When you think of the act of storytelling, you might imagine a group of children sitting cross-legged in a circle, listening intently as magical worlds are brought to life through words and pictures. In truth, telling stories has played an important role throughout the history of the human race. They help to explain where we came from, and where we’re going, allow us to celebrate the victories, teach us lessons, and provide hope to generations of people looking for inspiration.
For today’s planners, engineers, politicians, and advocates, we believe this rich history of storytelling could provide the groundwork for building better cities where we live, work and play. Especially when it comes to encouraging and enabling better ways of moving ourselves around the urban environment. Decades of engineering our streets around the automobile have made them dangerous and disconnected places, and we are only now realizing that it is time to build them for people.
Cities around the world are looking for ways to facilitate a modal shift – one where the average citizen can choose more efficient means of transportation – foot, bicycle, public transit, or any other human-powered mode. Officials are making important investments in the areas of infrastructure and policy, building more frequent and accessible transit, and changing the way we design our streets. But few efforts are made to educate and urge residents to take full advantage of these investments.
Early adopters – like our family, who sold our car after moving to East Vancouver, and now make the majority of our trips by active means – flock to these improvements because they facilitate a healthier, happier lifestyle. New transit lines allow us to expand our bubble to places across our region we wouldn’t normally visit. Protected bike lanes designed for all ages and abilities let us experience our beautiful city comfortably with our most precious cargo: our seven- and nine-year-old children.
But the 99% – or “interested, but concerned” crowd – need some convincing. That’s where storytelling becomes key to encourage widespread acceptance and utilization. Sharing success stories also breaks through the cynical, misinformed messaging from the media and critics, while educating the public about the myriad benefits they wouldn’t readily consider. They create a narrative that supports these difficult decisions – facts that refute the memes and rhetoric that lead to backlash.
More important than educating, though, it is the storytellers’ ability to provide inspiration to the masses – particularly when paired with positive, accessible, everyday imagery. When an individual or family sees a depiction of someone relatable, who is actually gaining something tangible – like health or money – or intangible – like pleasure and happiness – rather than giving something up, they are more likely to see that photo or film and say “I can give that a try.”
In the bicycle advocacy world, this includes showing the diverse range of individuals that start cycling once you provide them with the means. For us, that expanded from depictions of our family to include a variety of friends and colleagues. Like Cecily: a woman with rheumatoid arthritis whose bicycle became her primary means of mobility. Or Amy: who rides around town with her dog in her front basket. Or Josh: an entrepreneur who built a business around showing tourists the city by bicycle.
The act of telling these ordinary citizen’s extraordinary stories makes those who directly benefit from so-called controversial changes more visible and relatable, while celebrating the successes arising from difficult decisions needed to enable a change in lifestyle. Furthermore, storytelling works to highlight how our approach to building cities has evolved in the 21st century, to one where equality, mobility, affordability, and sustainability are placed at the forefront of the planning process.
Behind the scenes, officials and politicians are working incredibly hard to build better cities that will meet the needs of the future, and incorporate the inevitable growth and challenges we will experience in the coming years. By using storytelling as a vital tool in this planning process, those challenges can be met head-on by not just changing how we move around the city, but also building more healthy, happy, and connected communities, and improving the quality of life for all of our citizens.