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Make the city speak: 5 cases of urban storytelling

How urban storytelling can actually help people renovate their cities and solve social problems.

This year, Pakhuis De Zwijger, which is also known as the House for Dialogues, launched the Urban Stories Festival, an event that gathered a variety of influential storytellers, journalists, and documentarians. These people look for stories that can change the world (or, at least, a city) and tell them in any form they prefer, whether it’s as a movie, an article or a transmedia project. The four-day festival allowed a discussion of what urban issues need to be addressed and how they can be dealt with through technological developments that allow citizens to interact directly with each other in order to renovate their hometowns. Workshops, documentary screenings, and lectures demonstrated how such a powerful tool as storytelling can dramatically change the city and the lives of its residents for the better. Strelka Magazine had a conversation with Ewa Scheifes, the organiser and curator of the festival, who talked about five cases of urban journalism helping to remake cities (most of them were presented at the festival).
Ewa Scheifes, program manager for creative industries at Pakhuis de Zwijger, organiser and curator of the Urban Stories Festival in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Future of Cities

documentary movie
This project was realised by Oscar Boyson, who went to certain cities where there are important innovations, documented them, and gathered the stories that were eventually presented in the movie.
The Future of Cities is an 18-minute documentary by Boyson, created in collaboration with the Nantucket Project. The director wondered how people from different places saw the “future of cities”. Inspired by the work of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs, Edward Glaeser, and many others, he decided to explore cities in different corners of the world and learn about various urban projects. One of these projects is the app Cityinsight, which allows monitoring water usage. It was created for the residents of Detroit, which suffered from water shutoffs in 2014. It helps residents save water and saves the government’s money, which can then be spent on other urban renovations. Another example is Seoul turning its highways into public spaces to save energy and make it more convenient for people to travel by foot, rather than by car.

In order to implement the idea of creating the movie, Oscar Boyson published a video where he asked people to tell him about the urban projects implemented in their cities, whether an app, specific traffic constructions, or other fascinating things that help people live and travel in their cities. Responses came from people from 75 different countries. The director was invited to film all these places and share their stories. Thus, the project turned into a whole movie about people collaborating to create a better urban environment in their cities. This story helped citizens from all around the world see what is happening in other cities and what projects and practices they can borrow and implement themselves.
Ewa Scheifes: “The Future of Cities is a good example of urban storytelling dealing with urban issues. Oscar Boyson does crowdsourcing in various locations. He decided to go to certain cities to learn about their sustainability and their possibilities. He found people from these cities and created movements. He convinced residents to renovate their own hometowns. He documented this so that viewers from around the world would ask themselves: “What can I do to change the sustainability situation in my own city?”. I think The Future of Cities is a really good example of innovative storytelling”.


Documentary series  
“Schuldig” is a six-episode documentary based on interviews with six characters who live in the northern part of Amsterdam. This is quite a bad neighborhood; many of its citizens are in debt: in some cases, it’s 30,000 euros and sometimes even 50,000, but it doesn’t make much difference. The documentary shows how difficult it is for them to deal with this economic situation and what the government can and should do to fix it.

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As it turned out, the multiple interviews with the characters and the creators of the documentary actually helped them with their lives.
Ewa Scheifes: The project also turned out to be a mosaic, showing everybody, including the government, the current economic situation there: for instance, how the representatives of housing companies drop by to collect people’s money because they don’t pay the rent. It showed that the system is broken, because as expensive as healthcare, psychological assistance, and financial workshops are, they don’t have any real effect.
The creators of the documentary won a journalism prize in 2016, and they were also invited to many conferences concerning debt, wealth and the ways to deal with people in debt. They are invited by municipalities to join conversations about how they can create a better system: if you have a debt or you forget to pay your rent, next month you will have to pay even more, and that goes on month after month. Basically, it’s a negative spiral and it doesn’t help you: because of the pressure of your financial situation, you are not capable of concentrating, getting a job, taking care of your kids, or getting an education. So the system is only making things worse.


Social platform
Slum Dwellers International is a network of community-based organizations in 32 countries and hundreds of cities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is based on data collection in slums, which then turns into visual information on the website.
The network helps people from different poor cities renovate their homes, their cities, and, eventually, their own lives. All the information gathered regarding the conditions of the slums is presented on the website in the form of infographics, maps, and diagrams for visitors to learn how things are at the moment.

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The most important thing the project has done was sharing all the information about the slums for the citizens themselves to see what problems they have and what they can and should do about them.
The project’s website keeps important data on poor communities and also shares important news and stories about challenges that people from these 32 countries have to face in order to save or renovate their homes and towns. For example, there is a story about the female pavement dwellers of Mahila Milan (India) renovating their shelters. The paper traces the work of these women in order to learn what methods and tools were used and how they can be applied elsewhere. The website also helps the citizens of these poor countries share their experience concerning renovating their city with the world.
Ewa Scheifes: We had a meeting with Emily Mohohlo at the festival. She’s from Johannesburg and she lives in the slums. She’s a member of the Slum Dwellers International movement. The movement started off in one slum, but now it’s almost in every slum of every country. It started out with them just going from door to door, asking people questions like “Do you have clean water? Do you have a toilet? How many kids do you have? What are your skills?”. They collected all this data by hand and now, due to new technological possibilities, they can use all that data to make a virtual map showing the condition of these slums, and then go to journalists and policy-makers to say: “This is our situation and this is how you can contribute to help us change the way we live here”. This was also picked up by documentary makers and other storytellers. It was a very interesting meeting, because a combination of data and storytelling is not such an obvious idea; however, it’s a really interesting topic”.


Media platform
Citiscope is a platform that publishes materials presented by a variety of independent journalists that want to tell specific stories. They can submit stories about certain urban issues that they consider very important here.
One of the reasons that the Urban Stories Festival was created is that journalists lack interest in writing about cities, because they don’t see what impact urban journalism can have on the actual state of things. However, projects like Citiscope demonstrate that cities are full of stories that have to be told, and that these stories can change a lot of things in urban environments.


Citiscope is an Internet platform that shares urban stories with ordinary readers and delivers important information for “public officials, administrators and decision-makers of cities worldwide”. As the website states, it’s main focus is stories about urban innovations, “new ideas for improving cities and the well-being of the people who live in them”. The stories categorized as “solutions journalism” are submitted by any local journalists directly to the editor. If the story meets the requirements, it gets published on the website. Citiscope has articles about the Nordic region implementing a New Urban Agenda, new tools to help local authorities realize the full scope of resource use, Baltimo re using the Sustainable Development Goals to improve the city, and many more. The website encourages local journalists to look for cases like these and share them with the world. Just like the previously described projects, Citiscope helps people connect to improve cities with their own efforts and with help from governments, which now have a great source of information concerning urban issues and ways of solving them.
Ewa Scheifes: It’s a platform for city storytelling. We had two of Citiscope’s journalists visit us. They concentrate on how you can create impact and how you can have local solutions for global goals or global issues. The platform is a good example of true journalism, and it’s a good way of viewing urban journalism. Sustainability is one of their main subjects.


Transmedia project
Future Cities is a transmedia project based on data collection and documenting the stories of the people that live in specific cities that are working on improving them. All the material is published on the website for visitors to explore.

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Basically, it’s a project that consists of stories about people renovating their own cities. The project includes a five-part web documentary, print stories, and various events about Kinshasa, Lima, Yangon, Medellín and Addis Ababa (will be published in September 2017). It focuses on cities that are rapidly developing and have already achieved a lot, and these are not cities that you hear a lot about. For instance, Medellín is only associated with the TV show Narcos on Netflix, which is not the best association its citizens would like others to have for their hometown. These cities use their potential, so these are the stories that will make viewers look at these places from a completely new perspective. The photographer Yvonne Brandwijk and the journalist Stephanie Bakker go to the cities that may be booming in 2025 or 2050. They collect stories about cities that are not talked about much, but that have the potential to become extremely important in the future due to their technological urban development. They make photos and videos and put them on their interactive website to show these cities and the ways they are being developed.
Ewa Scheifes: “This was interesting, because, first of all, what they are doing is actual storytelling. They combine different disciplines on one platform to create a new perspective on cities, especially the cities that are considered developing or cities that are associated with something negative. They wanted to show the other side of such cities. And I think that Future Cities has a really big impact, both on national and international levels. It was an interesting discussion, because there were quite a few people with a Latin American background in the audience, so it raised some interesting questions: how do you frame the city you live in, what does it mean for the people that live there, how do they feel about the city, and do they feel ownership of their hometown?”

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