Rebuilding cities through narratives

41786112471_49ded251f0_bHow do cities remake themselves through narration? This was the key question that shaped the international conference in Science Po Lyon on 27th and 28th November 2018 where I was invited to talk about the Welcoming Cities project. We know that cities do far more than just translate national or federal policies and are actively engaged in creating urban identities. But how do we trace these narratives when they are often discursive and unfathomable.

Some of dimensions of narratives include the importance of economic development; the ability of cities to be collective actors and make claims; the role of cities in global governance; framing cities as vectors of urban, national and international networks; and presenting cities as being welcoming and hospitable to migrants and minorities (including LGBTQI+ rights).

These dimensions were approached in four different themes. The first explored focusing on actors to open the ‘black box’ of city making. Questions arose such as which contexts to urban narratives emerge? What are their salient features and aims? Is there a diversity of narratives behind strong common themes? The session highlighted the role of key actors in the remaking of a city narratives including museums (Lyon), the university (Newcastle) and key industries in the city even if it may be controversial (erotica in Detroit). In particular the role of a city narrator, such as Aaron Foley in Detroit has made a crucial difference to the remaking of the city.

The second session focused on scales of cooperation and governance within the city. Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin (University of Sorbonne Nouvelle) provided a portrait of the city level narratives in Lyon and Minneapolis-St Paul focusing on the differences for city-level narratives when operating within federal and centralised administrations. Crucially she asked should we be talking about the rescaling of the state (Brenner) or are these processes just a new form of localism (Katz and Nowak)?


The issue of localism and regionalism was evoked by Danny MacKinnon (University of Newcastle) who charted the policy narratives across different Labour and Conservative Governments. He showed the particular effect this had on empowering the north through devolution. He focused on the role of The Northern Powerhouse as a spatial economic narrative. The role of business leaders ran throughout this session more broadly. In particular, Christophe Parnet explored how the debate about metropolitan governance in Marsailles led to the integration of a business elite (from all political parties) within the metropolitan authorities. It emerged that scales vary according to different national contexts and this provides different opportunities and constraints for differentially positioned actors. While some discourses foreground the importance of cooperation and the ability of cities to act as collective actors, this may also ignore and minimize the exclusion of different stakeholders. Institutions therefore play an important role in drawing borders.

The third session focused on Welcoming Cities. It has been well noted that for much of the twentieth century improvement in the situation of disadvantaged communities was a focus for urban public policies. The ideological triumph of neoliberalism has caused the allocation of spatial, political, economic and financial resources to favour economic growth at the expense of wider social benefits. Cities have self-declared (or been labelled) ‘sanctuary cities’ ‘welcoming cities’ ‘immigrant friendly cities’ ‘just cities’. These declarations open space for local decision makers to focus on equity and material well-being with considerations of diversity and participation to foster a better quality of urban life within the context of a global capitalist political economy. Younes Ahouga (University of Geneva) focused on the growing role of cities in migration management (Ghosh 1997). He explored the rising role of cities since the IOM conference on Migration and Cities. He argued this conference was a turning point as it represented the first global event directed at local actors and incorporated the local scale through neoliberal space-times.

Stacy Harewood (University of Utah) presented the case of ‘Welcoming Dayton’ to highlight the complexities and contradictions of welcoming. She argued that ‘welcoming’ in the USA is aspatial. She charted the spatial segregation in the city which is split between a largely white and affluent east side and a largely African American west side. The growth narrative in the city is focused on the east side, which includes the activities of ‘Welcoming Dayton’, and a wilful neglect of the west side. The welcoming narrative is tightly scripted and offers no room for those who are not benefiting from the investment in the city to raise their concerns. Stacy ended with a question that resonated throughout the conference ‘how do we create a human urbanism that doesn’t get lost in economic narratives?’

Finally the fourth session brought together non-academics and practitioners to tackle the questions: ‘what is a metropolis’ and ‘what is the core identity of a city’. Alternative narratives were analysed and conflicts emerged about how to define the borders of metropolises and their identities. The gaps between official narratives and residents were brought to the fore in this session. In particular Frederic Barbe presented the work in Nantes to create an indigenous tourist guide (le Guide indigene de détourisme de Nantes) which aimed to utilise and promote self-publishing and the high levels of literacy in the city. Jérôme Cochet performed part of his theatre groups ‘protocol’ for describing the city of St Etienne entitled #Villes. The aim of the project is to provide residents with an opportunity to define and be part of representing their city through engaging with theatre makers and artists over a one month intensive period. The protocol includes art workshops, interviews, walks around the city, a public choir, and a public performance.dav

The conference closed with more questions around the organisation of city narratives and perhaps most importantly, can we (and what is the value of) measuring the impacts of dominant urban narratives. These questions and conversations will undoubtedly carry on in the future. If you want to get involved in the conversation please contact me @Rachel_humphris or


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