Place-Based Storytelling as a Foundation for Neighborhood Planning and Community Development
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This study examines the potential for place-based storytelling to enhance public engagement, participatory planning and community development processes. A growing body of literature suggests that storytelling can be a unique tool for eliciting and documenting experiential knowledge held by residents of a community. The literature, however, offers limited exploration of storytelling methodologies or how they might add value to established public engagement techniques. This study developed and tested a methodological approach to place-based group storytelling carried out in conjunction with a charrette led by a project partner, the Community Design Center Rochester, in Rochester, N.Y. The study tested four research questions that explored how information gathered through the storytelling exercise might differ from or add value to a charrette, and whether the storytelling process would help participants gain a more holistic understanding of their neighborhood, identify community assets and/or enhance social capital. The study employed thematic analysis of the participants’ responses, pre- and post-questionnaires, in-depth post-interviews, a charrette report developed by the project partner, my notes as a participant in the charrette, and a narrative of the storytelling event developed in collaboration with the participants to ground truth findings. This analysis clearly demonstrated that storytelling participants developed more nuanced and holistic knowledge of the community, distinct from what they learned in the charrette. This knowledge included an understanding of profoundly personal, emotional and spiritual reasons that other residents value certain neighborhood assets; divergent views about challenges and race relations in the neighborhood; and a more expansive conceptualization of assets in the neighborhood. The storytelling format also helped several participants to feel more at ease connecting and sharing with others than they felt during the charrette, suggesting potential to build social capital. These findings suggest that there is value in using this approach to storytelling to frame or drive community development and engagement processes. Potential approaches include using storytelling to frame a process at its beginning, integrating elements of storytelling throughout, or using storytelling as a standalone community-building process.