Narrative of place

Sylvia Pankhurst launching her head quarters on Bow Road, Tower Hamlets

Why does narrative of place matter?

"Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living" — On Stories, by Richard Kearney.

Stories are powerful. They can elicit powerful emotional response and can be used as powerful tools. They can be used to persuade people and change societies, and they have — with good and bad results. Stories have the ability to reinvent a place or a community, and to help people to fall in love with the place in which they live, work and play.

It's important to know your story, and to tell it well.

1. Capture the imagination

We help people fall in love with the place in which they live, work and play. Without a narrative, a place can seem empty, generating only the hollow ring of inanimate materials. With a great story, we can capture hearts, and even the newest or most scarred of landscapes gain the power of truth and meaning.

2. Celebrate heritage

Stories preserve our own history and culture, passing it along in a form that’s easy to remember to the next generation.On any plot of land, lies layers of fascinating stories defined by the fabric of the land, its geography, landscape and climate. Every place holds a fascinating story waiting to be told and to inspire a new generation of people looking for a sense of connection and meaning with their surroundings.

3. Create a sense of belonging

Places are about people. But who lives in your community? Advances in travel and technology means our communities are constantly changing. It is likely that a modern-day community is multi-cultural, with waves of new incomers with every generation from different parts of the city, country or world. A strong sense of narrative can unite new and old, providing a sense of belonging and emotional connection, thereby increasing civic pride and participation.

4. Promote community cohesion

In our current climate of Brexit, migration and faith wars, understanding the universal experience of being human is essential for community cohesion.

5. Inspire with pictures

Narrative isn't just about the written word. A picture can tell a thousand words. Images can capture an entire story and are just as powerful. The image of Sylvia Pankhurst talking to local women from the scaffolding around her new head quarters in Bow, doesn't just sum up a moment in history, it gives context to the future - our present day. The poverty of the East End; a hundred years of industrialisation; husbands at war leaving a female workforce; the rising up of the oppressed; the blood and bruises  of battles to come; the emancipation of women; the vote for all; equal rights.

How to use a narrative

This is the unique DNA of your place. A convincing and consistent narrative of place will help attract people and inward investment to your place-making scheme. Use it to define the brief, spirit and development of your place-making schemes, from the identity (brand, language, tone of voice, imagery) to the experience (lighting, street names, programming of events and markets, industry and workspace theme).

Create a heritage-led place brand

If it is not rooted in the heritage of the area, a place brand will look dated within a decade. Unlike some brands that need to reflect the current zeitgeist, the branding of a place needs longevity. Heritage-led place brands convey values and a narrative that will stand the test of time.

Give meaningful names to new places 

Think of how many times a place name is used every day, from catching a cab to typing it into your GPS. Saying a name makes people to think of its connotations and is a powerful part of creating place narrative, whether place making or place regeneration.

Historically place naming has been political. In the 1980s, the UK had a wave of renaming places after Nelson Mandela. With then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly regarding Mandela as a terrorist, such namings were often by more left-wing councils and groups. The trend was immortalised in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses for the block of flats the Trotters lived in. Today, of course, Mandela is an uncontroversial figure, hailed from all parts of the political spectrum.

But attitudes to people can change over time and many figures are inherently more controversial. Think of the statue of William Gladstone in the East End of London whose hands are daubed red to this day in memory of the abused match stick factory girls whose pay was docked to pay for the sculpture.

Develop cultural tourism

A clear narrative has the power to draw destination visitors and tourists to a place. The story of Ford's industrial past in Dagenham is not one to be forgotten but one to be proud of, to be celebrated and experienced, not just by those whose lives were forged by the factory, but by those who may live in distant climes yet have emotional connections to automotive history, to Ford, to Detroit. In the process of improving, it's often easy to wipe away the past.

Create tours, trails and apps

Every place offers layers a fascinating stories, both ordinary and extraordinary, that are worthy of a guided tour, a walking trail or an app. A place may have lost many of its landmark buildings and structures, but the power of imagination together with the wonders of art and technology can bring memories back to life and emotions into focus.

Find your story

Do you know your story?

We dig deep into a place's memory to find the raw gems, often languishing in neglect, and polish them into fine diamonds to inspire your community, to give meaning to place, and to stimulate a sense of belonging and civic pride.

Our journalistic roots mean we have a nose for an authentic story. We look beyond the press release, the purple prose, the fake news, the reinvented history, to find the real story that will capture the imagination, win hearts and secure loyalty.