The Power of Narrative in Public Space Design

The Power of Narrative in Public Space Design

I want to talk about an underutilized tool in the design toolbox: Narrative. As someone trained as an urban planner, but with a background in fine arts, I see an opportunity to link project intent with project design better.

A community or a client can often explain at length what they envision in a project – let’s say a new downtown park – but these thoughts and descriptions often fade into the background once the design process gets underway. It’s not a criticism, but an observation that the design process tends to hand off the vision to a team of professionals, and there isn’t always a great mechanism for the client/community to stay involved constructively to help steer toward the vision they described at the outset. And the community doesn’t understand the design process well enough to ask pointed questions or evaluate it in a constructive way.

Enter narrative, is a powerful tool I use to help maintain the connection between clients and designers that both can easily understand.

The Heartbeat of Design: Understanding Narrative

The narrative is about storytelling, but it’s also about crafting a coherent sequence of events or experiences. Each park, each plaza, and each campus has a story to tell. Whether it’s a story of community, history, culture, or just relaxation, our job as planners and designers is to home in on that narrative and bring it to life. Depending on the project, my placemaking process uses some or all of the following aspects of the narrative to define and drive a project to success.

Distilling the Main Idea

At the beginning of a project, we absorb mountains of information from the client, community, and stakeholders. I use Vision Statements and Goals to boil this information down to a main idea that defines the big aspirations of our project. This tends to be high-minded and motivating language that is universal to the community, that describes the larger outcomes that the project should deliver, whether social, economic, environmental, or other. The goals are as important as the vision statement because without them it is hard to move on to the more concrete steps in the process.

For example, Discovery Green’s Vision is “to help Houston grow as a home for talent, creativity, health, and prosperity by offering a unique and affordable green space to enjoy what is best about Houston, connect with fellow Houstonians, and experience what is wonderfully authentic about our community.”

Discovery Green’s Goals are:

·       To sustain an exceptional environment for nature and people.

·       To offer opportunities for exploration, magic, and joy.

·       To support tourism and revitalization of Houston’s central city.

·       To ensure that Discovery Green has the resources to carry out its mission.

Personas in Public Spaces: The Heroes of Our Story

Just as in a good book, our characters, or in our case, users, must be carefully crafted. Creating user personas through narrative allows us to understand and empathize with a diverse array of park users. From the early morning jogger to the elderly couple enjoying a quiet afternoon, each persona adds a unique thread to the overall narrative of the space.

Each user type needs a central story question or two. The central story question for a user persona helps to identify their main motivation or goal in the context of the space, and it can greatly influence the design process.

Family with Young Children: “Could this park be the spot for our weekly family outings?” “Could this park convince me to come downtown more often?”

Retirees: “Could I bring my grandchild here and not get bored while the children are playing?” “Could this become my daily walking route for exercise and fresh air?”

Office Workers: “Can I have a quick lunch here while enjoying the outdoors?” “Is there a quiet corner where I can make a private phone call during my break?”

Tourists: “Is there a spot in this park where I can capture a memorable picture of the city skyline?” “Does this park offer insights into the local culture and history?”

By focusing on these central story questions, you help ensure that the design of the park caters to the needs and desires of various user personas, making it a versatile and inclusive public space.

Storytelling: The Designer’s Quill

I use themes and storylines to then describe how that main idea unfolds in a series of experiences. Just like in a novel, every part of a public space tells a story, and each area, path, bench, and tree is a sentence in that narrative. Each sentence is essential; it contributes to the storyline and guides the user through the designed experience.

This could be likened to chapters in a book:

Entrances (The Introduction): These are the gateways to our story. They set the stage and offer a glimpse of the story about to unfold. The design of entrances should be inviting and intriguing, enticing people to explore, and hinting at the storyline and what’s in it for them.

Paths (The Plot): Paths are the narrative threads that lead visitors through the space. They shape the plot, create suspense, and build connections between different parts of the story. The design of paths should be intuitive and engaging, guiding visitors toward key elements or views.

Destinations (The Climaxes): These are the focal points or climaxes in our story. They are the places where the narrative reaches a peak and answers the central story question for users. They should also be moments where the community or client feels confident that their main idea and goals are conveyed. 

Smaller passive spaces (The Subplots): These are the side stories or subplots in our narrative. They offer opportunities for rest, contemplation, or surprise, enriching the overall experience. Garden refuges can be intimate spaces, enclosed by vegetation, that provide a contrast to the more public or open areas.

Amenities, Affordances, and Details (The Descriptive Passages): These are the details that bring our story to life. They provide texture, evoke emotions, and make the experience memorable. These elements should be thoughtfully designed and placed to enhance the character of the space and add layers of usability.

Paley Park in New York City provides a simple example: the park could be interpreted as a narrative of escape and tranquility amidst the urban hustle. The steps leading up to the park, tucked between two buildings, serve as the plot introduction. The waterfall at the end of the park is the climax, providing a sensory experience that drowns out the city’s noise. The trees and ivy provide the subplot, softening the hardscape and enhancing the feeling of a garden refuge. The movable chairs and tables are descriptive passages, allowing users to customize their experience in this urban respite.

Prototyping and User Testing: The Plot Thickens

With our narrative and personas in hand, we can create a series of ‘what if’ scenarios. These guide the creation of prototypes and shape user testing. Will our morning jogger find the path layout intuitive? Will the grandparents get as much enjoyment as their grandchildren? The narrative helps us anticipate and respond to these queries.

I’m working on several master planning projects that challenge me to use these narrative tools. I’m currently working with the client and design teams to confirm our main idea and then chart out user journeys:

  • Exactly who are the audiences/personas we need to prioritize and why them specifically?
  • What goals can the interaction between the user and the project deliver – e.g. awareness about sustainable landscape practices; promoting physical and mental well-being; strengthening town/gown relationships; increasing dwell time to increase retail sales?
  • What’s the peak experience for each persona, which delivers the main idea and answers their central question?
  • What interactions between different user types can we engender, to create a sociable place that fosters understanding and inclusion?

Triumphs and Trials: The Peaks and Valleys of Narrative Design

A strong narrative can act as a guiding light throughout the design process, keeping the team focused on user needs and experience. However, it’s essential to avoid oversimplifying complex user behaviors or limiting our design to a single perspective. Public spaces are meant for all, and our narrative must reflect this diversity.

Incorporating narrative into the public space design process provides a powerful means of connection, articulation, and exploration. It helps to translate a community or client’s vision into a tangible reality, maintaining their involvement and understanding throughout the process. Moreover, it transforms public spaces into meaningful places that tell stories, stirs emotions, and foster a sense of belonging.

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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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