Youth-led engagement processes transformed Thunder Bay’s waterfront.
Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.
Place-making is used to describe projects ranging from the design of playgrounds to the construction of condominiums. The term is splashed across promotional materials and discussed by panels of local leaders.
But as Canada struggles with whether the past 150 years are anything to celebrate, and questions the representation of Indigenous perspectives in the media, can place-making restore Indigenous presence to in urban spaces across the country?
The Indigenous Place Making Council thinks so. The non-profit organization aims to incorporate thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge into contemporary cities and towns through youth-led community engagement processes.
IPMC emerged from a waterfront revitalization project in Thunder Bay. The development of Prince Arthur’s Landing leveraged $130 million in public and private investment to reconnect the city with the shoreline. The 35-acre site now includes trails, picnic areas, a skating rink, and a cafe.
But it is the Spirit Garden that distinguishes Prince Arthur’s Landing from countless other attempts to create mixed-use neighbourhoods with waterfront views. Located on a headland that arcs into Lake Superior, the Spirit Garden was designed in collaboration with local Indigenous communities.
As a result, it brings together a traditional garden of sage, sweet grass, and cedar with coastal ecosystems and two iconic circles. Perched at the edge of the water, the Honouring Circle provides space to build a fire while the larger Gathering Circle invites multiple uses and has hosted weddings, theatre performances, and protests.
Ryan Gorrie was finishing up his architecture degree when he was invited to participate in a design charrette (a type of planning meeting) organized by architecture and planning firm Brook McIlroy as part of the project. Drawing on his own understanding of local First Nations communities, he played a key role in engaging Indigenous voices and designing the Spirit Garden. Since that time, he has become an associate at Brook McIlroy and a founding council member of IPMC.
Looking back on the project, Gorrie is particularly proud of the Gathering Circle, which “really embodies the multilayered Indigenous involvement.” While Gorrie led the design of the Gathering Circle, other Indigenous artists contributed as well. Randy Thomas created art for metal panels lining the base of the circle and George Price built bentwood structures to frame the space.
Sam Mukwa Kloetstra, a youth engagement specialist with IPMC, remembers visiting the Spirit Garden even before he became involved with the organization and thinking: “I’m in Thunder Bay and I didn’t even know that there was this kind of beauty here.”
But it’s not just about what spaces look like or the activities they enable, Indigenous place-making is grounded in process. According to Kloetstra, IPMC projects all start with identifying local youth and engaging them in a process of co-design. However, that process evolves differently every time. In Gorrie’s words, “Your idea is going to change no matter what, the engagement process is what forms it.”
For Kloetstra, Indigenous place-making means “seeing myself reflected in the community that I’m in.” Gorrie confirms a commitment to the next generation, saying, “There’s a real sense that restoring culture visually is important.”
Many of the lessons learned from the Spirit Garden in Thunder Bay are now being applied in Toronto and across the country. IPMC is currently working with Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) on an Indigenous Business District and other projects are also in the works downtown.
Kloetstra summarizes his approach to connecting with Indigenous youth saying, “I meet people where they’re at.” Given that 60 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban areas, it’s a statement that could apply to many more city building initiatives in the future.