Planning and the art of stirring

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“The stew is no good without a little stirring…”

In my childhood, I was frequently on the butt-end of a Macedonian proverb from my grandparents.  The rough yet rolling rhythm of its Slavic phonetics, “ya-di, ne boo-richkai” still fascinates me.

The proverb translates roughly as, “eat, don’t mess around”. Like all good proverbs, it presents a rich and adaptable metaphor that crosses contexts as I would learn all too often.

The more literal translation of this saying though is, “eat, don’t stir”, and it’s the literal I’ve come to be most interested in.  

I visited my grandfather today and asked him what mischief he was stirring up.  “Nothing,” he said, before asking me about work.

“I’ll go and stir a few things up later on,” I said.  After a brief exchange, he looked at me with a glint in his eye and said, “but the stew is no good without a little stirring”.

Wise words – and an essential companion to the original proverb.

Any cook will know the effect that stirring a pot has, what it brings to the surface. I want to use this as a metaphor for planning and working in place.

I’m not talking about vicious, rapid stirring – but the artful kind. The type that makes or breaks a risotto, that treats the ingredients with care so that they might be coaxed into forming something bigger.

In my work in small town planning, for example, it’s the gentle, dedicated stirring  (and the occasional prod) that brings stories, ideas, hopes and dreams to the surface. This stirred concoction is integral to the body, flavour and spice of the planning endeavor – without the stirring, the substance of the dish could merely burn and stick to the pot.

Be ready for unexpected kicks of spice, but revel in the wonder of the stories, ideas and precious knowledge that comes forward.

Talking poetically, I’m putting forward the spoon as an essential part of any planner’s tool-kit.  Dig beneath the surface.  Stir to test conventional – and your own – understandings.  Fold new ingredients into the mix.  Bring elements together into a grater whole.  For, if we consider a plan as being composed of many parts, it is in the stirring and folding of those ideas, hopes, actions and fragments into a greater whole that effective plans are formed.

When on the ground engaging and researching (which as a planner, placemaker or designer you already do, right?) gently stir and fold in ideas and observations to the pot and keep testing the work as you go.  Notice how the layers mingle as you work. 

When you’re mapping out issues and analysing the landscape, keep digging, stirring and folding. Of course, don’t be afraid of gentle stirring in the name of provoking healthy discussion or bringing forward local knowledge. And, when you’re writing, keep stirring as you would a risotto so the ideas, dreams, research and newly formed knowledge keep coalescing into something bigger.

For me, this process of stirring and folding has become a constant part of planning and working in place.  Planners and placemakers: Keep your spoons to hand.  Become exponents of artful stirring. 

Got some metaphors of your own or thoughts on artful stirring?  Comment away!

-Matt Novacevski, February 2019

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