By: Peter Soland

Image copyright NVision Insight Group Inc.

The congress and the presentations were a cry for acknowledgment and engagement with regard for the self-determination of Innuit and First Nations communities; but it also was a reminder to landscape architects about how the land is understood and cherished from the perspective of indigenous peoples, and how to work with different communities to engage a dialogue that can promote alternative forms of knowledge about Nature we don’t always grasp beyond unfortunate clichés.

As sensitive designers, we might all agree that land is not a resource in an economic sense; however, a lesson I was reminded of, and that strikes at the heart of our profession, was articulated by most presentations: as a professional discipline and practice, landscape architecture, just as urbanism, is a form of colonization. As the title of the Congress makes clear, the three-day event was meant to remind Canadian landscapes architects about untold histories and oft neglected responsibilities… The talks were provocative and enlightening.

The Kinngaaluk Territorial Park Master Plan was one project and collaborative process that was shared by NVision Insight Group’ Chris Grosset and his trainee Naomi Ratte, a young indigenous landscape architect. The project was the recipient of the 2018 CLSA National Award for Planning and Analysis and Large-Scale Design. In fact, the whole idea of a park was upended in the process as the design team and local community came together to question what meaning a park could have in the Belcher Islands, and what master planning can mean for empowering indigenous communities in Nunavut beyond basic land management and tourism promotion. Rather than a national park as we might conceive it, the collaborative process secured the area as a seasonal harvesting territory, a living landscape, respecting the Inuit rights to the land and hunting practices that are essential to the survival of an authentic way of life. Planning and design took second stage to engaging the conflicts at the heart of different values we associate with land.

I was also struck by the term placekeeping which I had not heard prior to the congress. The concept challenges placemaking, a core concept in city building. The term was pronounced by Wanda Dalla Costa, of Redquill Architecture, member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, whose practice is directly engaged in co-designing with First Nations communities. She expressed how place-based expression through creative engagement practices (codesign workshops for instance) can address indigenous worldviews, ways of knowing and methodologies that can reveal the local narratives at the heart of place… and shape a holistic environment that is meaningful.

Not restricted in any way to the sphere of indigenous design, placekeeping is rooted in the idea of the city as community, not as an economic organism. It seeks to avert gentrification and real estate speculation. It also means assuring the long-term relevance and maintenance of place for communities. According to the American grassroots action network USDAC, placekeeping is “the active care and maintenance of a place and its social fabric by the people who live and work there. It is not just preserving buildings but keeping the cultural memories associated with a locale alive, while supporting the ability of local people to maintain their way of life as they choose.” The idea is fundamental to many inner-city communities but also to First Nations’ quests for affirmation or outright preservation, through the acknowledgment of the histories and narratives that are buried beneath all our cities.

As urban designers we promote placemaking as a concept full of the positive values we associate with good city building: creating and multiplying qualified public space to promote contact between people, gatherings and a shared sense of community. When well designed, placemaking is rooted in the history of the specific site, guaranteeing that the form of the city builds upon itself in a meaningful way. When well designed, placemaking is based on a clear understanding about how people use a specific site and their bond to its identity.

But placemaking and generic urban design can also seem unauthentic; one that easily falls into a perverse practice that continuously shapes our consumeristic society while pretending to engage in the communities it seeks to support through good design. It’s meaningful that a Congress dedicated to reconciliation with our territory’s first cultures would provide such a sound lesson challenging our contemporary design practices. Placekeeping: sometimes it takes only one word to switch one’s perception of a given reality.

Following the Congress, the CSLA Reconciliation Advisory Committee has drafted a Statement on Landscape Architecture and Reconciliation (read here It is founded on the three pillars – Acknowledgment, Awareness and Engagement – a vision and four principles:

  • Recognizing Indigenous landscapes

  • Respecting Indigenous Peoples of Canada

  • Being Inspired by Indigenous landscape stewardship

  • Showing Leadership

The 2019 annual CSLA Congress has propelled reconciliation into our professional consciousness.

On a personal note, the experience was inspiring and rewarding. It was a fitting theme as I have recently had the opportunity to engage in a design project with a the Kahnawake community near Montreal. Our firm, civiliti, has the privilege to accompany the City of Montreal and the Mohawk community of Kahnawake in a co-design process aiming at a unique urban landscape / art project / outdoor museum that will be installed along the forthcoming Peel Street revitalization project that stretches from the Lachine Canal to the Mount Royal mountain (2020-2022).

In 2016, in downtown Montreal, as construction workers were digging through the intersection of Peel and Sherbrooke streets, they came across beds of undisturbed soil with relics of an Iroquoian village. Archeologists were quickly called to the site as were Kahnawake band officials. For a moment, it was believed the site could be the remains of the furtive Hochelaga, the mythic village visited upon by Jacques Cartier in 1535. While not the case from an archeological perspective, the discovery has spurred nonetheless a collaborative effort to mark the archeological site, commemorate and celebrate the millennia-old presence of the First Nation’s communities that lived on and cherished the Island of Montreal. Note that from an indigenous perspective, as Chief Christine Zachary Deom quickly retorted to the archeologist during a preliminary workshop, the idea of a mythic, founding village, and the excitement surrounding the discovery, or generally the idea of archeology as we conceive it, does not reflect an indigenous worldview or concept of knowledge. Challenging and refreshing!

The conversations between the archeologist and the Chief initiated the design process and helped shape the defining spatial and physical concept around a dialogue of differing worldviews. The project is an exciting and complex endeavor as well as a meaningful collaborative process. I look forward to seeing the project take shape as I continue to ponder placekeeping as a lesson, both from an indigenous standpoint and from a larger urban design perspective and practice.