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heart(h) of the city/is broken

A lot of ink has been spilled over Churchill Square.

We lament the loss of the grass. We lament the broken lights put in the concrete. We lament the way the addition to the library in the late 90s/early 2000s forced people onto the thin strip of concrete between the library and 102 ave, creating an odd feeling of being crowded despite the expansive concrete space just across the road. We lament the ‘danger’. We wonder why it is empty, shake our heads at various plans to enhance or police the space. Remember when they were piping classical music into the square to deter young people from gathering there in the early 2000s?

Let’s be honest about what we really lament: as a city, we lament that this central place — this hearth — is broken.

There are deep conceptual issues at play here, issues that no amount of reports or hand-wringing will fix.

Let’s start with the name: as wonderful and inspirational as Churchill was as a leader — why is he at the centre of our city? What does this say about our search for self and meaning that we have chosen a British war-time hero to stand for a space that should, really, be the beating heart of our downtown?

I have this vision in my mind of a flame. A fire. A hearth. The flame that sustains the life of all Edmontonians. And of drumming. And music. And women sewing and laughing. Safe spaces for people of all ages to come and just be. Soft spots to sit. Warm spaces in the winter.

It doesn’t have to be overly grandiose. Just human. What, in the midst of those cold cold cold prairie winters, did our ancestors seek out the most? Warmth. Love. Food. Stories. Songs.

We’ve tried, to varying degrees of success, to ‘fix’ Churchill Square. However, we cannot accomplish this while mired in the Western legal paradigms of programming space, or legislating meaning through successive contracts to architects to fix the hearth. We cannot, bluntly, fix the hearth while we talk of ‘revitalizing’ downtown on the one hand and dehumanizing and expelling those who are not ‘desirable’ on the other. I think some great recent projects capture the spirit of what we need downtown — the Living Bridge and Makescape come to mind. However, we need to make sure that all classes, ages, genders, cultures are represented in these attempts to rebuild the hearth.  A plurality of views of what a hearth should be should be possible. What it means to gather, celebrate, love can take on many different meanings. And this is okay.

The hearth is broken because we still haven’t quite found our heart. We’re working on it. We’re giving bridges nehiyawewin names. We’re remembering that Chinatown is a vital and important part of our city. We’re questioning some of the things we’ve been taught about city planning and ‘progress’.

But I think we need to return to the hearth. First principles. What does every human crave? A space to gather, a space to celebrate. A place to be acknowledged and afforded the dignity of love and respect. Without having to apply for permits or using dubious amounts of public funds to ‘brand’ an event. A place to be. 

That’s what Churchill Square should be.


3 thoughts on “heart(h) of the city/is broken

  1. Smart and eloquent, as always. An example of when that space does work the way you suggest it ought to, I think, is the City Hall wading pool on hot days. My observation, through the lens of bringing my kids, is that everyone is welcome and feels welcome. The collective goal is to cool off and have fun. But we don’t have many days like that in Edmonton. If we could transfer that spirit to another relatively barrier-free experience where our collective goal was to warm up and have fun, we could have something.

    Posted by Karen Unland | November 17, 2013, 10:56 am
    • Hi Karen, yes!! A beautiful illustration of when this works in the space. I’m wary that maybe I’m being a bit *too* harsh in this piece. But I do worry about conversations I’ve had with people who have firm ideas about who does and does not belong in the Square (revealing racial and class tensions that percolate beneath the surface in discourse about the city). I wonder about how we can create more opportunities like the pool (or the ice rink in the winter). It should be a welcoming space, a gathering space. A space where everyone can be, no matter how much money they have in their pocket.

      Posted by zotofoto | November 18, 2013, 5:46 am
  2. I always respect what you bring to the Edmonton debate, Zoe, including this piece, but specifically in this piece I’m left a bit wanting to know how specifically you would change either the design or use of the Square? I think a big reason why its usage collapsed was the simultaneous collapse in people either living or visiting downtown, and now that both seem to be recovering, so is the square.

    Regarding the name, I definitely respect your sentiment that Churchill has questionable relevance to Edmonton. Were you aware of the original debate in the 1960’s regarding whether it should be named Churchill or Labour? Hence the Lunchtime Statue (with its back to Churchill’s.)

    Posted by Jonny B. | November 18, 2013, 5:28 pm

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