Changing our narratives of wild spaces in the city: An interview with Dominique Ferraton and Maia Iotzova

Organization: Wild City Mapping
Project:

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Lead photo: Jean-Francois Caron and his daughter reflecting on Verdun's green waterfront (Maia Iotzova)

Following from Part 1: Mapping Montréal’s wild spaces, I spoke with Dominique and Maia, two of the three founding members of the Wild City Mapping collective. Their sharing of some of their own interactions with wild spaces – from Maia’s childhood experience playing in the greenspaces of Sofia, Bulgaria, to Dominique’s countryside living and ongoing hand-drawn mapping practice – was a starting point from which to discuss how we can work to develop our own narratives by engaging with wild spaces. We also talked about the importance of language in our understanding of wild spaces – particularly how the pro-development language of abandonment and neglect can lead us to see these spaces as “out of place” and thus undesirable or uncomfortable.

One of the themes that emerged from this interview was that as urbanists, we have a lot to learn from ecosystems about adapting to change and spontaneous self-organizing. We tend to think about urban spaces as fixed, and so when they change abruptly – for example, a vacant green lot has its trees razed for development, as happened in the Parc des Gorilles – it is difficult to envision how these very different conceptions of space might converge down the road. If we can start to think about urban spaces as fluid, we can begin to add nuance to the narrative of developed vs. undeveloped. Even in cities, where the natural seems to play a secondary role to human-built, everything is constantly developing, no matter how much control we try to exert.

Note: this has been condensed from an hour-long interview with Dominique and Maia.

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Vegetation emerging in a parking lot in Verdun (Maia Iotzova)

How do you think that spaces you’re mapping are currently understood by a broad public who may not be engaged with wild spaces?

D: There’s a pretty wide range of understandings. What I saw from talking to people – from my own empty lot research – is that some people appreciate them deeply as precious greenspaces because we don’t have too many of them. Some ignore them. Others see them as a sign that something’s abandoned, undeveloped, temporary – a sign that maybe that city isn’t doing well.

M: And then some people see them as a fun place to have a party – but it doesn’t go beyond that understanding.

Green tunnel spotted in Côte-des-Neiges (Maia Iotzova)

From a planning and land development, I think people’s gut reactions to these spaces is that they’re underused – the idea that if there’s a presence of wildness in a highly developed area, it’s an eyesore or something to be rectified. Do you find there are misconceptions about wild spaces that you’re working to address through this project?

M: For me, there are a lot of misconceptions. I came to wild spaces in a very childlike, naïve way. I grew up playing in these spaces…and I wanted them to remain [in this nostalgic state]. But when I started working on my film, Green Dream, I realized I had to let go of this attachment and discover what else was there (for more, see Maia’s blog post From a Green Dream to a Wild City Map). The most important thing for me was to get away from the rhetoric of abandonment. A lot of people’s understandings come from language – like abandonment, empty, blight – to me, these are just spaces that haven’t been built on. We use language like abandonment because we don’t know how to deal with undefined things – it’s not part of our world.

The one thing that is important for me to break though is that when we look at wild spaces, we have to go beyond seeing their beauty and thinking that we don’t have to do anything – to preserve them in that state. But instead to think about how we can engage with them – from a perspective that respects their inherent value and character, and what they mean to the community. People need to engage with spaces before they can care for them. The question is how can we work through the dichotomy of wild and cared for?

Field of tall grasses in Hochelaga Maisonneuve (Andreanne Maltais-Tremblay)

If you were talking to someone new to the concept of wild spaces, how would you communicate why it’s important to recognize value in and care for these spaces?

M: So much of our cities and lives are planned – we need spaces that aren’t attached to expectations. There’s still that sense of chance – of vegetation growing spontaneously, or of interacting with insects and animals - of just letting things grow, so to speak. What’s important for me, especially in the context of gentrification and “cleaning up” urban spaces, is to have some messiness.

D: I’ve heard similar things from people I talked to – people really value the fact that these spaces don’t have pre-determined uses – which leaves a lot of openness and freedom for creativity. I’ve been reading a lot about the importance of wilderness in our lives – there’s a difference between a lawn with cut grass and a place where you can see an ecosystem – how this environment is building itself, and how the elements within are self-organizing spontaneously.

M: I think we learn from that as individuals, and then the community learns from it – how to respond and organize themselves spontaneously. We see this at the Champs des possibles – both the ecosystem and the human community are organizing themselves. It’s about an ongoing relationship, but without prescribed expectations. The freedom in space allows for [open-ended] learning. Change keeps you on your toes and forces you to adapt.

D: Another misconception is related to the plants that inhabit the space. When people say, oh, it’s just a bunch of weeds- but what does that connote? Just because they’re growing spontaneously, it doesn’t mean they don’t belong. A lot of them are native species –the same plants I used to see when I lived in the country. Why are they valued differently depending on where they are?

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Thistles coexist with industrial infrastructure in Mentana Nord (Marilène Gaudet)

I’m wondering if you speak about the social inclusion aspect of your work. One of the elements of a truly accessible city is having spaces that are in fact open to any person – that’s often lost, or was never there at all in cities.

M: The work does open dialogue about social inclusion. For example, when you have community cleanups of a space, not everyone gets along – you have people interacting who normally wouldn’t. I think the relationship between wild spaces and inclusiveness changes on a case-by-case basis. I was talking with some people from Cinema Out of the Box* about doing some screenings of Green Dream. With these events, you’re temporarily taking ownership of a public space for a certain use and a certain audience. During one screening, they had an experience where somebody come in – maybe someone who was homeless, maybe not – and disrupt the activity. [There’s no prescribed way of dealing with that.] It comes down to being human – wild spaces ask us to negotiate and not be so contrived in the way in which we deal with unanticipated situations… It’s tricky. It really is like ecology, where diversity strengthens the ecosystem.

*Cinema Out of the Box is a mobile cinema project that screens films in public spaces with a bike-powered projector.

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Inhabiting the Champs des possibles (Frederik Froment)

There’s a temporal aspect to your mapping work – of documenting change over time to communicate the openness and fluidity of wild spaces. Do you envision presenting the information in different ways in the future to highlight the various aspects – like plants, instances of community engagement, etc?

D: We have a lot of ideas for how to present the map – like having different layers to show captures from different years – these things aren’t technically in our reach yet. Somebody suggested a book. Documenting spaces through time was very interesting for me during my Cartographie éphémere project…Seeing how these spaces changed so fast – because it’s this living organism affected by people, by vegetation – it does change from year to year.

M: And unfortunately sometimes it changes in a more extreme way: it becomes a built development, or it becomes a parking lot.

D: But then more wild spaces appear somewhere else. Things are always changing.

M: This is important to keep in mind: as an activist, you get heartbroken when a wild space gets developed. But when you start to think about the capacity for spaces to evolve over time – you can start to look at it differently. It still is heartbreaking, but when you start to see “new” wild spaces entering the picture, you can continue to be involved. It’s easy to lose the memory of what urban space was like before it was developed. Keeping a collective consciousness of wild space is an important part of Wild City Mapping. We can’t guarantee that the space we’re mapping will be preserved, but we want people to be able to imagine the possibility of something different in the future.

D: It’s about knowing the alternative [to the dominant narrative of development].

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The legend, showing different dimensions to the map (Wild City Mapping)

On plans for future activities:

M: It’s important to keep in mind that the project is just starting – we just launched it in June of 2014. Because we haven’t secured funding, we can’t overextend ourselves – so we’re just keeping it simple for now, and see where there is potential for it to evolve. What was important for us was to have a digital element and a physical element – we hope that people enter the project through the digital platform, but are then inspired to go into the spaces. We plan to have walks in the summer. One of the important aspects for us is to be interacting with communities that are in the spaces.

Any plans to collaborate with Jane’s Walks?

M: Yes, not this year but it’s something we’d like to look into.

D: We want to encourage exploration: these spaces are still marginal or unknown for many people. We’re very interested in having guided, exploratory walks led by different groups and in different contexts.

M: We were also thinking of adding some sort of Wild City Mapping symbol to welcome people into wild spaces. We’re looking into artistic collaboration.

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A riot of wild flowers in St-Henri (John Burcombe)

Within the Cities for People initiative, we often use the word “curation”, which to us, implies caretaking and stewardship, rather than having power over or the judging value of spaces. Does curation have resonance in your work as an approach to engaging with wild spaces?

D: The only time we’ve used the word “curation” was in describing the map as a kind of curated space – the process of submitting photos was open but we were still selected certain ones.

M: We felt this was important to avoid oversaturation…over the years, the map could become messy – of course, we value messiness! There are times when rawness and messiness are desirable, but as part of being humans, we’re always selecting. Curating for us was about “cleaning up” the content, to present the sense of the space in the easiest way possible. There is so much information out there that our goal to add value to that information.

In discussions about the Smart City and the role of big data in understanding cities, I think there’s a trend emerging of producing beautiful maps that overlay multiple sources of data – but they don’t actually tell us much.

M: You have to think through [the process of displaying information on a map]. Even early on in the process, when we were talking about doing an app, we were worried about an overload of information, and how we would select what really gets shown.

D: We see it as somewhat of an art project – rather than just data collection. So there is an element of selection and control, in a way.

Snapshot

Each point represents a photograph and description of the space (Wild City Mapping)

In 2014, Wild City Mapping collaborated with the Sierra Club of Québec who created the Montreal Bioblitz, an online urban biodiversity map. Do you have plans to collaborate with other complementary organizations?

M: We’re talking to a few organizations. Studio XX has been an important partner.

D: We’ve been in touch with Fleurs sauvages du Québec – they have an online platform for identifying wild plants in Quebec. We have plans to collaborate on a wild flower walk in an empty lot somewhere in Montreal.

M: I also recently spoke with people at Lande, which is similar to the 596 Acres project in New York City. Their interest is in engaging community members to transform empty lots. There is some overlap there – we’re both working towards creating a commons within the city, although our approaches are different. There’s also Conscience urbaine in Montreal. We’re often talking to Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, although we aren’t directly collaborating with them. Right now we’re just talking with several groups and seeing where we’re at – more tangible plans will emerge later.

Le Champs des Possibles gets a lot of attention among wild spaces in Montreal – perhaps because it’s in the centre of a neighbourhood known for its artistic communities, and has a well-established community group stewarding it. What other spaces are you working in that people might not know about?

M: The thing with Les Amis du Champs des Possibles is that they were successful – in preserving a space in a way that no other group has really done, using a creative approach. And also, in an area [the Mile End] in which there are no other wild greenspaces. There are so many examples – and groups are taking different approaches to stewarding these spaces, some with more visible effects than others. There’s Parc Oxygène [near Mount Royal], Angell Woods, Parc des Gorilles. The groups tend to start as just a few people – but then momentum builds.

D: There are also groups that organizing community gardens in wild spaces – which is a different approach.

M: It’s important to mention that “wildness” and “gardens” aren’t mutually exclusive.

D: Often in wild spaces, gardening will take over a part of the space, which then leads to other forms of stewardship.

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A garden grown wild in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (Maia Iotzova)

I wonder if gardening is an entry point for people who are less comfortable with the idea of wild spaces. Perhaps engaging in that way can slowly make people see these spaces differently, as community is built around gardening – especially for migrant populations living in Montreal, who may have a background in farming or gardening.

M: Yes, the intergenerational aspect is important. The spaces are becoming hip, especially among a younger, artistic demographic. So if the spaces are seen as welcoming for older people, or migrant communities – the intercultural, intergenerational sharing of space is important in cities. It’s an example of planning using a less prescribed approach – like, let’s start a community garden here, see what happens, and who wants to get involved.

Would you like to add anything that we haven’t discussed yet?

M: We want to emphasize that Wild City Mapping is about adding people’s personal experiences to spaces – that was our starting point. Mapping tends to be done from an “objective” point of view.

D: It started from our own experiences in these spaces – and then realizing that others were having meaningful experiences as well, that might be different or similar to ours – and wanting to share that.

M: The interesting thing about mapping is that it makes you see things – and then you have to figure out how to translate those things onto a two-dimensional visual plane. This process is artistic by nature…whether it’s going out with a compass or collecting imagery to display on an online platform, it brings out the subjectivity of any kind of mapping.

D: I’ve been reading about why humans are so bad at orienting themselves in spaces – we get lost all the time! The way in which we represent things mentally is completely different from reality.

M: It’s important – especially as the world becomes more digitized – to combine the digital with the personal. Those one-on-one connections that we get from being in a space are more and more important. When we think of social change, it always starts with a personal relationship – the political is personal. Mapping people’s personal experiences is what fuels people to develop a relationship with and understand those spaces.

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Tranquil space off of rue Beaubien (Dominique Ferraton)

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