In On This Patch of Grass, the Hern-Couture family explores the question of ownership and enjoyment of Canada’s city parks.
Victoria Park is not unlike any neighbourhood park you would encounter in your city or community. It has a playground, a small field, and more notably, a bocce ball court. It is a small park, roughly the size of a city block, and is situated in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Grandview Woodlands near Commercial Drive, which is the city’s eclectic Little Italy neighbourhood.
The park is full of families playing with their children, older men playing bocce, young people hanging out, and people passing through to get to Commercial Drive. It means something unique to every one of these people, including Matt Hern, Selena Couture, Sadie Couture, and Daisy Couture, the authors of This Patch of Grass, a book that explores the politics of land ownership as it relates to Victoria Park, and all city parks.
Victoria Park bocce court, currently closed due to COVID -19 pandemic (photo: Jillian Glover).
The book poses challenging questions, such as whether city parks are really designed for everyone and how we can address complicated issues around park ownership and management while trying to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Each author of the Hern-Couture family seeks to answer these questions by examining them through the lens of their neighbourhood park. According to the authors:
“Like every park, Victoria Park contains so many stories, so much history, so many relationships…it is a vehicle for thinking about land occupation, the history of Vancouver, the uses of urban parks, and their quasi-spiritual claims to the natural world.”
Origins of the Urban Park: Pacifying the Chaos of the Industrial City
New York City’s Bryant Park in the 1930s (photo credit: unknown).
Parks are “particularly fertile places to talk about land,” says Matt Hern. He notes that people tend to speak of parks as unqualified good things. They are lionized as “natural oases” in cities, when they are actually as natural as the roads and buildings around them, and just as political.
Historically, parks were introduced as natural oases during the Industrial Revolution, when cities were considered polluted, cramped, disorderly, and deprived places. Nature was the antidote to the threat of disgruntled masses rioting against the city’s poor living and working conditions. But nature was also wild and untamed, so the answer was to introduce a peaceful orderly version, like a park, in the midst of this urban chaos.
City parks were originally manicured to be serene and uplifting, with gardens and foliage, pathways, fountains, and contemplative pools. These parks were supposedly created for everyone, but they were tools of displacement from their beginnings. New York’s Central Park displaced Seneca Village, a primarily African-American village, and more close to home, Vancouver’s Stanley Park displaced an Indigenous village called Xwayxway, where potlatches were held as late as 1875.
Parks as Colonial, Controlled Spaces
Italian game “Bocce” takes place in Victoria Park (photo credit: City of Vancouver).
Although city parks became commonplace as a balm to the confines of life in the industrialized city, they were also tightly controlled and regulated spaces.
“Park rhetoric deploys all kinds of depoliticized b.s. about how parks are open to all, when really they are extremely tightly controlled, monitored, and supervised in order to disallow certain behaviours and aggressively promote other activities – all of which is fine – all space needs to be regulated,” says Matt Hern. “But being open about that process is critical. Parks are currently overt displays of whiteness and coloniality. Facing that requires acknowledging it first and admitting there is a problem.”
We like to think city parks are open to everyone to act as they please. But in addition to presenting an orderly, controlled version of nature, city parks are designed to present “carefully structured renditions of what constitutes appropriate human behaviour.” The types of appropriate behaviour are predominantly white.
According to Matt, city parks are highly politicized, highly regulated spaces for ordering the “good urban subject: white, property-owning, productively employed, happily recreating and passively pacified.”
The idealized city park is one where people do only what the park is designed for: tennis in the tennis courts, children at the playground, soccer on the grass field, sitting on the benches, etc.
What about the people who challenge these social norms? For example, the skateboarder doing kickflips near the water fountain, the homeless person sleeping on the bench, or the teenagers drinking late at night on the playground swings?
One of the book’s authors,Sadie Couture, interviews a variety of people who use Victoria Park to discover the unique significance it plays in each person’s life. For a mother, it is a place she has watched her children grow up. For a teenager, it is a favourite hang out spot. For an elderly Italian man, it is a gathering place to play bocce with friends.
Daisy Couture’s 365-day photo essay of Victoria Park (photo credit: Daisy Couture).
“Victoria Park has a huge diversity of users who have differing and sometimes competing wants and needs around the use of the space,” said Sadie Couture. “Like most city parks, homeowners and more privileged park goers have an outsized presence and influence in decisions about what respectability means. While there are many differing understandings about who and what the park is for, only some understandings are validated by the city, the police, and the community at large.”
According to Sadie Couture, the answer is not to allow anarchy in our local parks, it’s a matter of making sure that park behaviour is managed in an equitable and just manner.
“I don’t think parks are currently too tightly regulated necessarily – it’s more a question of who is doing the regulating, who is the object of all that governance, and to what ends. More than that, parks and parks officials need to be less duplicitous about all this regulation,” said Matt Hern.
Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples
One of the groups that has historically been left out of this conversation on park usage and management is Indigenous peoples, who have tended to this land for millenia, prior to colonization.
Victoria Park is on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-waututh, and Squamish Nations. This means the land was not purchased, nor was a treaty negotiated, nor a war fought to change the status of the land. This is the case with most land throughout British Columbia, since there are 198 First Nations in the province and only 7 signed treaties.
Historically, Indigenous Peoples have been removed from their land, sent to residential schools, robbed of their cultural practices and ways of life. In Canada, reconciliation is happening at all levels to address these historic wrongs and chart a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
In This Patch of Grass, the Hern-Couture family suggest decolonization of city parks could be a significant act of reconciliation and a way to address the murky question of park ownership.
“Decolonization of our parks is the irreplaceable and inescapable first step for talking about commonality. If parks are supposed to improve us, surely that is the place to start.”
The Future of Park Stewardship
Vancouver Park Board hired Geordie Howe, Canada’s first municipal archaeologist (left) and Rena Soutar, a Reconciliation Planner (centre). The Reconciliation Planner consults widely with Indigenous leaders to ensure Indigenous history, heritage values, and memory practices are reflected in their policies and programs (photo credit: Vancouver Park Board).
In Selena Couture’s essay on the history of Indigenous peoples and land title in Victoria Park, she offers a hopeful metaphor of what future park stewardship with Indigenous peoples might look like.
“In the language of most Indigenous peoples of the Lower Mainland, the word for visitor is made up of the work “walk” and the suffix “alongside.” A visitor is one who walks alongside. This word guides my conception of how to behave – walking, a continual movement and present engagement with land that has minimal long-term impact, and alongside – in relation to the people who are already present and also in motion.”
I asked the Hern-Couture family what this metaphor of a visitor walking alongside Indigenous peoples could mean for the future of park stewardship.
“I think for us, to walk alongside the Indigenous people means a few things. On a personal level, it means that we first acknowledge our heritage as settlers in this place, and the discomfort and responsibility that comes with it. Then, we can move towards dismantling colonial structures and building up Indigenous communities and governance systems,” said Sadie Couture.
She notes that this would also involve first acknowledgement and education about the past and current inheritances that we all have in a settler-colonial society. And making the long-term commitment to changing our collective relationship to Indigenous peoples and the land.
“A good place to start would be learning from and listening to Indigenous communities who are connected to each particular park about what they envision, what their needs are, and what capacities they have.”
According to Selena Couture, this process would not involve institutions rapidly transferring all management and responsibility of parks, but rather remaining committed to these spaces, to healing these relations, and working collaboratively with Indigenous communities to figure out what makes sense.
“Successfully moving towards a different type of stewardship and management of parks is going to start with relationships, and beginning to forge those relationships so that we can work together on solutions.”
Jillian Glover is a communications professional who specializes in urban issues and transportation. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and writes about urban issues at her blog, This City Life.
Top image sourced from Flickr Creative Commons
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