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Compassionate Design for Social Change: Vancouver’s Oppe...

Compassionate Design for Social Change: Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

Although frequently ignored in mainstream discourse, the City of Vancouver, British Columbia sits on unceded First Nations’ land. Years of systematic neglect have transformed Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, now called the Downtown Eastside (DTES), into essentially an urban reserve. The DTES, historically home to marginalized groups, is the single poorest postal code in Canada. Despite the

The communities of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhoodAlthough frequently ignored in mainstream discourse, the City of Vancouver, British Columbia sits on unceded First Nations’ land. Years of systematic neglect have transformed Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, now called the Downtown Eastside (DTES), into essentially an urban reserve. The DTES, historically home to marginalized groups, is the single poorest postal code in Canada. Despite the extreme poverty and urban decay found in this neighbourhood, positive change is slowly beginning with activists targeting the root of the problem itself – the land.

The Oppenheimer Park Redesign Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park is located in the heart of the DTES. Prior to 2010, patterns of neglect in the DTES had left the park in disrepair, riddled by drug trafficking and violence. A drastic redesign by the City, in conjunction with landscape architects and DTES residents, has transformed the once drug-plagued park into a vibrant space for the local community.

The goal of the developers was to maintain the rich history of the neighbourhood in the redesign while adding modern design elements that would breathe life back into the park. Even more important than the additions that the design team has made to the park, are the elements that they have removed. The new park is unfenced, contains low shrubbery as opposed to dense vegetation that was used for storing drug stashes, and a playground with a rubber surface to replace the hazardous former sandpit. The park’s pièce de résistance, however, is the 30-foot totem pole that serves to commemorate those who have lost their lives in the DTES.

The 30-foot Totem Pole of Oppenheimer Park

A rehabilitated park may not solve years of neglect and suffering, but in the two years since the completion of the new Oppenheimer Park a beat has returned to the heart of the DTES community. Most significantly, the restoration has provided the DTES residents, primarily the urban Aboriginal population, with the rare opportunity to have a voice in the design of land that historically and legally belongs to them.

How do we ensure that marginalized communities have the opportunity to contribute to urban revitalization?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

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Courtney McLaughlin holds an undergraduate degree in Communication Studies from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. An avid traveler, her interests are public space modification in Canadian cities and sustainable urban ...

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