Informal Space, Untouched

Maguire Meadow

Maguire Meadow. Photo from imagine (le) mile-end

I found myself in Kennedy Town yesterday evening, my hair still dripping from swimming at a nearby pool as I walked towards the waterfront, beer in hand. At the small promenade built next to a bus loop, the smell of diesel fumes in the air, I stopped to admire the violet hues of the sunset. But I didn’t stay there — I pressed on to a far nicer part of the waterfront.

By day, the shipping yard that stretches from Kennedy Town to the wholesale food market at Shek Tong Tsui, on the western end of Hong Kong Island, whirs with industrial purpose, as forklifts dart about and shipping containers are unloaded by boat. By night, it becomes a playground for people who live nearby. As I walked along the water last night, I saw kids riding their bikes, old men fishing, middle-aged women stretching and power walking. As the evening wore on, couples emerged, strolling hand in hand. Nobody seemed to mind the signs warned against unauthorized entry.

It reminded me of the Maguire Meadow, a large open field in the old garment district of Mile End, Montreal, which is slated for redevelopment in the coming years. Lately, people have been gardening on the field and using it for neighbourhood gatherings; over the years, it has acquired an impressive collection of flora and fauna, including walnut trees and the squirrels they feed. At the moment, redevelopment plans call for a new road to be built through the meadow, which has elicited quite a bit of protest.

Informal space like the Kennedy Town waterfront or the Maguire Meadow is important for a few reasons: it gives you a sensual and aesthetic experience that cannot be had in designed and controlled spaces; it allows for a multitude of improvised activities; and it encourages community engagement and interaction by letting the people who use the space determine how it should be used. I like to think it has a lot of intangible benefits, too, by encouraging people to re-imagine urban space (it’s not just a shipping yard, it’s a playground!) and take ownership of their city.

Problem is, the very concept of informal space is anathema to the practices of urban planning and governance, which insist that everything in a city ought to be categorized, regulated and otherwise managed. The very act of acknowledging an informal space for what it is tends to kill it, since the recognition that something — gardening, BBQ-ing, dance parties — is happening leads to a responsibility to ensure that no harm comes from it. If the Maguire Meadow is designated a park or community garden, it would be subject to all of the rules and restrictions that govern those kinds of places, which would destroy everything that currently make it so attractive. The Western District council could never condone the things that go on at the waterfront, since it’s pretty much inconceivable to the bureaucratic mind that a functioning industrial space could be safely used for anything else during off-hours.

But informal space usually regulates itself. Somebody in the Plateau Mont-Royal borough administration seems to have recognized this when they gave Dare-Dare the keys to a vacant lot under the Van Horne viaduct, allowing them to transform it into the creative free-for-all that was the Parc sans nom. Just across St. Laurent, another empty space was used for impromptu DJ dance parties, an activity more or less tolerated by the police, who would often watch over the parties without actually breaking them up.

Unfortunately, more conventional bureaucratic wisdom intervened when Dare-Dare’s two-year lease was up, and the Parc sans nom has once again been sealed off to the public. Maybe somebody will come up with a more ingenious solution for the Maguire Meadow. As for the Kennedy Town waterfront, well, the less done, the better.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday August 28 2009at 04:08 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Canada, Public Space and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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