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Harnessing the Power of Story to Shape a City's Future

Photo: Eugene, OR courtesy of Michele E. Reeves
One-way streets tell the story that you should drive faster and please, whatever you do, don't explore. This is not the identity a downtown should have.

Every place tells a story.  

But, most don’t do it coherently or intentionally.  The tricky thing about stories is that even if a city or a downtown doesn’t want to be telling one, it matters not, because they are telling a story anyway.  

So, how do you quantify a place’s story, and what can you do with it?

At CIVILIS Consultants, we utilize a framework—the same one improvisation artists use—to help cities build and understand the story a place is telling now, and also identify how they might want their story to change in the future.

4 Elements of every Story Framework

Characterization refers to the part of a city’s story that is told through the physical presence of a character, which for a city is what it presents to the world through streets, buildings, signs, lighting, homes, marketing collateral, advertising, yards, and parks.  It is very common for cities to focus on characterization because it’s the easiest to understand and the most tangible.  But, it is only one element of a complete story.

Objective is what motivates a character in a story.  We feel most comfortable with people whose objectives we understand, and that is true of places as well.  What experience does a place want us to have?  What is the city passionate about?  What role does it play in the region as a whole?  When you visit an unsuccessful downtown or Main Street, for instance, there is often a clear lack of objective in evidence, which is a problem since objective is the heart of the story framework.  It also is the least accessible of the four elements of the story framework from the perspective of the public sector.  

Relationship. You can tell a lot about a person by the relationships they maintain, and the same can be said of places.  When CIVILIS workshops with a city, we like to consider who is, and who isn’t, relating to a place.  We also like to examine what is beloved about a city and determine what a place’s leading businesses are because much of a place’s identity comes from these elements of relationship.  In fact, it’s important to remember that all revitalization and placemaking stems from people—nothing happens without the involvement and engagement of stakeholders.  

Environment is just as important as the other elements in the story framework, but it’s often overlooked.  It basically refers to the “where” of a place—its context.  It is very common for a place to lament its environment, instead of consider its strengths.  For example, if a city is located on the edge of a metropolitan region, then its status of being on the outskirts isn’t going to change anytime soon.  Instead of lamenting the location, celebrate its strengths, such as being a gateway to agriculture, fresh food, and outdoor recreation, for example.

Making great places requires passion and change.  There are countless forks in the road when charting a route to becoming a great place.  Should an on-street parking space be taken away to provide for outdoor restaurant seating?  Should bike corrals be constructed?  Is urban renewal needed?   

A shared and strong sense of Civic Identity allows stakeholders to cohesively answer these types of questions, and is what leads to complementary downtown revitalization efforts that build a unique experience.  


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