Christen Oakes
22 min readNov 16, 2019



Sometimes, it seems as if the world is about to go down in flames. A barrage of panic-inducing news headlines often has me questioning what my role as a designer is in the uphill battle toward a sustainable and just future, seeking a way to do my part. As a descendant of a Western European medley of Canadian settlers, colonization is often of foremost consideration in my design practice. Once I began looking, it was difficult not to see ongoing legacies of colonialism in cities, and while I could readily think of ways to practice harm-reduction as a settler, the ways in which design could actively decolonize were less clear. In this paper, I will examine how “placemakers”, which I define as anyone in a position of authority over the function, design, use, and programming of public spaces in cities, might use design to actively decolonize those public outdoor spaces.

Photographs, mainly taken in Vanier Park, Vancouver, will be used as evidence and illustration as I explore the ways colonization continues to be manifested in cities, the importance of decolonization, theoretical frameworks for ways forward as well as concrete actions placemakers might take to engender decolonization. It is important to note that while the included examples are specifically from Canadian cities, colonization in its broader definition enacts the same hierarchies of power and systems of oppression the world over. In addition, privileged voices, including your humble author’s, should never be the loudest when it comes to decolonizing practice. It is vital to connect with a wide array of Indigenous and other marginalized people for opinions specific to the context of your own placemaking. Finally, I will be referring to placemakers and the privileged using plural first person terms throughout this writing; as a Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of British Columbia, I count myself among the accountable privileged.


What many people fail to understand about colonialism is that it is ongoing; it didn’t end when settlers became the majority or when the last Canadian residential school closed in 1996. The United Nations defines genocide as including “the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [an] ethnical … group”: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”; “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”; and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (“Genocide”). What we are experiencing in Canada, then, is not simply a historical cultural assimilation; it is the fallout of an attempted genocide by settlers on Indigenous groups, and its affects live on in what is called intergenerational trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is inherited trauma that may manifest itself in substance abuse, unstable living conditions, and poor social relations, to name a few. For example, Indigenous people are commonly over-represented in those who experience homelessness: in 2018, 40% of Vancouver’s homeless population was Indigenous, though the demographic only represented 2.2% of the overall population (BC Non-Profit). It is vital to recognize that while we might see homelessness as caused by factors such as substance abuse, these conditions are both manifestations of intergenerational trauma. Furthermore, Indigenous homelessness is better understood as dispossession from “traditional governance systems and laws, territories, histories, worldviews, ancestors, and stories” (Thistle 6), rather than simply lacking a structure for habitation. Thus, our understanding of homelessness is itself informed by colonialism. Investigating the entire context of Indigenous dispossession and intergenerational trauma allows us to understand exactly what colonialism is, and to speculatively envision a postcolonial future and steps we might take toward it.

More broadly, colonialism can be understood as one institutionalized power structure. It is tied intimately to capitalism and patriarchy, as together these systems of oppression reinforce existing hierarchies, keeping the ruling class in power and the excluded in the margins of society. Donna Haraway creates meaningful connections between these systems, believing even the term “Anthropocene” to be steeped in the patriarchal preoccupation with the power of “man” over nature (30). She prefers the term “Capitalocene” (100) which makes explicit the current milieu’s ambition toward growth and profit for the powerful. Understanding colonialism this way broadens our horizons on the possibilities for decolonization. I will use this understanding of colonialism in the following writing, and will at times introduce capitalism as a differentiated but inherently related system of power.

Colonial Manifestations

How, then, does colonialism and its associated structures of power manifest in our cities?

  1. Placemaking hierarchies

Individual internalized ideologies create invisible “spatial ontologies” in one’s placemaking practice that can result in gentrification and dispossession (Porter, Unlearning 18). A placemaker’s position of authority situates our personal conceptual notions of a place above those with lived experiences and histories there (15). This means that placemakers are often free to implement our own ideologies in a space, with little regard to the immeasurable, intangible and sometimes invisible effects on the people who occupy it. What follows is a brief list of how the internalized colonial ideologies of placemakers may manifest in public spaces.

2. Narratives

The ruling class uses hidden narratives to reinforce existing hierarchies. These narratives are particularly cunning because they are framed as natural and objective; they become internalized and assumed as inherent, even by the marginalized. By creating fear of the other, they discredit and dehumanize marginalized voices while encouraging the privileged to advocate for exclusionary spaces (Toolis). Haraway writes, “it matters what thoughts think thoughts; it matters what stories tell stories” (39). The narratives that we are exposed to provide context for our actions. When surrounded by colonial narratives, we are likely to think and act in colonial ways.

3. Gentrification

Gentrification and colonialism can be understood as the same process acting over different scales: one community takes over another community’s land in order to exploit its resources, causing harm to the dispossessed (Marcuse). Gentrification in the name of environmental sustainability or urban “greening” is known as green gentrification, which allows the wealthy freedom from visual cues of ecological degradation (Gould 5). Perhaps those doom and gloom news stories are worth the emotional toll, after all.

4. Exclusionary placemaking

A preoccupation with “cleaning”, “beautifying”, and making “secure” leads to spaces which do not allow for deviation from the social norms of the privileged. These spaces are inherently exclusionary and depoliticizing. Monuments, art, and memorials reflect specific values and histories which may be exclusionary of some groups and contribute to the erasure of certain narratives (Toolis).

A large steel sculpture shaped roughly like a picture frame stands on a lawn, framing English Bay and downtown Vancouver.
Image 1

These images depict ‘The Gate to the North-West Passage’, a large steel sculpture in Vanier Park, Vancouver. Created by Alan Chung Hung and placed in the park in 1980, it commemorates the arrival of Captain George Vancouver in what is now known as Burrard Inlet (“Gate to”). Vanier Park has a contentious history of colonialism. It was originally the site of Snauq or Sen’ákw, a multicultural Salish trading village (Matthews 33–35); in 1869 the colonial government allotted the land as an Indian Reserve, but over the next 100 years and under settler coercion, the land was divided, leased, and eventually sold off for primarily industrial use. In 2002 the Squamish reclaimed a small portion of the park (Roy), however there is no obvious official signage in the space to recognize this act of restitution or the original act of dispossession. In fact, the only trace of colonial criticism I could find were unsanctioned posters stuck on existing signage and graffiti (see images 3 and 6).

This sculpture’s commemoration of Vancouver’s colonial pursuits is explicit and reverent. In celebrating colonialism, especially in a space with such a fraught history of colonial control, we actively erase narratives of critique, histories of oppression and, by extension, current legacies of colonialism. The ruling class praises their violent acts of oppression, produces a symbol of their own power, and enhances the hierarchy on which their power relies. We render invisible people’s very real and ongoing struggles of intergenerational trauma under continued colonial control. By silencing victims, we push them further to the margins of society, alleviating ourselves of the burden of reconciliation and denying them their right to participate in our society, tell their stories, and fully heal from their trauma.

A 2-story advertisement on an modern office building that reads “You Belong Here” and features a Caucasian man in a suit.
Image 2

Here we see a very literal example of exclusionary placemaking. This image is of the north facade of the City of Edmonton Tower, a 29-story modern office building in downtown Edmonton that opened in December, 2016. It is located in an area known as the Ice District, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood that is the central hub for most of Edmonton’s homeless shelters and poverty resources. Since the creation of Rogers Stadium in this area, there have been rising tensions between marginalized communities and the ruling class (Bui et al.). This particular side of Edmonton Tower faces Boyle Street Community Services, which offers programs and services to people facing poverty and other challenges.

When this photograph was taken, a 2-story advertisement cloaked the glass wall of the lobby. It reads “You belong here”, and features a portrait of a young Caucasian man in business attire. The advertisement was aimed at prospective tenants for the tower — primarily high-revenue businesses. In phrasing the advertisement “You belong here” the messaging indicates who does not belong: anyone who does not fit this stereotypical image of a business person. I would hazard a guess that every single one of the thousands of individuals that visited Boyle Street Community Services that year do not fit Edmonton Tower’s advertised demographic of belonging (“History & Mission”). This messaging is a (literally) massive implicit reminder that new, gentrifying tenants in Ice District do not want low-income residents sharing the space. It is a signifier of coming dispossession; it is a warning.

5. Indigenous ways of life

In many ways, Indigenous people still must conform to colonial ways of life in order to be recognized as having rights. In order to vote, for example, citizens need an address (“ID to Vote”). What kind of address can we ask of an Indigenous person who has been systematically dispossessed from their land and heritage and is now sleeping “rough” in a river valley?

An informational poster in Vanier Park with multiple acts of graffiti, including “Senakw”, scrawled in permanent marker.
Image 3

Similarly, Libby Porter outlines colonial values inherent in Indigenous land restitution: the fight against dispossession is often co-opted into a language of repossession, reinforcing a narrative of land ownership being indicative of power. To “win” the fight against dispossession, Indigenous people must play by the rules of colonialism, thereby uplifting the very systems of oppression that caused the dispossession in the first place (Porter, “Possessory”).

Here we see a photograph of a large informational board set on the edge of Vanier Park. It has been scrawled over by numerous graffiti artists. Notably, in the bottom right corner, “Seǹàḵẇ” has been written in permanent marker, a reminder of the original Salish trading village which stood on the site of Vanier Park, and which disappeared from settler maps in the 1890s (Macdonald). Indigenous legal claim over this site, a battle initiated in 1977, has necessarily been adapted to capitalism. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Squamish reclaimed an awkward fraction of the land (Roy), and have recently proposed a large rental development on site (Little). These acts of restitution, from the legal battle to the repossession and the development, have all been enacted under the framework of colonialism. Of course, to seek decolonial restitution would almost certainly have been a losing battle. I see this inked guerrilla reclamation of space as a clear recognition of what was historically stolen, but perhaps also the longing of an individual to restore that way of life in present times. Restitution is not simply a fight for land repossession, as colonialism would frame it. It is a fight for reclamation of knowledge, history, culture, justice and freedom.

According to Damien Lachet and Oleg Lavriv, two outreach workers with Boyle Street Community Services in Edmonton, Alberta, current outreach strategies toward people experiencing homelessness can often reflect colonial processes as well. They summarized anecdotally: when settlers first arrived in North America and encountered Indigenous people, they saw them living an unrefined and uncomfortable existence. In exchange for exclusive land rights, settlers offered Indigenous communities medical care, clothing, food, job opportunities, housing and land, and optional education opportunities (Duhame)¹. In their outreach work, Lachet and Lavriv walk through Edmonton’s river valley speaking to people who are sleeping rough, who are very often Indigenous. They offer food and clothing, medical care, housing and job opportunities. Despite their good intentions, they find themselves recreating the same offers that settlers originally made, only in a more secular and modern context.

Outreach work and more generally efforts to eliminate homelessness do not allow for ways of living that don’t conform to the colonial idea of a “proper” life — that is, one that contributes to the economy and which includes having a permanent structure in which to reside. As we have seen, Indigenous definitions of homelessness conflict with colonial understanding, which could simply be defined as “houselessness”. In these ways and others, colonial ideologies continue to directly affect Indigenous people and Indigenous ways of life. Despite the notion that colonialism was a historical act, Indigenous people are still actively dispossessed by colonial ideologies which deny them any non-normative way of life, and by extension, justice and healing.

Imagined Futures

If we understand decolonization to be a process, what does the end result look like? Harvey asserts that it is fruitless to imagine a specific socio-spatial utopian future, as these visions are dependent upon the current (unsatisfactory) milieu. Instead, we should insist upon a “utopia of process”, shifting emphasis “from static object-space to the space-time of relational systems” (qtd. in Corner 228). Decolonization, then, is not a means to an end; perfecting the process is the goal. Therefore, the following parameters for a decolonized future are broad, and stand to be altered and contested by those directly affected by colonization, but may give some inspiration to placemakers nonetheless.

The aim of decolonizing placemaking should be to open up space in normalized society for marginal propositions. There should be a platform for people of every background to question and resist dominant ontologies, narratives, and structures of power. Decolonization allows people the freedom and opportunity to invent their own systems of meaning and ways of life. In describing a decolonized politics of homelessness, Lancione describes these politics as “asking for infrastructures to sustain collective solidarities, in demanding harm-reduction instead of institutionalization, in asserting the right to being vagrant and free, in advocating blackness as a method, in makeshift autonomous arrangements and locally-based provisioning, and in fostering truly intersectional agendas and dialectical confrontations” (11). “It is about questioning, replacing, dismantling and transgressing the previous containments and hierarchies of spaces, power and knowledge that divided nations and cultures” (Loo 631).

Decolonizing Placemaking Processes

Now that we understand the history of colonization, in its broad definition and its ongoingness, and we have a vision for where we may be headed, the question remains of how to get there. The ways forward are many. I will begin with outlining theoretical frameworks for unlearning our own internalized colonizing ideologies. I will then move on to actionable suggestions for integrating decolonization in placemaking processes.

Theoretical frameworks

As we keep in mind our goal of dismantling existing hierarchies implicit in capitalist and colonial systems, Haraway states it might be useful to adopt reciprocal, non-innocent responsibility for and with one another (Haraway 71). This responsibility is forever ongoing, everyday, and multispecies (76). “In urgent times called the Anthropocene, … the arts for living on a damaged planet require simpoietic thinking and action” (67). This ethic can be distinguished as an accountability to, rather than a patriarchal responsibility for another (Porter, “Unlearning”). This connection to a web of responsibility is part of “grounded emplacement”: networks of significance that make up one’s own understandings of oneself and the world. Grounded emplacement gives context to self-identification through culture, religion, history, personal relationships, and spirituality, and is a necessary component of “dignified social experiences” (Thistle 7).

There is a need to shift the focus in placemaking from depoliticizing, normative, “pleasant” narratives to narratives that acknowledge risky, non-innocent accountability to one another as we create spaces for grounded emplacement and marginal propositions. There is a spectrum of revisionism on which our many solutions fall. On the one hand, we might call for a complete revolution against capitalism and colonialism, overhauling in entirety the dominating structures. On the other, there may be room within existing frameworks to create a difference. Harvey argues that while we should aim to disrupt capitalist market structures, “the cost of inequality is inefficiency”, and that we might enact socially just systems of distribution that also prioritize a very capitalist-notion of efficiency (97). Similarly, Borén and Young believe that creative placemaking ventures may be most successful “in conceptual spaces were [sic] the stakes are low and no one risks losing face.” Decolonizing work of any kind must be treated as valid, no matter where on the spectrum it might fall.

It is worth noting, too, that a paradox exists in the decolonizing and other justice-oriented work of placemakers. To pursue justice is to make an effort to overturn the hierarchical structures upon which our authority relies. As placemakers who truly believe in the necessity of democratic design and just cities, we must be willing to relinquish the power we have. We will know if our decolonizing work is successful when we no longer hold authority over public space because that authority has been turned over to the commons. Until that time, it is our obligation to continue decolonization in the name of equity, justice, and a truly democratic society.

Concrete Steps

The following is a list of curated propositions.

  1. Unlearning

Being a good person is a constant journey of learning and unlearning; we will never know it all, and there will always be room for new stories and ideas. This is to say that the pursuit for justice is constant, and it takes consistent effort. We must identify and question the biases and hidden ontologies which inform our practices. It is so easy when surrounded by people of similar opinions to find ourselves in an echo chamber for our own particular ideologies. We should search for opinions that conflict with our own. Listen to the stories of the people we fear. Seek answers to the things that we don’t understand, and read more about the things that we don’t agree with. Actively practice unlearning. Take risks, make mistakes, and apologize for them. Practice non-innocent responsibility for and with one another (Haraway 71).

2. Shifting narratives

Alongside questioning our own biases, we must leverage our power as placemakers to allow those alternative narratives to be heard. This means allowing the spaces we design to hold and tell marginal stories (Toolis). I see this being done in two ways: first, the placemaker could gather up these narratives and intentionally use them to guide the design of the site. This works within current hierarchies of power, allowing the placemaker to decide which narratives should be told and how to tell them. It is not a particularly disruptive act, perhaps more practical and less radical. Alternatively, the placemaker could intentionally design the site as a receptacle for narrative. The latter allows the public agency but has the potential for conflict between groups fighting to be heard or seen, as well as between the public and regulating bodies such as governmental agencies and police. Overall this act is more disruptive but would require certain groups to give up control (or the placemaker to skirt around existing regulations).

3. Mourning

Haraway states that in order for us to generate kinship with other (human and nonhuman) critters, we must grieve. “Grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying; human beings must grieve with, because we are in and of this fabric of undoing” (39). Haraway is primarily referring to grieving collective, irreversible ecological losses, however I would posit that in the context of urban placemaking and social justice, grieving with others in their traumas could be an essential tool for healing. To mourn with another is an exercise in empathy and compassion, as well as an acknowledgement that one person’s loss impacts us all. For example, a settler might mourn the loss of Indigenous ways of knowing for the Indigenous people that are directly impacted, as well as reflecting on how their own life may have been positively affected by that collective knowledge had it not been eradicated. In grieving with, we can facilitate compassion, meaningfully listen to marginal stories, and allow people from all walks of life to recognize and heal from losses. We become vulnerable and “at stake in each other’s company” (Van Dooren qtd. in Haraway 39).

4. Deprogramming spaces

A large lawn with Kitsilano in the background, a pond in the mid-ground, vegetation around the pond’s shoreline, and trees.
Image 4

Let’s go back to Vanier Park for a moment. This image is taken from the seaside path, looking through the park back at Kitsilano. A large undulating lawn is depicted with a pond in the mid-ground, vegetation around the pond’s shoreline, and trees dotting the landscape. This large open space is, I think, a strength of the park. Unprogrammed space is important to decolonial processes because it places agency with the people in deciding how the space should be used, thereby undermining the hierarchy that allows placemakers to prescribe program in the first place. Open spaces invite gathering and activity. Non-prescriptive green spaces invite a direct use and connection with the land — wandering, discovering, experimenting and experiencing. Though it is likely that people will always use a space for something other than its intended function, creating spaces without a specific intended function intentionally aligns the placemaker with the imagination of the public.

5. Deregulation

A 2m-tall truncated concrete pyramid being painted white with a large red “E” by two people in red coveralls.
Image 5

Deprogramming space goes hand-in-hand with deregulation. Both come down to the same principle of placing agency with the public, and bottom-up decision making with regards to use. Policy and policing should both allow for the freedom of individuals and groups to use the space how they wish, even if those uses are deemed unconventional or unsavory to the ruling class. Deregulation is not always in the power of the placemaker, but at the very least we can become vocal advocates from our place in the hierarchy.

A good example of deregulation is seen in the UBC Engineering Cairn. Pictured in the photograph being repainted, the cairn is typically painted white with a large red “E”. Legends abound with regards to the cairn, whose previous iterations were caught in the crossfire of an interdepartmental feud between engineers and forestry students (Wodarczak). Perhaps because the cairn was not erected according to UBC plans, it has been co-opted by students from all faculties as a message board of sorts. It seems as though graffiti is fair game, event advertising is common, and activist messages are encouraged (u/ubyssey). In general the spirit of the cairn’s constant defacement is lighthearted; engineering students can commonly be seen repainting their red “E”, only to have it co-opted again soon after. In essence, the Engineering Cairn becomes a receptacle for narratives silenced in more formal venues. It is a posterboard for marginal stories, non-normative opinions, and, of course, the occasional artistic rendering of genitalia. This is what true democracy looks like.

6. Democratic design

Similarly, advocating for a bottom-up politics of action (Lancione 4) is inherently decolonial by deconstructing our normative hierarchies of power. In placemaking, this means creating spaces for acts of resistance (through deprogramming and deregulation), and using principles of democratic design to truly serve the public and not just the narratives of the ruling class.

7. Indigenous restitution

Letter-sized posters that say “Missing: Senakw” with colonial history taped on existing signage in Vanier Park.
Image 6

Perhaps the most obvious step toward decolonization is Indigenous restitution. On the scale from disruptive to non-disruptive, there are many ways to go about restitution — land acknowledgements to complete Indigenous land repossession, and everything in between. In Vanier Park, the only acknowledgement of colonial legacies that were immediately obvious were guerrilla acts of resistance — the name of the original Salish trading village which inhabited the site drawn in marker on an informational board, and “Missing” posters outlining the site’s colonial history taped up on existing signage. All this despite the fact that in 2002 the Squamish repossessed a small portion of the land (Roy). What would Indigenous restitution look like in a place such as Vanier Park?

A placemaker working in this space could:

  • Lobby to give the land back to the Indigenous groups that once called it home
  • Rename the park to Senakw (or Snauq), or another name decided by the Indigenous community
  • Use signage and educational programming to acknowledge the colonial history of the site
  • Allow space in the site for Indigenous people to tell their own stories of ongoing colonial legacies
  • Set aside space for Indigenous gatherings, ceremonies and programs
  • Remove celebratory narratives of colonialism, such as existing artwork and memorials
  • Most importantly, consult with Indigenous communities, compensate them for their time, and implement their ideas; community consultation is worthless if nothing tangible comes of their labour.

8. Policy

Policy can be a useful tool operating within current hierarchies of power to increase equitable distribution of resources. For example, policy may currently be the most effective way to decrease resulting gentrification in areas where urban greening is pursued. Marcuse provides an overview of policy measures for avoiding gentrification which could prove useful to placemakers involved in policy development (1265–1266).

9. Design justice

The Design Justice Network is an organization that aims to “create design practices that center those who stand to be most adversely impacted by design decisions in design processes” (“Design Justice”). They offer a set of principles that guide designers toward just practices. The principles are adjusted as needed, and their website offers a list of signatories, to which anybody can join. Placemakers dedicated to just practices can sign the network principles or use them as a guide in their own fields. It may also be useful to seek out design projects that are already fostering justice in cities. Not only do justice projects prove inspirational and informative to our own practices, they also lend a hopeful lens to a topic that is at times very difficult to navigate (Williams 2218).

10. Critical placemaking

Perhaps all of these propositions can most succinctly be summed up in the context of this discussion as “critical placemaking” (Toolis). I view critical placemaking as happening in 3 stages. First, urban placemakers must cultivate our own critical lenses; we must educate ourselves and decide where our own values intersect with the act of placemaking. Second, we must allow our values to guide our practices, resulting in spaces that reflect our own deeply-held convictions for justice. We should also become advocates for justice in our respective fields and as members of our larger communities. Third, we should allow space (physical and otherwise) for others to express their own forms of justice. This includes integrating deprogrammed areas in public spaces that make room for marginal propositions and acts of resistance. Because our position of authority over public spaces is owed to colonialism, it is our responsibility to common this power for publicly-initiated decolonizing acts.


Understanding colonization involves consideration of much more than an attempted act of genocide a century ago. As a hierarchy of power, colonization is inherently and intimately connected to capitalism and patriarchy. Decolonization, then, must be understood not just as reconciliation and Indigenous restitution, but also as the dismantling of normative systems of oppression. Placemakers have a responsibility to return power over public spaces to the public. This can be done through critical placemaking that utilizes deprogramming, deregulation, policy, and narrative to create spaces which make room for marginal propositions and acts of resistance. While all these acts are valid methods of decolonization, they fall onto a spectrum from revolutionary to minimally disruptive; placemakers must consider where they intend their practices to land.

It should be noted that, somewhat paradoxically, decolonization is incompatible with the current power hierarchies on which placemakers’ authority relies. Therefore, any placemaker truly advocating for decolonization must be willing to relinquish that authority if and when the time comes. Decolonization begins with self-reflection and requires a constant cycle of learning and unlearning. Only by recognizing the ways in which colonialism holds territory over our own ontologies can we work toward liberation from these systems of oppression. Most importantly, because colonialism relies on the normative narratives of the ruling class, seeking Indigenous and other marginalized perspectives is absolutely critical to practicing decolonization.


  1. Though a discussion on the deceit of the treaties is beyond the scope of this paper, I would highly encourage any settler reader if you are not already familiar with them, to investigate treaty history.

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Image Sources

1: Oakes, Christen. “Gateway to the North-West Passage in Vanier Park.” 2018. JPEG.

2: Google. “Streetview.” Digital images, Google Maps (, July 2018. Photograph of 10112 104 Ave NW, Edmonton AB.

3: Oakes, Christen. “Graffiti in Vanier Park” 2018. JPEG.

4: Oakes, Christen. “Vanier Park” 2018. JPEG.

5: Oakes, Christen. “UBC Engineering Cairn” 2018. JPEG.

6: Oakes, Christen. “Missing posters in Vanier Park” 2018. JPEG.