A landscape architect who helped bring Yellowknife’s pop-up park to life says the city should be investing more in public spaces, not taking them down, during the pandemic.
Thevishka Kanishkan spent the summer of 2018 with northern non-profit Ecology North designing the park, which was taken down by municipal staff earlier this week.
“They’re advising people to gather outdoors and not spend time with a whole bunch of people inside. The last thing you should be doing in the middle of a pandemic is taking apart outdoor gathering space,” Kanishkan said.
“You should be pouring money into creating space for that to happen.”
Kanishkan said critics of the park’s downtown location misunderstood its purpose.
Ecology North said the pop-up park never fulfilled its potential as liability concerns got in the way of the group’s plans to further develop the three vacant lots on which the park’s temporary features were built.
In a statement, the City of Yellowknife said it “applauds the intentions” of the park “but the ability to provide ongoing upkeep became a challenge.”
A City spokesperson explained the park’s dismantling by adding: “At this time, the City does not have the staff or financial resources available to supplement the work that has been done by Ecology North to maintain the site. The City is currently reviewing other potential uses for the land.”
The three lots remain available for sale at an overall price of $825,000.
Kanishkan said the City’s response dismayed her.
“To say there’s no budget and it’s not a priority at a time like this is kind-of antithetical to what city planning and public space practitioners are advising right now,” she told Cabin Radio on Wednesday.
“There’s been an explosion of pop-up spaces and guerrilla place-making over the past few months, all over the world. Every country in the world is closing down streets to create these spaces.
“For Yellowknife to [dismantle the park], it’s not in keeping with the way we’re trying to change how we think about cities.”
‘Depends on your definition of success’
Some residents felt the pop-up park, which was designed to transform rough, gravel lots into a better-looking community space, eventually became an eyesore little more enticing than the vacant land had been.
“I, personally, am so happy it has been removed,” wrote Councillor Stacie Smith in a public Facebook post.
“It had good intentions but not all good intentions bear fruit. Not all solutions of the south can work for the North.”
Kanishkan, though, said critics of the park and its location – near the city’s downtown sobering shelter – were overlooking part of its initial purpose.
“I see all these nasty comments about how it attracted street-involved people. It was built using their labour,” said Kanishkan, who worked with the Yellowknife Women’s Society’s Common Ground employment program to construct the park.
“That labour is engrained into the purpose of the park, which was to create a common ground for people. The reason we hired them, specifically, was to create a sense of ownership and something to be proud of,” she said.
“For the City to not acknowledge that and take it apart sucks. It was for everyone. The homeless population was involved in building that space and the people involved really cared about it.”
Kanishkan said the park was built on a budget of between $20,000 and $40,000 and sorely lacked the routinely refreshed programming that would have kept it better-maintained and relevant.
“It’s not going to be Somba K’e. It was built on $20,000. It just depends on your definition of a successful public space,” she said, referring to the more manicured park outside City Hall.
“The point of a pop-up park is not to create a lawn and a picnic table. The point is to actively take an underused or unused public space that’s an eyesore, or inviting behaviour no-one wants, and turn it into a space everyone can use and feels welcome in.
“Programming is really what makes a space successful. If there was no programming for it, even though that was part of the original intention, it was never going to be used the way it was originally intended.”