What Is a Spatial Narrative?

A city or town is a particular kind of space. Its spatial arrangement is ordered by the interaction of people acting in market places and realms of interaction shaped by the legally defined disposition of the land. Most people try to locate their work place or residence and live their lives where, given their criteria and resources, they will accrue the best economic, social, political, or cultural outcome.

As a result, almost anything one does in a city “takes place” and becomes a “spatial practice” that shapes, and is shaped by, the social, economic, political, or cultural space of the city.

Through their daily routines, people thus “mark” or “inscribe” the space within the impersonal-built environment of the city with meaning. [1] In the course of going to or coming from work, working, meeting and interacting with others, recreating, acting and participating politically, one gradually establishes one’s routines and “daily path” [2] through the city.

One differentiates space that one knows and in which one feels comfortable from that which one does not. Across and upon that known spatial realm, one gradually inscribes and accumulates the stories and incidents of one’s routines into daily, weekly, or monthly “courses,” plots, or “narratives” that give the space further personal meaning and, by connecting it to the larger story of the city, makes it somewhat his or her own.

As one walks through a city, one might think to oneself: “this is where something happened,” “I remember when we did this there,” “this is the building where that event occurred,” “that building is impressive,” “here is my town,” and so on.

In the course of such interaction with the space of the city, we thus construct “spatial narratives,” or, in Kevin Lynch’s notion, “cognitive maps” [3] that, over time, through repetition, routine, accumulation, or, in Michel de Certeau’s phrase, “practice,” we transform into a “place” of meaning and value.(De Certeau 1984) As more and more people do this, they collectively construct or “produce” “social space,” or “public” political, economic, or cultural spaces that transform the urban environment.

For the historian without much direct personal evidence of actors in a story or a social development, reconstructing the “spatial narratives” of individuals, and the impact of the collective “spatial practices” on “social space” and the “public,” enables one to discern meaning and purpose from otherwise mostly mute historical actors.

By recreating the “spatial narrative” of individuals, one can, through inference, understand better how groups expressed themselves in the city and sought to order it to their advantage. One can, therefore, trace the social and cultural history of a place and, through space, connect it to contemporary urban social, political, and cultural experience. From this perspective, space and the built environment of a city are not mere backdrops, backgrounds, or contexts in which events occurred. They play a central role in understanding the development of social and political order.

1. H. Lefebrve, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991); M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 115–30; Victoria Thompson, “‘Telling Spatial Stories’: Urban Space and Bourgeois Identity in Early Nineteenth Century Paris,” Journal of Modern History (Summer 2003), 523–556; Katherine Cocks, Doing the Town: The Rise of Urban Tourism in the United States, 1850–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). [Back to Reference]

2. Allan Pred, Making Histories and Constructing Human Geographies: The Local Transformation of Practice, Power Relations, and Consciousness (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), 50. [Back to Reference]

3. Kevin Lynch, Managing a Sense of Region (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976). [Back to Reference]

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