Decolonizing and Reimagining Urban Public Spaces with Art from Indigenous/Black/People of Colour Communities
If you walk down the streets and meander into public spaces in our cities across Canada, you will notice that the urban design of these places are often heavily dominated and dotted by European art, artifacts, and architecture. In fact, try standing still in the center of your public spaces and gaze up, down, and all around, and you will find yourself dizzily staring at colonial legacies of whiteness surrounded in the statues, structures and stories that in some way define and shape your cities and their cultures. These eyes of whiteness are everywhere in the built environment and any Indigenous and diverse gazes are often, if any, lost and hidden amongst the colonial mazes where Eurocentric planning and design continue to colonize many public spaces and spheres. As an urban planner, who is working in the arena of arts + culture, I feel that in order to decolonize whiteness and re-shape the urban design of cities it is critical to ask the question of “who really plans and designs public spaces?” In essence, “which voices and faces are imagining and shaping urban public spaces?” I am interested and intrigued in how urban planners alongside our politicians are questioning the Eurocentric approaches when it comes to the urban planning and design of cities, in particular public spaces and public art.
It is important to understand that urban planning in the Canadian context has generally followed the British system of town planning which focuses on physical plans, development regulations and centralized approaches on the land. Urban design tends to focus on the creation of city features including public spaces, infrastructure, architecture, transport, landscapes and community facilities which eventually lead to the shaping of a city’s identity. According to UNESCO, “a public space refers to an area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level.” These spaces can be squares, plazas, parks, beaches, sidewalks, and streets – where people connect to enjoy the city and each other. Within public spaces lies the domain of public art which are unique artworks that can be permanent or temporary, in any medium or genre, indoors and outdoors and which should exist for the benefit of the public. Public art in one way can express the values of a city, enhance environments, transform landscapes, and engage the community, and on the other side it can lead to critical questioning of our assumptions, biases and privileges in how each of us is visible or invisible in public spaces.
As an urban planner of colour, I feel it is important to address that white privilege and dominance exists in the urban planning of cities, and to also raise awareness on the colonial and unconscious bias when it comes to how we develop the land. We, in the urban planning world, tend not to discuss the “white elephant in the room” which is that we are planning, designing and building on unceded lands in urban environments, lands that rightfully belong to the many Indigenous Nations across the country. Indeed many urban planners and architects are eager to have their plans of design laid out on the grids of the land, but without any or little attention to “land justice” and “land rights” thereby ignoring the co-existence of Indigenous peoples, who are the original inhabitants on these lands. According to Paul Daley, a writer for The Guardian:
“Too often, however, the acknowledgement of original possession and ongoing custodianship amounts to little more than lip service when it translates to Indigenous access to – and use of – the land. This is especially so in the well- established cities and regional centres where land, which has long ago been stolen from Indigenous people, is now covered with the infrastructure – houses, roads, parks, civic buildings – which is the settler state…Acknowledgement of Indigenous ‘ownership’ (and therefore, implicitly, of colonial occupation and dispossession) is one thing. Granting Indigenous people some determination over the land upon which our cities and suburbs have been imposed, quite another.”
It is “self-determination” in which Indigenous peoples are continuing to advocate for as they know that their traditional knowledge and governance of the lands can add immense value to the development of public spaces and cities. Indigenous peoples understand the importance of sustaining a “responsible stewardship of governance” in their communities by showing ways to live with the natural environment, versus controlling it. Some municipalities may adopt Indigenous stewardship principles of developing the land if they are genuinely committed to the decolonization and Indigenization of planning practices in designing cities and public spaces. This is confirmed by Anishinaabe storyeller, Riley Yesno who states that “our public spaces are not designed for us…There is decolonizing to be done before we can Indigenize.” This further sparks what Daley says is the co-existence and co-occupying contradiction and ignites the political question of “how Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous settlers co-occupy place?” This questioning is crucial especially when the teeter-totter is off balance when it comes to who is planning and designing urban public spaces?
The teeter-totter on the planning playground has been off balance for a very long, long time in the North American context. The reality is that urban planning and design are still considered colonial tools of land control, dominance, and segregation, which “divides and conquers” Indigenous and racialized peoples from co-occupying spaces with the white dominant society. In fact, land use policies such as racial zoning were first enacted in the United States in the 20th century in order to isolate and push Indigenous, Black, and racialized peoples out of desirable residential locations to segregate them from white exclusive neighborhoods. Today, the colonizer’s blankets of white European dominant thought and superiority in the urban design of public spaces continues to suffocate other diverse voices and visions from re-imagining our public spaces across Canada. As a result, many urban environments are being deprived of the opportunities to be re-shaped into vibrant, diverse and inclusive spaces through the eyes and voices of Indigenous/Black/People of Colour (IBPOC) artists and communities. In order for people to authentically feel that they belong in their cities, it is imperative that they see themselves, their faces, cultures, and stories respectfully embedded and represented on the walls, steps, foundations and most importantly, on the lands of public spaces.
If the design and development of lands is guided and controlled by local governments, then it is the minds and hands of urban planners who essentially mould and shape the urban design in cities. And at the end of the bureaucratic day, it is the politicians who have the power of planning in their hands and who are the providers and gatekeepers of public spaces. Great power and trust is placed in local governments to create public spaces which encapsulate and mirror the realities of its diverse communities and which highlight the mosaic of faces and peoples who walk in public spaces everyday across Canada. For radical transformative change to take place, the urban planning world needs to look deeply within its own colonial foundations of European planning principles and embark on creating a new paradigm of “decolonizing planning.” A paradigm that focuses on community engagement, cultural respect, and participatory action, in non-tokenizing ways, with IBPOC communities taking part in the design of public spaces.
The champion of change that we critically need in order to decolonize whiteness in the urban design of cities is to embrace the arts as a key planning tool allowing for the centering of art by IBPOC artists and communities and the stepping aside of European art in public spaces. It is the arts, in its various cultural forms for example, murals, sculptures, textiles, basket weaving, Kathak dance, graffiti, applied theatre, and Afro-Cuban jazz music that can play a critical role in re-imagining and re-shaping public spaces by including the visions of IBPOC artists and communities. The re-imagination of cities through the lenses of IBPOC communities is critical in the discourse of decolonizing whiteness in urban public spaces. Art that is created by IBPOC artists allows for new, socially just, culturally appropriate, and vibrant ways of re-claiming and re-shaping public spaces as pedagogical hotspots for learning about the herstories of a myriad of cultures, communities, and peoples. In other words, this is how we can decolonize our public spaces by illuminating IBPOC knowledge bases, lived realities and cultural stories through the powerful platform of art.
However, at the same time that art can be a powerful decolonizing tool it is important to be critically aware of the “instrumentalization of the arts.” One must also be cautionary with the “democratization of arts” where “elite” and “high” art become symbols of exclusivity further unearthing the tensions of who can afford, see, and create art, and who cannot. The risk of the instrumentalization and democratization of the arts is that it can lead to public spaces and public art being co-opted with a white privilege and politically correct art agenda. The antidote to this risk is “cultural democracy” – culture for all, by all.
Cultural democracy engages pluralism, equity, and diversity in who creates the art, how art is displayed and who experiences the art. When we create cultural democracy in a public space with art by IBPOC artists and communities this ultimately ignites a powerful sense of identity and invokes feelings of acceptance and belonging that is inseparable from their cultures. Cultural democracy and cultural pluralism can also champion against racism and discrimination, and promote equity, diversity and inclusivity in cities. Cultural democracy in the local government context can take the form of “Cultural Planning”, a municipal term that refers to holistically looking at all aspects of a community’s cultural life as “community assets” and “community resources.” These assets and resources consist of culturally diverse organizations, cultural festivals, storytelling, museums, and public art. By understanding cultural activity as assets and resources for municipal economic, social, and community development, this enables municipalities to understand the immense values and benefits of cultural planning in their own communities.
One urban planning practice that is gaining momentum in planning circles is “Placemaking.” This practice promotes and advances multi-dimensional approaches to designing, managing and programming public spaces. It is essentially a process where planners, politicians and peoples can work together in re-shaping and re-imagining public spaces and cities. Placemaking can become a powerful decolonizing tool when Placemaking + Culture + Art is combined resulting in the creation of CREATIVE PLACEMAKING. Creative Placemaking plays a critical role in decolonizing whiteness in public spaces by bringing IBPOC artists and communities together to create public art that is rooted in community-based development, grassroots participation, and cultural democracy.
With the knowledge that creative placemaking can be a planning tool for the decolonization of whiteness in cities, it is critical to center the voices of IBPOC artists and communities in these conversations when creating public spaces. As municipalities and politicians guide the design of public spaces, the question that needs to be critically examined by municipal staff and discussed in the council chambers is “how can we have more public art by IBPOC artists and communities represented in public spaces?” The answer is when our municipalities develop cultural policies, plans, and programs for IBPOC artists and communities to create art that is representative of diverse cultures that will eventually lead to decolonizing whiteness in the urban design of public spaces. Let us look towards two examples of best practices of cultural planning and creative placemaking in the District of Saanich and City of Vancouver. These municipalities have implemented cultural policies and programming which advocate for the inclusion of IBPOC communities in participating in the creation of public art in order to decolonize their public spaces.
In the District of Saanich, one of the Municipal/Community Arts Policies is to “integrate the arts into municipal policies, planning, operations, parks, and facilities” and last year its Parks, Recreation and Culture Department, through its cultural programming, hosted a public art competition to commemorate the celebration of Canada’s 150th Anniversary. In the end, the competition was awarded to Indigenous Artist, Carey Newman (Hayalthkin’geme) who is of the Kwakwaka’wakw, Coast Salish and settler heritage. Newman designed three large Earth Drums, “box drums”, from natural wood, to engage and educate people in truth and reconciliation by asking them to change their relationship with the land to one of more understanding, respect and honouring. Coming upon these beautiful public art instruments in Cedar Hill Park, one is invited to play the drums with the hand to make music that echoes deep into the earth and reverberates into the hearts of those all around. The stories of the drums, are essentially stories of the peoples, which are ultimately stories of the lands. In some ways his art is whispering and echoing that “culture is our healer”, if only we listen. This is decolonizing whiteness in public spaces.
At the City of Vancouver, part of its municipal public art committee and mural programming has been to partner with the Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF). Since 2016, VMF has “produced over 150 murals, featured 70% local artists, 45% female-identifying artists, 45% self-identified minorities, and produced 26 Indigenous artist murals.” It is a wonderful example of creative placemaking that provides IBPOC artists with the opportunity to display their art murals throughout the city blocks and back alleys of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. It is here in one of the alleys off West Broadway and Main Street, where visual artist of colour Sandeep Johal showcases one of her most impressive art murals entitled “Girls are Fierce Like Tigers”. As a female artist of Indian background, born in Kelowna, BC, Sandeep is passionate about educating the community on gender violence, female empowerment, and social justice issues from a South Asian perspective by painting community murals in public spaces that depict strong and fierce South Asian girls and women. When I first turned the corner and saw her mural with an Indian woman standing on the tiger, I was instantly overcome with a rare, emotional, and beautiful feeling of “belonging” and “cultural pride” as for the very first time in my life I finally saw a representation of myself and my Indian culture portrayed in a public space. This is decolonizing whiteness in public spaces.
When municipalities work with Indigenous and racialized communities in designing and developing policies at the political levels this allows for a new light, a new dawn of cultural planning to rise where art by IBPOC communities can finally take center stage in public spaces, with European art stepping aside into the shadows. The more art we see from IBPOC communities in public spaces, means that the process of decolonizing whiteness in the urban design of cities is working. Planners and politicians have the power to change the destinies of urban landscapes from colonized places to decolonized spaces through the platform of creative placemaking and by bringing in new and diverse voices and faces, from the inside and the outside, in re-shaping and re-imagining public places and cities. However, it is from the “inside” in which the urban planning world will need to take a closer look at and be uncomfortable, courageous and honest in asking itself how white privilege and colonial thinking are behind the planning and designing of public spaces and cities. The reason for this statement is that many cities across Canada take pride in labeling themselves as “multicultural” cities, but the hegemonic and hypocritical reality is that these cities often have an abundance of white European art in their public spaces with little or no representation of art, artifacts, and architecture from IBPOC artists and communities.
Indeed, it is complex work and as France Trépanier, a visual artist and curator of Kanien’keha:ka and French ancestry, says it is “cardiac work” when we engage in courageous and uncomfortable conversations on “decolonizing the arts” in communities and cities. One can only hope that urban planners in their municipalities are culturally aware, appropriate and respectful by having Indigenous and racialized peoples, policies, plans and programs in place that take into consideration the voices and visions of Indigenous Nations and diverse communities when designing their urban public spaces. Sylvain Després, a non-indigenous designer, substantiates this by stating “Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing form a set of essential cultural teachings, which contribute to a co-design praxis in culturally appropriate contexts and re-affirms Indigenous knowledge as a critical feature to inform spaces of inclusive engagement.”
Essentially it is the intersections of Placemaking + Art + Culture that can be the catalyst for “decolonizing planning and design” in cities by actively involving the diverse voices of those on the margins, such as IBPOC communities, and by displaying their cultures and stories in permanent art structures throughout public spaces in cities. By embracing Creative Placemaking in the municipal domain, this provides urban planners and politicians with the opportunities to decolonize whiteness in public spaces by making room for other expressions of art, other stories to be told, other cultures to inspire, and other creative imaginations to breathe new life and light into these spaces. Public spaces should not separate us, but instead connect us.
I believe that it is only by dismantling white colonial urban planning and design policies that do not reflect the present diversity of the population, and by building new planning paradigms of creative placemaking and cultural democracy that include the voices and faces from IBPOC communities, that will ultimately and finally transform cities, public art and public spaces as truly “for the people, by the people”.
So next time you find yourself gazing up, down, and all around in a public space, stop with stillness and ask yourself “Do I see myself here?”
On January 20, 2022, Jasmindra gave a talk through The City Talks called Decolonizing the City with the White Elephant in the Room. Watch it here.
Jasmindra Jawanda is an Urban Planner who is committed to “creating space for people and place” that lead to diverse, inclusive, equitable, socially just and vibrant communities. With over 20 years of experience, Jasmindra has had a varied and stimulating planning career in the areas of land use planning, community planning, social planning, diversity planning, environmental planning, gender planning, arts and culture, youth development, and international development. Jasmindra has worked in the municipal, local government, private, academic and non-profit/NGO sectors, locally and internationally, providing her with a strong understanding of a myriad of planning issues. She has a Master’s degree in Community and Regional Planning as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Japanese and a Bachelor’s degree in Education. Jasmindra’s Master’s thesis was conducted in the Amazon region of Ecuador in the areas of community development, sustainable development, Indigenous capacity building, gender development, and corporate social responsibility. Currently she is committed and passionate in ensuring that all members of our communities feel that they belong in their neighborhoods, public spaces and cities and is an urban planning advocate for local governments to embark on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism frameworks, planning and governance.
Banner Image: photo by Jasmindra Jawanda. Spontaneous Placemaking in East Vancouver