Posted January 23rd 2013 at 2:54 pm by
in Storytelling Course 2013

“Storytelling for Planners” Roundup from the Instructors

From January 7th-10th 2013, we taught an experimental course called People, Planning, and the Story in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Who are we? Aditi Mehta is a PhD student in the Planning Department; Stefanie Ritoper is the Communications Director at UCLA Labor Center; Alexa Mills is the Director of Media Projects at MIT Community Innovators Lab (and also the founder of this blog). All of us earned masters degrees in City Planning at MIT, though at different times. Each of us has spent several years planning and publishing various media projects.

It was a class about narratives: how to find, create, analyze, and share them. We were especially excited to facilitate this course because storytelling often gets overlooked in city and regional planning. Other times it gets a one-off nod — something like, “We need to know the story of this neighborhood”, but with no details on how to learn or tell that story. We believe that listening and looking for stories is an art to be studied. Stories can help anyone understand a place, policy, or person in a way that technical data or physical plans don’t allow on their own.

To facilitate learning and include more people than those who were inside the classroom, we employed a number of social media tools that were open to the public. These included:

• an open reading / looking / listening list and syllabus for anyone who wanted to follow along;

a blog series where students shared their reflections and experiences each day;

• our class etherpad where we took collaborative notes and brainstormed;

• our page where we collected audio stories about planning jargon; and

• our twitter feed where we tweeted with people in other cities and right upstairs from us using the hashtag #planningstories.


Ellen Daoust and Lawrence Barriner II call in a fictional story they just wrote to Photo by Stefanie Ritoper.

Public interest in participating in this course via social media turned out to be far greater than we expected. After Alexa released the routine tweet and facebook post with a link to our reading list, she saw an unusual buzz grow around her small marketing effort. Less than a week before the class, people who wanted to participate online started filling out our course application. We never imagined that online participants would complete that application. It was exciting for us and everyone in the classroom to see outside people sharing their thoughts on Twitter and logging in to the etherpad.

It took us four months to plan the class. Since Stefanie lives in Los Angeles, we relied on e-mail and marathon google hangout sessions to come up with a curriculum and discuss the kind of environment we hoped to create for students.

To see it come to life felt surreal in the moment. We got lucky with a fantastic group of students — each more creative and insightful than the next — who represented six different universities, were willing to try any new technology, and delved into their own story projects.



Diana Lempel works with Alexa Mills (top) and Aditi Mehta (bottom) on her story about her neighborhood turkeys. Photos by Stefanie Ritoper.

It was inspiring to watch each student become willing to trust one another and us, too. That’s the thing with telling a good story — you have to get personal and you have to be honest. We wanted students to be able to do that, but we had no idea if they would.

Be sure to see, listen, and read the students’ final story projects:

A Place to Start by Lawrence Barriner II

Dorchester Desert by Ellen Daoust

Notes from a Nursing Manager by Laurel Donaldson

Looking into the MIT Glass Lab by Amy Glasmeier

My Avatar is a Turkey by Diana Lempel

Two Neighborhoods, One Line by Norman Ornelas Jr.

A Stranger Encounter by Marcy Ostberg

¡Mándame la señora! by Lissy Romanow

I Had My Heart Set On It by Ruth Sappelt

My First Seizure by Anonymous

If you have any thoughts or questions about the class, or you want to replicate it at your school or organization, please contact us at or @MITCoLab.

Aditi Mehta, Alexa Mills, and Stefanie Ritoper wrote this post together. Photos by Stefanie Ritoper.

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