This is the first in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with leaders in Canadian cities – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities that make up our cities. For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Victoria Dickenson: City Conversations (from the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, BC, September 2016)

As part of a panel discussion on understanding and designing cities on a human scale at the Placemaking Leadership Forum, Victoria Dickenson shared her work organizing and facilitating in-depth, cross-Canada ‘City Conversations’. These semi-structured conversations surfaced city-dwellers’ values, hopes, and concerns about the place in which they spend time, from smaller, coastal communities like St. John’s, Newfoundland, to bustling cities like Toronto, Ontario which along with opportunities come a host of challenges, namely economic and social inequalities. 

We had the chance to chat with Victoria after her session about her learnings when it comes to seeking out, listening to, and sharing diverse perspectives about cities.

One of the aspects of placemaking that came up in your overview of the City Conversations you hosted was hearing about people’s immediate, visceral reactions to place. What are some of the strategies you use to surface those personal meanings and connections [that may not be heard or given undue attention in public consultations) so that they can be made more widely known? 

VD: [In my work as a curator] I was originally working in a museum in a beautiful, wooded site. When people came they would say: “This place is so beautiful; it feels so good!”. One day I had some Anishinaabe elders from Winnipeg visiting and I asked them: “What do you think about this place?”. They said: “There’s a real sense here that you’re on territory”. And it really struck me that we don’t spend half enough time exploring what it means to feel good in place. I went and looked at the literature, and  almost all of the authors – the geographers, the anthropologists, the historians, the architects – they all said that [feeling good in place] is indefinable, we don’t know how to describe it – but we feel it.

It’s the whole issue of respecting feelings. In Montreal, the conversations [touched on] when you’re talking about place, it’s not just a photograph – it’s a sensory experience…you can feel it in your body. So to get at that – what are these places – you have to listen to people tell you about the places that are important to them.

What might this process of surfacing these personal meanings and attachments to place look like?

First, they identify places…then you pull back and ask: Why this place? What is about it about this place…Is it a memory? Is it because you grew up there? In what way is it important to you personally?…Do you feel the significance of geological features [like two tectonic plates coming together]? Yi-fu Tuan, a humanistic geographer, talks about how the Grand Tetons of landscape don’t need interpretation…but other sites need to be [brought to the surface]. In literature or in the way that artists work, you find that they identify significant places…there’s a Newfoundland photographer, Ned Pratt, who takes photographs that make place happen in the spots he takes them in..

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Photo of the Grand Tetons from www.popphoto.com

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Portrait by Ned Pratt, www.nedpratt.com/portraiture

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Proposed M T L iconography atop Mount Royal in the heart of the city – a form of placemaking for the texting generation? Photo: www.montrealgazette.com

Listening to people’s memories of what makes a place significant, understanding traditional communities and why they are where they are…many communities are resistant to giving up their sense of place. They say: “No you can’t change this – we want it to stay the same”. Well, why? We need to get at that Looking at how artists communicate place – whether it’s visual artists, authors, poets, songwriters – they identify places that are significant. Stan Rogers, a folksinger and songwriter in Atlantic Canada, sang about bays and harbours, the small places along the coast, and influenced a whole generation of Maritimers to celebrate their place.

You have to listen and look at how people have used literature, art, and [other means of creative communication] and their lived experience in place to identify those significant places. I think one of the questions, now that we’re such a globalized society, is: do we all recognize the same place? Do we have to [agree on significant places]? And what’s the role of place – if certain places have power, which is what Aboriginal people [might say], when we’re all together in that place, does it inform who we are as a people? Does the narrative come from the ground?

From a land-use planning perspective, I don’t think these personal explorations of place are taken enough into consideration, or even considered at all.

If you don’t think of place when you start a [planning process], and you only see the ground as either commercial value or a groundscape – and you don’t ask “What are the characteristics of this place?” before thinking about [how you might intervene]…the meanings are lost. That’s one of the goals of these [City Conversations]: to get place as a category of analysis.

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Dr. Victoria Dickenson is an independent scholar and museum consultant. Her experience in museums – very special places – and her interest in cultural landscapes, have led her to develop the Conversations about Place project. She lives in, and has written about, Montreal, a city whose peculiar geography ensures that the past is always present; in summer, she lives in Newfoundland, where people belong to the place, not the other way round. She presented highlights from conversations held in St. John’s, Montreal, and Toronto in a breakout session on The Human Scale at the Placemaking Leadership Forum. In the new year, she will host conversations in Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Ottawa.
We want a country in which:

  • public, private and social sectors are engaged in active efforts to close the gap between the socioeconomic wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • the public sector, private investors and philanthropists separately and collaboratively deploy financial capital to create positive social and environmental impact
  • social innovation is an integral part of Canada’s innovation ecosystem, enabling civic institutions to co-create policies, initiatives and programs that enable citizens to contribute a diversity of skills and perspectives to Canadian society
  • public, private and civil society sectors act collaboratively and courageously to advance human thriving and address shared challenges
  • humans’ social and economic footprint is in balance with the natural ecosystems that sustain life.