Long stretches of industrial landscapes. Endless expansion of freeways and suburbia. Homogenous storefronts. Dilapidated storefronts. Islands of civic amenities surrounded by six-lane traffic. Gravel-covered parking lots everywhere you turn. Underused green spaces. Spartan sidewalks. Dust. Dirt. Trucks.
Listening to Vancouver-based landscape architect Greg Smallenberg give his lecture on reclaiming lost and forgotten urban spaces last Friday evening, I wanted to believe him in thinking that a city perpetually needs the derelict in order to inspire change. However, I couldn't quite accept that notion wholeheartedly when thinking specifically about Edmonton.
Smallenberg—who's made a name in turning wasted urban space such as dead zones below freeways into average inhabitable human spaces—hinges his practice on the notion of turning the incidental into the exceptional. Speaking largely to a room of architects and artists, with at least one city councillor taking notes, Smallenberg gave a series of examples of how civic intervention can reclaim spaces both temporarily and dramatically. From traditional examples such as New York City's High Line park and Melbourne's revitalization of its back-lane alleys, to guerilla examples of planting flowers in potholes and creating a movable forest consisting of shopping carts planted with trees, Smallenberg's examples pressed the idea that we need to see the potential in our existing spaces and engage these spaces with human activity.
There's a tendency to turn to art, or the idea of art, as the stand-in presence for human activity, as art in the broadest sense engages and enriches our perceptions of the world. But engaging in art and design alone is clearly not enough to provoke potential, as that art needs to consider its demographic in terms of traffic density, population diversity or what can be summed up as the lost space's relational engagement with its surroundings.
Looking at downtown alone, I think of spots like Beaver Hills Park or Churchill Square, public spaces that have undergone major renovations and still somehow fail to live up to their potential as civic centres. Formerly a derelict park used mostly for trafficking or using drugs, the tiny park on the corner of Jasper and 105 Street is today a leisurely layout with a mini-waterfall and small, rolling hills ideal for weekday picnics. Only, situated alongside two major corridors of busy automobile traffic, it's never a resting place that makes you want to linger. Its size remains more decorative than inviting, and the public art is more suited to a playground or at least near a bike path.
A few blocks east, the Square is sizable in scope and is making attempts with more sitting areas, but I still doubt if anyone ever proposes Churchill Square as a meeting place or thinks to go there as a social outing outside of a festival context.
What Edmonton has always lacked has been a year-round gathering place where one can just go and be socially engaged without participating in a framework of commerce. The battle may not actually be between public and private space, but about what we consider free spaces. Churchill Square is designed as a blank slate to host major events rather than welcome everyday citizens, and in redefining what derelict means in terms of civic engagement, spaces like the Square rank just as derelict in terms of everyday human engagement.
Exploring the potential of urban open spaces is not to just look at the forgotten or ignored, as those spaces are more often than not inhabited already, but inhabited by what has been deemed socially undesirable. While we continually redevelop our cityscape, we should first cater to the needs and desires of those walking the city streets rather than pander to the inflated projections of what may or may not come.
*First published in Vue Weekly