In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michel de Certeau describes everyday modes of action as a ‘kind of rhetoric that leaves behind not only material, visible traces in space, but also invisible ones’. De Certeau’s grammatological approach reformulates concepts of socially marked spaces, which subsequently contributed to theorising the paradigm of the readable city.
Like Bahktin, de Certeau is interested in the power of narrative and story. Stories, dreams, histories and myths, de Certeau argues, connect people to particular places and make place concrete and inhabitable. These narratives generate an imaginary, poetic geography that haunts the abstract city of street maps and development plans, and makes it socially meaningful. Like Lefebvre, de Certeau talks of spatial practices and the production of space. Whereas Lefebvre was interested in representations of space in relationship to knowledge and power structures, de Certeau focuses on the practices within that structure. His widely know example of this in his essay Walking the City:
“First, if it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities and interdictions, then the walker actualises some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements.” Michel de Certeau
De Certeau’s concept of spatial production suggests a mutually constitutive relationship between using urban space, figured as ‘walking’, and telling urban stories: both ‘read and write the other’. This embodied and subjective experience of the city is poetic in nature taking the form of the voice, whereas Lefebvre’s is more political, presupposing on the body. This textuality of urban space creates an elusive, opaqueness that cannot be wholly captured or made transparent by the ‘bird’s-eye view logics of cartography, planning, governance or quantitative study’
Following de Certeau’s theory on the production of space suggests that stories rather than maps and statistics are more useful for building people’s connection to their own communities and as such may be useful additions to a planner’s toolbox, especially in relation to questions of community engagement and social sustainability.