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Urban Planners usually rely on traditional technocratic methods for collecting data with which they develop plans for housing, transportation, economic and community development. These methods include census information and other large quantitative data sets collected by both private and public agencies, interviews, focus groups, GIS, and more recently, community mapping. They rely on verbal or written communication or “objective” observation.

These kinds of data are laden with race and gender biased information. The data from these traditional methods also lack the broad connectivity of identity, time, space, and historical diversity. These methods are vestiges of Eurocentric understandings of knowledge creation as objective and universal. While these data can be helpful, they are only part of the story of how we understand the world and how it operates. They only tell us a partial story of everyday life in cities.

The data gleaned from body map storytelling yields a completely different kind of data that documents time, space, and relationships in the form of creative images produced in collective spaces. These data can enable planners to better understand time, space, and relationships and the related feelings, emotions, and sensations. These data are co-created in a way that makes them very real and relatable.

Origins of Body Map Storytelling and An Example

Body map storytelling was originally a process for doctors to make sure they had mutual understandings of women and men’s bodily functions and anatomy with communities that were not their own. The technique emerged in the 1990s as a powerful therapeutic process used in South Africa with women who were HIV positive. For those women, the process of drawing a life size silhouette and then drawing the sensations, emotions, and feelings of being HIV positive on their bodies, as represented by the silhouette, was a way of unloading some of their emotional and physical pain. They were able to tell their stories visually and explain their visceral experiences in a way that was both aesthetically beautiful and cathartic. Some of these body maps have been framed and are displayed in the Constitution Court in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 2012, public health academics in Toronto adapted body map storytelling as a method for uncovering the health trajectories of undocumented immigrants. They were able to visually obtain data that interviews and focus groups missed. New data emerged by asking respondents to draw, paint, collage and depict with symbols, images, patterns, and colors their engagement with health professionals and their health status prior to and while in Canada. Not only did the researchers use these maps as data to illustrate the state of public health for undocumented immigrants in Toronto, they also demonstrated a way for social scientists to engage with bodily feelings, emotions, and sensations that have been at arm’s length for non-medical academics and professionals. The manual they produced is available here.

I began using body map storytelling in 2013, and subsequently have used body mapping at conferences, for planning projects, and as a teaching tool. Two of my long-term projects, one in Chicago and one in Norristown, Pennsylvania, deal with the problem of making communities safe, sustainable, and economically viable for immigrant women. A primary quality of life issue facing immigrant women is violence from intimate partners and the state. The crisis of violence against women in the US has been made more visible by the #metoo movement. Immigrant women are more vulnerable to violence since their status often prevents them from speaking out, and their experience with police, courts, prisons, and ICE often subject them to additional violence. Women who experience violence are both scared and ashamed. They can become paralyzed, and too often social workers and domestic violence providers embrace a practice that relies on individual fixes rather than providing avenues for agency addressing the structural underpinnings of this violence. By using body map storytelling in both Chicago and Norristown, women were able to overcome paralysis. They concretely depicted the feelings, emotions, and sensations of the violent encounters. Through group discussions, they were able to put the violent experiences in a context and see the structural features in the community that facilitate violence. They were also able to draw strengths in many different places on their body maps: their mouths, legs, shoulders, hearts, brains and hands. In a collaborative process they were able to show, name, and demonstrate their pain, but also show their strength. They could see it in themselves and in their co-mappers.

Through this process the problems became clearer and solutions also started to flow. For example, in Norristown, the status quo was disrupted by a group of undocumented Mexican women as they created body maps. Each woman in the group called Mujeres Luchadoras (fighting women) described the attributes of her map. It was very emotional for everyone in the group. The hardship, the physical pain, the mental anguish was palatable. But when we finished and sat down to share a meal, the conversation shifted to what can we do? Over the months and now years, the group planned political action at the Burks country ICE detention center, they started a coalition that included men to both deal with the physical and emotional stresses facilitated by an increasing anti-immigrant atmosphere, and started to develop workshops on everything from knitting, to healthy cooking, to housing cooperatives and community farming. They spoke at town meetings, met with police, and worked with NGOs to help with the legal and organizational issues of starting a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) that would hold their housing cooperative. The body mapping seemed to facilitate the raising of a collective consciousness. It unleashed power and collaborative action. Taking care of bodies through organic community farming, nutrition workshops, and a monthly acupuncture clinic focused their work on feeling healthy, which supports the political action work they do on economic development, housing, and ending violence. This group of women and their coalition partners sought solutions to multiple urban problems. Body map storytelling facilitated a process for them to focus on physical, emotional, and social wellbeing.

Planners and Body Map Storytelling

By using body map storytelling, planners can begin to destabilize the hold of Eurocentric data collection methods that rely heavily on “objective” truths that assume a universal vision of experience. Adding body map storytelling to the toolbox of planners opens up so many possibilities to engage with visceral data that are currently absent from technocratic methods. By ignoring gendered and raced bodies and their feelings, histories, and relationships, planners are missing an opportunity to embrace what to me is an essential part of life in cities that could aid in changing the status quo.

By using body map storytelling, planners are able to access different kinds of data and participate in a process where they may become vulnerable by gaining access to visual data that can touch the emotions of the viewer. By introducing body map storytelling to the planners’ tool box, planners will have a new non-technocratic method that could lead to societal transformation. It is much easier to ignore or place a low priority on issues you cannot feel, issues that are represented by numbers or words, absent feeling. Often, when placing the focus on emotions and sensation, some problems come alive to us. Their immediacy and dimensions become clear. With that clarity, remedies can be developed. When we can feel violence against women, one of the wickedest problems facing our cities, we can do something about it. When we feel the fear of living in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant, we understand it better and can seek appropriate mitigation. Two simultaneous processes make this transformation possible. Foremost is the ability to more fully immerse oneself in the predicament. That immersion opens pathways to creativity. One can view issues differently, and the collaboration with body map storytellers adds even more energy and creativity. Second, visceral data enables planners to share the broad magnitude and urgency of problems more directly with politicians and policymakers, which could facilitate policy changes and funding.

Body map storytelling enables planners to transcend emotionless data that can flatten everyday experience in cities. It directly seeks and visually captures emotions, sensations, and feelings that have been virtually absent in traditional planning practice, but comprise a significant part of everyone’s life in cities. Paying attention to emotions, sensations, and feelings could transform the way we think about planning for cities. The data from body map storytelling enables planners to consider the broad range of ways that people feel cities, their historical ties to communities, and their relationships in those communities, while also providing insight into how diversity impacts the way people feel in cities.

Elizabeth L. Sweet teaches in the Department of African Studies, Urban and Community Development, University of Massachusetts Boston



We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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