Visual Narratives for Participatory Urbanism: Documentation as Intervention

Visual Narratives for Participatory Urbanism: Documentation as Intervention

urbz has started initiatives in Europe, that combine ethnographic participation with visual storytelling to accompany, facilitate, or initiate urban planning, heritage, and transformation projects.

These initiatives include projects that we completed last year such as the IFRC Park project and an ongoing one  - Mon Tiers Lieu - led by Clarissa Pelino and Lucie Mesuret. 

Children's workshop for the IFRC Park project

Documentation workshop with children for the IFRC Park project

  The projects are based on a methodology referred to as  “Documentation as Intervention”, derived from an approach outlined in anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s essay “Right to Research”. The author points out that by inviting civic actors who are not institutionally involved in research practices, and facilitating them to do research in their own contexts – one is initiating a series of interventions. This is because, the production of knowledge of a civic context by people who are involved in it, equips them with tools of shaping their context. 

The methodology of “Documentation as Intervention” is derived from the Neighbourhood Project where it was first articulated. It works with the convergence of professional and experiential knowledge to actively transform a context, through the process of producing new knowledge and perspectives. Documentation thus becomes interactive. The neighborhood becomes the field of engagement.

The methodology is predicated on the idea that every place is embedded with unique knowledge, narratives, and memories: about its geography, its economy, its built and natural environment and its histories. It is an “Invisible Archive” which is distinctive to each place and neighborhood. This Invisible Archive has an unrealized potential, known and shared by the place’s inhabitants and daily users, which tends to be ignored by urban planners and policy-makers.

In our visual documentation projects, urbz realizes a place’s potential through a process of storytelling, by orchestrating participation using a variety of media, primarily filmmaking. We activate this unique local knowledge through an ethnographic research approach, and make it tangible and shareable with a larger public through the production of films, videos, and graphic narratives, collectively created with local storytellers.

We realize projects on behalf of various actors that include municipalities, planning agencies, residents’ associations, private developers, activist groups, collectives, landowners, as well as our own initiatives. By partnering a professional media practitioner with local storytellers, and in cooperation with our clients and urban planners, we curate and organize the creation of a film, video or graphic narrative that can accelerate, accompany and catalyze a project to a higher degree of involvement with its inhabitants and users.  


The process typically includes: 

1. Conducting  ethnographic research

We realize a series of conversations (individual as well as collective) with different categories of people in the local community, with two main objectives:

To reveal and record the community’s knowledge, stories and histories and to identify the community’s best storytellers (people with knowledge about the neighborhood, artists, creative individuals, volunteers), who become partners in the process.

2. Producing a collective visual narrative

We mediate between the professional practitioner and the neighbourhood partner to start a creative collaboration. This yields an output that can be either a documentary project, or a fictional one (for urbz fiction is a unique way to imagine and convey possible futures, a natural ally for the activist or practitioner).

3. Sharing knowledge, fostering debate

We exhibit the film/output within the neighborhood, besides circulating the archive in other relevant places (for example, in similar urban contexts) by organizing screenings and through generating debate.

4. Using collective archives as project generators

The cumulative production of such output constitutes a collective archive. Archives are the first step of interventions. In the words of Appadurai they are “important vehicles for building the capacity to aspire among groups” ( The creation of a media product, a document, or film, about a place, is an act of collective imagination. It is the point where memory and desire meet.

In this way, the media projects we help create become the starting points for urban projects which aspire to involve the local community both in the understanding of a place, and its re-imagination.

Watch out for our posts and updates on our ongoing projects here!