city. It is implicit in planning theory paradigms such as communicative and discursive planning theory, and is met also in a range of approaches to the city as diverse as urban history, sociology, ethnography, literary urban studies, and human and cultural geography. The narrative view of planning is implicitly founded on the thought, following Henri Lefebvre ([1974] 1991), that space is relative and intersubjective, and it is a view that draws on the long legacy of the linguistic turn in the humanities and social sciences. Cities are, in the words of Doreen Massey, “the intersections of multiple narratives” (Massey 1999, 165), and planning always participates – willingly and consciously, or not – in the formation of these intersections. The interest in urban narratives goes hand in hand with an increasing awareness that urban planning could (and in many countries legally should) take into account experiential, “subjective” place-based information, shared in the stories people and communities tell of their place in the world. As a result of such shifts, and following a range of intertwined paradigmatic turns variously described as “cultural”, “spatial”, “rhetorical”, “communicative”, and “narrative”, planners have emerged during the past decades as producers, curators and negotiators of diverse narratives, rather than as the descendants of the hero-planners from the modernist era. But the conceptual and methodological apparatus available to planning theorists and practitioners to assess this narrative turn has remained fragmented and unevenly developed, and has largely remained separated from developments within what is arguably its most relevant cognate field: narrative studies.

Little systematic analysis has been carried out to examine the different kinds of narratives that are used in the context of urban planning from a particularly narrative perspective, and to date, there is no comprehensive study of how narrative – and concepts from narrative and literary theory more broadly – can enrich planning and policy. While several researchers have noted the existence of a “narrative turn” or a “story turn” in planning, few have found it necessary to problematize the concept of “narrative” in this context. What is meant, exactly, when we speak of narratives in urban planning? How are these narratives defined, what kind of typologies can we begin to draw up? What is the relationship between such narratives and the built environment? And starting from there, what methods for analysis and conceptual tools can be applied to examine the production, dissemination, and reception of urban planning narratives? These are the key questions addressed in this book. Setting the focus squarely on examining urban planning in terms of its narrative characteristics, this study gives a key role to methods and concepts from disciplines with long-standing expertise in this respect: literary studies, narratology – the study of narrative – and rhetorics. Narrative is defined here, following James Phelan, as a “rhetorical act: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened” (Phelan 2007, 3-4). What is told is the story, and the telling can be in oral as well as in written form of text. I will return to the definitions of story and narrative, and the extent to which these can be applied to planning, in more detail in the following chapter; for now, this definition will have to suffice.

To put narratives first in a study of urban planning is not to say that this book is not concerned also with the materiality of the actual city. What I hope to elucidate, with an analysis of two specific case studies of urban planning, is the extent to which the actual – planned, built and lived – city is shaped by narrative structures in planning, and how narrative and the material urban world are part of a firmly intertwined and interactive meshwork of meaning and experience. Narratives that are created, told and circulated in the context of urban planning eventually turn into the stone, glass and concrete of the built and lived city; they guide and define the material realities of the city. And the built environment in turn produces its own stories to be retold or contested. An urban redevelopment project that is envisioned in terms of its industrial heritage may result in a preference for specific urban morphology or building material (such as red bricks to mirror earlier industrial architecture) and in the preservation of specific features of the built environment (such as obsolete tram rails or quay boulders). Certain types of building height, building block structure, and traffic solutions will be preferred, depending on whether a development is presented as part of the storyline of city centre expansion, or, conversely, as that of a new garden town that brings nature into the urban fabric. Features of the built environment in their turn produce particular experiences and narratives. An artificially constructed canal may produce stories of division and separation between different parts of the city – or quite the opposite, it may foster the experience of a recreational space linking these, all depending on a complex combination of often unpredictable factors. The windowed street-level spaces designed by planners for front stores may be used instead for bicycle parking or for community meetings, creating unintended spatial uses that may give rise to a host of narratives of an area’s semi-public spaces.

Following Jonathan Raban, cities are “plastic by nature”, and if we “mould them in our images”, they “in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our personal form on them” (Raban [1974] 1988, 10). Narratives are seen here as drawing on, and producing, such resistance, and as situated on the interstices between city planners, city inhabitants, and the cities they work and live in. But narratives in the context of planning are never natural or self-evident, even when they are presented as evocations of causal or organic relationships. They are also instruments of power, used to legitimize interventions in space, dislocations, and the prioritization of specific interests over others.”

New article: “Flooded cities in Low Countries fiction”

The last city on earth: Almere in Weerwater. Picture by L. Ameel

With much of the world in quarantine or lock-down, questions of how we come to terms with catastrophe have not exactly become any less topical.

Its with mixed feelings that I announce the publication of my latest article, written in collaboration with Stef Craps from Ghent University:

Flooded cities in Low Countries fiction: Referentiality and indeterminate allegory in Renate Dorrestein’s Weerwater and Roderik Six’s Vloed. Published in Green Letters (ahead of print).

A free eprint (for the first 50 users) can be found here:


From the Introduction of “flooded cities”:

“This article examines two contemporary flood novels originating from the Low Countries: Weerwater (Dorrestein 2015) by the Dutch author Renate Dorrestein and Vloed (‘Flood’; Six 2012) by the Flemish author Roderik Six. We approach the flood tropes in these novels as examples of indeterminate allegory, in which multiple layers of meaning invite competing possible readings. While not referring unequivocally to anthropogenic climate change, Weerwater and Vloed offer important insights into literature’s complex interaction with climate change and rising water levels in the way they draw attention to the language in which traumatic experience is couched, as well as by highlighting the enduring flexibility of novelistic form to evoke our changing relationship to the environment.”

From the Conclusion:

“In environmentally themed fiction, the trope of the flood has arguably become ‘the dominant literary strategy for locating climate change’ (Trexler 2015, 82–83). Literary fiction can provide an important complement to future visions of environmental relations as they are found in STEM texts (cf. Hulme 2011). One crucial contribution lies in the way literary fiction is able to provide a sense of qualia, of what it feels like to live under possible or future environmental circumstances. A second one is grounded in the metafictional realm, in how literary fiction is able to pose questions about storytelling and about the kinds of literary tropes, narrative forms, and genres at our disposal to narrate past, present, and future engagements with our changing environment. On both accounts, Renate Dorrestein’s Weerwater and Roderik Six’s Vloed provide important perspectives from a particular cultural and geographical setting with accute relevance for climate change and rising sea levels. Both novels can be seen as illustrative of literature’s potential as ‘laboratory of the possible’ (Westphal 2011, 63) in the way they envisage personal and societal resilience under environmental duress. The events in Weerwater, in particular, operate in close dialogue with discourses on Dutch can-do attitudes vis-à-vis the water, and with ideas on urban resilience in the face of rising water and global warming. Vloed eschews direct references to ecocritical concerns, but, like Weerwater, it draws extensively on tropes from flood fiction and environmental future fiction to reflect on the human capacity for survival, including concerns about reproduction, sexuality, and gender dynamics.

The collapsing temporalities in Vloed, and the sense of powerlessness felt in Weerwater by the protagonist when confronted with the otherworldly fog, can be interpreted as a reminder of the limits of language and narrative form for grasping the vast scales of climate change, but also as allegorical attempts to interrogate our interaction with the environment, with all the sensory and cognitive tentativeness such interaction entails. Our reading of Six and Dorrestein is in line with Astrid Bracke’s insistence, in her article ‘Flooded Futures: The Representation of the Anthropocene in Twenty-First-Century British Flood Fictions’, on the significance of the metafictional level in narratives that make use of flood tropes. As she suggests, the uncertainty in such narratives about what is real and what is unreal, within the storyworld as well as for the reader, chimes with ‘the deep epistemological uncertainty at the heart of the Anthropocene’ (2019, 284). In their use of indeterminate allegory, Dorrestein’s and Six’s texts emphasise the lack of control over sense-making processes, as particular narrative tropes turn out to have diverging and contradictory meanings. At the same time, the novels’ metaleptic operations affirm the creative, world-building potential of language, which, it is implied, literary fiction can unlock.”

Many thanks to co-author Stef Craps and to special issue editors Astrid Bracke and Katie Ritson; thanks also to the friendly hosts in Almere and Leuven during my visits to those cities; special thanks to the project manager of student home Torres for allowing me on the roof of the building – scene of the last man in Vloed.

The article is part of my research project on future cities at the water in literature, policy and planning – more on that project here.