The Urban and the Aboriginal

1 07 2009

I must admit to having a rather limited understanding of the Aboriginal experience in Canada. Certainly I know some of the history, at least how it is told from the perspective of our majority culture. And I know from observation a part of the current urban Aboriginal experience. which appears dysfunctional and troubled. But I would like to know more.

I am currently reading John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, his paean to Canadian identity. His description of the dominant culture’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples does not present Canada as a very fair country at all, but it is instructive, and in fact exhorts us to stop pitying and/or denigrating these people, as this is not helpful behaviour, and rather just serves to reinforce the juvenile, subordinate position we have placed them in over the last few centuries. His description of their predicament invokes a definition of the rest of Canada as “urban” and aloof from nature, versus the Aboriginal idea of humans as an integral and inseparable part of nature.

As for what doesn’t work on some reserves, that has to do with the artificial imposition from outside of an urban philosophy, one in which humans are the chosen species. It is the failure of that urban view that has fuelled the environmental movement. So reserves were first pushed to integrate an inappropriate urban concept. They were then condemned, more or less by the same people, for complying.

More precisely, the southern, urban, human-centred “environmental consciousness” is, in the words of the Canadian Museum of Civilization curator Stephen Augustine, “new to Aboriginal society.” Many of these isolated communities had already been struggling for decades to adjust to the bad situations in which they had had to settle because the settlers had taken their land. Then they had to struggle to make sense of the artificial and inappropriate structure imposed on their communities. Then the residential school system was imposed to destroy their societal and family structures. On top of that, the architecture and planning made available to them or simply imposed by Indian and Northern Affairs involved the worst of ideas from poor 1960s southern suburbs. These were literally dropped into the near North or the Arctic, the boreal forest, the barrens or the tundra. What then followed was a sudden influx into these small isolated settlements of waves of urban junk and urban junk food and urban garbage. And we shouldn’t forget the pretentious imposition by provincial ministries of education of a standard urban approach to schooling in communities that will never have road access, let alone be urban. All of this has been deeply destabilizing. Several generations of residential school graduates were then expected to run their communities in large part according to inappropriate urban criteria, without any of the managerial training linked to these artificially imposed approaches.

With so many layered challenges to a way of life that was accorded no value and allowed no space to operate, physically or socially, by a dominant and urban culture (i.e. highly structured, specialized, technological and centralized), it seems no surprise that Aboriginal cultures have struggled mightily to reassert themselves, or that so many of their members have become lost in the cities to alcohol, drug abuse and the other dark temptations of urban culture. But Saul argues that this urban view of Aboriginals, for a great many Canadians their only view, is an unfair and distorted perception.

People who concentrate on what doesn’t work in Aboriginal communities usually haven’t been in any. True, some are in crisis. But lots work very well. I’ve seen many of these. True, some have problematic leadership. But from what I’ve seen, the rising Aboriginal leadership is as good as and often superior to its equivalent in non-Aboriginal communities. After all, they have had to find their way through challenges and crises most other Canadian leaders have not had to face.

I am an urbanist. I love cities and think they have much to offer. So, it is somewhat surprising for me to come across an indictment of greater Canadian society defined as a conflict between urban and non-urban mindsets. Of course, it is less the physical city and more the bureaucratic, philosophical and societal construct of the city that Saul is putting up in opposition here. But I see the logic of the metaphor, and I understand clearly (how can one not) the indictment of this “urban” and paternalistic approach to dealing with Aboriginals, and all the damage it has caused through its inappropriateness and insensitivity to Aboriginal cultures.

Today being Canada Day, proud Canadian though I am, I thought I would share this alternative perspective on Canadianism. We often, pointing to the history we wrote for ourselves, pat ourselves on the back for having dealt with the Aboriginal peoples better than our neighbours to the south. We negotiated with them rather than fought with them, we say. How good of us. How noble. Except that the way we interpreted those negotiations was not fair and we have, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, marginalized them as members of Canadian society ever since. I think Canada is a wonderful country, perhaps the best, and in many respects a fair country as Saul goes on to describe in his book. But Canada is not a perfect country. On a day like today I think it is important to reflect on our failures as we also celebrate our successes.

(All quotes from pages 81 and 82 of A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul, Viking Press, 2008.)


The Needs of Strangers

2 02 2009

Since Michael Ignatieff is the new leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, and might conceivably become Prime Minister one day, I decided to look into his writing a bit. He’s been a writer, a historian, an academic, a cultural personality, and is obviously a man of intelligence, so the potential for interesting reading seemed high. I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been reading his 1984 book The Needs of Strangers, a romp through the history of western thinking regarding the responsibility of society to its members, and the nature of human need and desire. I know, heady stuff. I wear nerdy t-shirts in my spare time, and I also read nerdy books, what can I say?

If he can apply the same sort of analytical rigor to politics as he has to the subject of this book, then he’s pretty much got my vote already. Some of his observations have been really interesting. Discussing belonging, fraternity and the idea of citizenship in our modern, fractured society (circa 1984, but to my mind even more relevant today) he offers this:

“…our language has not caught up with modernity. We still think of belonging as permanence, yet all our homes are transient. Who still lives in the house of their childhood? Who still lives in the neighborhood where they grew up? Home is the place we have to leave in order to grow up, to become ourselves. We think of belonging as rootedness in a small familiar place, yet home for most of us is the convulsive arteries of a great city. Our belonging is no longer to something fixed, known and familiar, but to an electric and heartless creature eternally in motion.”

The framing of the city as an “electric and heartless creature” seems to me to sell the city short, but the descriptions are evocative. And this is something I have struggled with as a planner-on-the-move, going away for university and now attempting a move to a city “eternally in motion”. Is there not a conflict between my desire to be rooted in place, to plan for places that I am fully connected to and have intimate knowledge of, and this desire to live the life I want to live, in a place that is entirely new and exciting? I seem to want both.

Luckily, Mr Ignatieff also tells me:

“Modern secular humanism is empty if it supposes that the human good is without internal contradiction. These contradictions cannot be resolved in theory, only in practice.”

So, I can have both. And he might become Prime Minister, so he must know what he’s talking about. Okay, but seriously, he’s captured something here that we have either never come to fully understand, or are just too nostalgic to fully embrace. As planners we seem unerringly interested in the creation of a sense of belonging, and yet there are few, if any, uniting narratives of belonging in our lives these days. Religion doesn’t unify us anymore, intense patriotism has been discredited, and our consumable culture is intimately personalized, with most advertising prompting us to define ourselves as unique individuals. 

We are awash in communities of interest, but those communities are rarely geographically-based.

Shantytowns: Successful Social Environments?

8 01 2009

Happy New Year! A few things that have come my way in the last few days have related to shantytowns or slum areas, both as planning inspiration and a source of reflection. The first, a short piece on Good/Magazine about architect Teddy Cruz designing an affordable housing project in San Diego that takes physical and functional cues from shantytowns in Tijuana, Mexico. The 30-unit project will offer homes that are “jammed together, with any leftover space commandeered by taco stands, market stalls, and gathering places”. The rationale offered is that shantytowns, while being the loci of highly-concentrated poverty, offer a rich and supportive social environment.

Without knowing the urban context within which such a project will be built, it is impossible to say how successful such a small project will be in its hoped-for role as a center of social activity. Slums, in my experience, are densely-packed agglomerations of humanity. The argument can obviously and easily be made that they are too dense, considering their characteristic dearth of amenity and public services. Regardless, if density can be a positive aspect of shantytowns in terms of the vibrancy it offers, how could a 30-unit development ever hope to generate a similar social environment? It also seems odd to me that Cruz talks about gathering spaces in shantytowns, as my experience has been that such areas are usually just a warren of narrow pathways and cheek-by-jowl huts, the only spaces staying unoccupied for long being garbage dumps or drainage channels (sometimes one and the same). Perhaps Tijuana shantytowns are less chaotically and compactly built than Mumbai slums?

The idea is intriguing nonetheless. Architecturally, there seems no reason that we need to be wedded to the modernist ideal of straight lines of construction and highly-formalized social spaces. From a planning perspective, mixing homes and places of business in an intentionally social environment has been an increasingly orthodox ideal since Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life, but rarely does the ideal seem to be successfully put into practice. So perhaps emulating the organically created environments of economically impoverished but socially vibrant shantytowns is just the ticket.

To seesaw back again in my discussion, however: one wonders whether the concept idealizes shantytown social life a bit unrealistically. Boingboing also linked to the piece and a comment from “Guidodavid” there declared gross naïveté on the part of the architect:

“[A shantytown] allows plenty of unwanted social contact that gets on your nerves. Have he ever lived sharing the same bedroom with 5 more people? Or the bathroom with 10 more? Maybe it is an overreaction, but to me, that live surrounded by shanty town, and that can see its hideous effects, someone to stand up and call this a good thing is deeply disturbing.”

Honestly, I am skeptical that this project, considering its small scale, will ultimately recreate either the best or the worst social aspects of shantytowns and slum areas. But I would still be very interested to stroll through it a few years down the road to see the results.

The other shantytown observations came my way from a co-worker, currently on leave for a year with her husband and children, and spending the time living in Namibia and India. They shift to India later this month, but Sue had this to say about Namibian neighborhoods on her travel blog:

“There are mostly white neighbourhoods – usually right along the beach, then coloured neighbourhoods – next to the white neighbourhoods with not such nice houses and very little landscaping, and then there are black neighbourhoods that are usually on the edges of the town and have shanty houses.  I find it difficult to see the substandard shanty areas.  Though from an urban planning perspective, they are at least walkable, there is street life, and there seems to be a real sense of community.  Hopefully, eventually neighbourhoods will be more integrated here.”

Lawrence (Beasley) of Arabia

28 10 2008

Like California cousins L.A. and San Francisco, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are poised to become two diametrically-opposed peas in a geographic pod, at least as far as their urban form is concerned.

Everyone must have an idea in their heads of Dubai. It seems very much like an Arabian Las Vegas to me: everything absurdly bigger and brighter than anywhere else (the tallest skyscraper, the largest indoor ski hill, a hotel shaped like a giant sail). It’s bold, but the place seems to be out of proportion to people in every way and, when you throw in the ridiculous car-dependency of the place, probably not very livable. I honestly don’t know for sure, as I’ve never been, but I’m not quite sure if I really want to go, either. Would it be worth a visit halfway across the world just so I could be gapingly horrified at what I saw?

On my last flight to San Francisco I came across this article in En Route Magazine about Abu Dhabi, the city down the coast, taking a very different path. Abu Dhabi hired Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s former Director of Planning, to come up with a development plan. His first order of business was to convince the Sheik to scrap plans for a 27-lane freeway. Sounds like a good day’s work to me.

It’s hard to say at this point how successful an alternative to the Dubai model will be in Abu Dhabi, but I have to hope for it. A video you can find on the Squint/Opera website visually illustrates the conceptual idea (really slick! well worth watching!). Beasley’s plan proposes an intriguing identity for the city:

“Abu Dhabi has the rare opportunity to offer a special combination of features in its urban identity: an authentic and safe but also progressive and open Arab city; a personality garnered from the desert and the sea; a traditional way of life but with the latest 21st century options; and a place of business but also of government and culture. The city should be defined as much by the natural islands and dunes surrounding it as the infrastructure, streets, and homes to be developed.”

If it lives up to this vision, maybe a trip to the UAE would be worth it after all. Here’s a copy of the plan for those who are interested (5 Mb).

April 2009 update: Christopher Hume, architecture columnist for the Toronto Star, recently wrote a really interesting critique of Dubai and its “ruin-in-waiting” form of urban development.

Bird’s Eye View

13 10 2008

A residential subdivision in Lewis Farms, West Edmonton.

I was lucky enough to get to go up in a helicopter last week for work. What an amazing experience. We were in the sky for over an hour and saw most of the part of the city that I work in, as well as a good chunk of the rest of it as well. You can cover a lot of ground in short period of time in a helicopter. It was great to be able to see everything at a glance, as we imagine it from maps, as compared to looking at a piece of land from the road, or even walking across it.

Edmonton sprawls a lot. It was an incredible perspective to see the city from, but you could also see how disconnected so much of it is, how circuitous the routes are, how same-y the residential areas, and even more so the industrial areas, are.

discarded Wal-Mart location on the left, and newly-opened Supercenter at the top of the photo.

South Edmonton Common: the discarded Wal-Mart location is at bottom left.

And the big box developments. Well. As we flew over South Edmonton Common, I noticed the empty parking lot of the Wal-Mart store. That seemed so odd to me: when would a Wal-Mart parking lot ever be empty? Then I remembered that they recently opened a second, much larger Wal-Mart further south in SEC. The old store is just sitting empty. Will it ever be taken over by some other company? How many retail stores need that much space? Big box developments are so poorly-designed: hostile to pedestrians, not even all that functional for drivers, and highly unadaptable to other uses. In the case of the old Wal-Mart store, it only took them seven years to discard it.

I took tons of photos from the helicopter. I’ll post more to flickr once I have a chance to edit them all.

Calling All People Places

5 10 2008

Two recent articles, one in the New York Times, and another in the Globe and Mail, extoll the virtues of living in inner city neighborhoods. The NYT article is pretty interesting in its discussion of the social aspects of neighborhoods populated with families of mixed incomes, age groups, ethnicities and religious affiliations. It also talks about the social utility of front porches and wide sidewalks a la New Urbanist thinking. The G&M article talks about trading a big suburban home with a pool for a smaller home in a neighborhood with character that cuts commuting time and offers easy access to restaurants, museums and all the other activities of the central city. The three families interviewed for that article had decided the trade was well worth it; they realized that with the city at their doorstep, they didn’t need all that extra junk and space anyway.

The last half century or so has seen the progressive privatization or degradation of communal spaces. Public shopping streets have given way to private shopping malls, which then gave way again to the communal wastelands of big box power centers. The development of carefully-designed public parks has shifted to the practice of setting aside playing fields in every district; functional but utterly devoid of charm, trading quantity for quality. In the meantime, houses have gotten larger and larger, even while shrinking family sizes mean fewer and fewer people live in each one.

Our spare time is spent either at home (usually in front of the TV or computer) or out shopping in environments that are designed to encourage spending, not to linger or engage with friends and neighbors. Well, unless those neighbors are shopping together. Our suburban neighborhoods, most often single-use expanses of residential development, have encouraged this.

People-watching or tv watching? I prefer the former.

People-watching or TV watching? I prefer the former.

Certainly, other things have contributed to it, too: the proliferation of cars that make it easy for us to go where we want whenever we want; the development of  technologies that have meant we no longer need to leave the home to find ways to pass the time. Watching a movie isn’t the same as engaging socially with other people, but it can seem like a satisfying substitute.

So, it is interesting to read articles arguing in support of a shift back to environments that value and encourage community, that are more conducive to real interactions between people, not mediated interactions that occur on a television or computer screen. Ultimately, community requires the interest of individuals to engage with others; no neighborhood will create that. But I think a poorly-designed neighborhood will certainly discourage people from trying.

Sad Lack of Beauty

24 09 2008

It is sad that in this age of wealth (really, we’re the richest we’ve ever been, at least in North America) we have such a lack of beauty in our public spaces.

On a trip to Prague this past spring, I saw this on the side of a building. How incredible. So gorgeous.

What do we spend all our wealth on? Home stereo systems? Cars? And for buildings, we slap on some stucco or some vinyl siding and go on our merry way.