Through an Indigenous Lens: A Shift From Placemaking to Placekeeping
Matthew Hickey, architect and partner at Two Row Architect, an Indigenous owned and operated architecture firm, explains how city builders can prioritize placekeeping.
Published on June 15, 2022
The World Economic Forum has called public spaces the “living rooms, gardens and corridors of urban areas.”
These vital spaces connect us, and provide areas for social interaction and economic activity.
In what city builders typically call placemaking, public spaces are being thoughtfully designed and managed to strengthen the connection between people and these spaces.
But placemaking is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to shaping urban space.
“We don’t even use the term placemaking because the place is already there. The ground is already there,” says Matthew Hickey, architect and partner at Two Row Architect, an Indigenous owned and operated architecture firm, located on Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve.
Instead, he points to placekeeping — an approach to city building that prioritizes ecological, historical and cultural relationships in the care of ‘place’. Hickey helps shed some light on the Indigenous approach to placekeeping, and how planners, designers and other city builders can use a placekeeping approach in their work.
What is placekeeping in cities?
Placekeeping goes beyond the planning and design of public spaces — it’s the active care and maintenance of the space. Hickey, who is Mohawk, says placekeeping means thinking about how we’re affecting the world around us.
“For Two Row, placekeeping is really about how we respect our relations — the wind, the water, the land, the animals — and thinking about how we can build in a way that respects and enhances those. Through that enhancement, we’re also, ultimately, enhancing life for humanity.”
He calls the pandemic a “big catalyst” for changing the way we think about placekeeping in cities. When city streets became temporarily devoid of traffic, Hickey says he was struck by the lack of life in our urban areas.
“I could hear the birds, but where were the birds hanging out? There were no trees there. So I think it’s really important that we have more spaces that are beneficial for not only humans, but for all of the relations that we’ve displaced.”
Indigenous design perspectives
Hickey’s work focuses on the concepts of integrated landscape, accessibility, food equity, the importance of water, and placekeeping for all species.
“How can we give back some of the ground plane to allow other relations to enjoy that area. To allow water to come in, to allow birds to come in, to allow trees to communicate with each other.”
But placekeeping, and re-Indigenizing our cities, also means bringing the presence of Indigenous histories and futures into focus.
Hickey points to one of Two Row Architect’s projects — Odeyto, the Indigenous Centre at Seneca College in Toronto — as an example of prioritizing keeping place. Created in partnership with Gow Hastings Architects, the space is home away from home for Indigenous students to gather; not only to practice their traditions but also to find new friendships and family while away from their communities.
The design was inspired by the image of a canoe pulling up to a dock, making a stop to gather knowledge before continuing on life’s journey.
Advice for city builders
The way we were building 50 years ago isn’t the way we should be building now, Hickey says.
“The way we think about collection of water, the way we think about our streetscapes, the way we utilize our parks, are all completely different.”
But, in order to utilize placekeeping principles, he says city builders need to understand the context and history of the place. “Understanding that place deeply. Going beyond just the heritage of the buildings or the built form. Going back thousands of years — who was here, what was here?”
Hickey also wants city builders to switch from the idea of placemaking to placekeeping. “We don't have that power to make place. It's here. And we are trying to take care of it.”
This paradigm shift, as Hickey calls it, ensures that placekeeping isn’t solely focused on preserving buildings, but on the ability of people to preserve their way of life.
Placekeeping practices are multi-faceted and respond to complex and interconnected issues within communities such as health and wellbeing, cultural and spiritual values, ecological health and sustainability, rights and governance, political activism, identity and belonging, and food sovereignty.
The Civic-Indigenous Engagement Toolkit, produced by Evergreen and Future Cities Canada, offers examples of best practices in urban placekeeping partnerships. Read some of the case studies for more information.
Evergreen has also been active in school ground greening for many years, working closely with design consultants like Terence Radford, an award-winning Métis landscape architect. Read about how placekeeping informs his work.