Planning Sideways, Like a Crab

“Happiness should be approached sideways, like a crab.” This adage holds a profound truth for the transformation of our urban landscapes—a direct path may not always lead to the most enriching outcomes.

In essence, the saying invites us to reconsider our strategies for seeking fulfillment. It encourages a holistic, open-minded approach to life, where happiness is woven into the fabric of our daily experiences and discoveries, rather than being a distant goal to be chased down a straight path. By embracing this sideways movement, we align ourselves with the complexity and richness of life, finding joy in the journey itself.

Planning and Storytelling

Storytelling, when applied to urban planning and revitalization, can be used to embody this ‘sideways’ strategy. Rather than prioritizing economic development or infrastructure enhancement alone, we can seek to weave community narratives, historical legacies, and cultural identities into the physical and sensory aspects of urban environments. This approach enriches the environment in such a way that it naturally cultivates a sense of belonging, engagement, and collective wellbeing.

“Environmental storytelling” in video game design is the technique of using visual cues, level design, objects, audio, and interactive elements within the game environment to tell a story or provide background information to the player. It’s strange that we seem not to use the term and technique in our planning of real spaces.

By integrating stories that echo through city streets, parks, and buildings, environmental storytelling can also transform real urban spaces into living narratives. These narratives invite communities to connect with their surroundings on a deeper level. In doing so, the process of urban revitalization becomes a journey not just of physical renewal but of rekindling the communal spirit, capturing the essence of what it means to approach happiness sideways, like a crab, through the shared and lived experiences of its inhabitants.

This underscores the importance of narrative coherence in urban design, where the narrative not only reflects but also shapes the socio-cultural dynamics of the city. Public spaces, from streetscapes to parks to plazas and waterfronts, are seen as stages where the city’s stories are performed and experienced. This perspective demands a methodological approach that values participatory design, historical sensitivity, and narrative coherence, ensuring that the spaces are not only physically revitalized but also emotionally resonant and culturally meaningful.

Reflecting on how this could play out in an older industrial city, the following elements could come into play:

Historical Layering:

Public spaces are designed to reveal the city’s layers of history, incorporating elements of the industrial heritage alongside modern interventions that speak to current and future identities. This sees the urban environment as a palimpsest that retains and reveals layers of narratives through its physical form and sensory experiences. Palimpsest is defined as an object or place bearing layers of history or information superimposed over time, where traces of the past remain visible beneath the present.

Cultural Landscapes:

Exploring our cultural landscapes – places that have been shaped by the combined works of nature and humans – can reveal opportunities to reflect communally on the ways in which we as a society have adapted to, modified, and bestowed meaning upon our surroundings. Cultural landscapes are testament to our evolving relationship with our environment, embodying a community’s cultural, social, economic, and aesthetic values. They are our past and future selves, interacting with the landscape.

Sensory Design and Memory:

The design of public spaces also leverages sensory elements—sounds, smells, textures—to evoke memories and emotions, creating a multisensory narrative experience. They do not just recreate historical or cultural moments; they invite inhabitants to live those moments, to breathe in the essence of their city’s stories.  

Community Storytelling:

Collaborative sessions that facilitate the exchange of personal and collective narratives, integrating community voices in the design process. These initiatives empower residents to contribute their narratives, ensuring that the redesigned public spaces are deeply embedded with personal and collective stories.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration:

Engagement with urban planners, historians, artists, and designers to ensure a multidimensional narrative approach, intertwining design innovation with cultural and historical narratives.

Case Study: Revitalizing an Industrial Downtown

In a hypothetical case, let’s say the city embarked on an ambitious revitalization plan focused on the historic but declining manufacturing district, hoping to transform it into a vibrant cultural hub while honoring its industrial legacy. Rather than pursuing the direct route of conventional urban renewal, focused solely on economic stimuli and infrastructure overhaul, this city embraced a more nuanced path of environmental storytelling. By embedding the rich tapestry of its industrial past into the sensory and spatial design of its public spaces, the city moved sideways towards revitalization. This approach didn’t just aim for aesthetic enhancements or functional improvements; it sought to rekindle the collective memory and spirit of the community, weaving into the urban fabric the stories of resilience, innovation, and unity that characterized the city’s heritage.

Narrative Framework – The Big Why: The design strategy is predicated on the narrative of resilience and rebirth. This umbrella rationale was identified through community meetings and gets expressed through projects like the preservation of historic factory buildings, repurposed as galleries and makerspaces, juxtaposed with modern installations that symbolize the city’s future aspirations.

Design Elements: A network of pedestrian paths, interspersed with interactive installations, each narrates different aspects of the city’s industrial history and community resilience. Green spaces using plants endemic to the region are woven through the district to symbolize growth and renewal. These areas serve as communal gathering spaces, encouraging new narratives of community and collaboration. A water feature captures the ambient noise of an old mill; cobblestone alleyways restore the textures of the old city. In these ways the planning sidesteps a linear, goal-oriented revitalization, finding vibrancy in the exploration of the community’s historical and cultural depths.


Embracing the “sideways, like a crab” approach in urban revitalization can unexpectedly fulfill big goals in a more authentic, participatory and evocative way. This method not only deepens communal ties and enriches urban identity but also catalyzes economic vitality and urban resilience as natural extensions of narrative-driven development. By moving sideways, we achieve both the intangible and tangible—cultural cohesion and economic growth—demonstrating the power of collective storytelling in planning and placemaking.

All photos by author

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About Phil Myrick

Phil Myrick is an advisor to planning and development projects around the world and former CEO of Project for Public Spaces. Phil applies research into how people interact with their environments and each other to create vibrant places, destinations, districts, and developments. His strategic advice has helped his clients achieve their goals of attracting people, engaging people in their community, strengthening connections and social fabric, and stimulating economic development. Phil is married with two teenagers and struggles to satisfy his passion for being outdoors or on the water.

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