The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Aboriginal urban design

By in News


Tree grates might seem an unusual focal point but Ryan Walker says the ones at River Landing are an important example of First Nations culture in Saskatoon’s urban design.

“Some people may see it as fairly small scale but it’s the process that was used that’s important,” said Walker, chair of the Regional and Urban Planning Program at the U of S.

A Saskatoon urban design team worked with a council of local elders to add First Nations culture to River Landing.
River Landing tree grates
“The fact that they used this process working with First Nations elders, that’s an important process in a public development,” said Walker. “It’s a major public space for Saskatoon and so everything that happens at River Landing takes on symbolic meaning for the city because it’s such a central hallmark public development.”

An upcoming lecture by Patrick Reid Stewart called “Indigeneity in Architecture and Urban Design” will examine incorporating First Nations and Métis design into Saskatoon’s urban spaces. Funded through the Canadian Pacific Railway Partnership Program in Aboriginal Community Planning and the College of Arts and Science, the lecture is third in the Great Places lecture series offered through the University of Saskatchewan Regional and Urban Planning Program and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

Stewart, an architect based out of B.C. and president of the National Aboriginal Housing Association, lives on Tzeachten First Nation near Chilliwack and did doctoral work in community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia. Despite Stewart’s apparent expertise in the area, Walker says indigeneity in urban design is very new.

“The topic is a challenging one because the topic he’s going to be addressing is whether or not indigeneity or aboriginality is a relevant sort of cultural approach in the built environment.”

More generally, Walker says indigenous design includes minimization of corners and closed spaces, flowing architecture and circular and flowing design. Examples include architecture like the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, designed by Douglas Cardinal, but also design in the spaces between buildings, like the tree grates at River Landing or the statue of Chief Whitecap and John Lake at the foot of the Traffic Bridge. Walker also mentions things like prairie grass, murals and street names as possibilities.

Urban design is broader than architecture, Walker explained, and the built environment includes everything from landscaping design to street layouts, signage and the general appeal of a place.

“River Landing is one of those rare opportunities cities get to create a symbolic space to represent who Saskatoon is. Who are the people of Saskatoon and what do they value?”

Focusing on how to better incorporate First Nations culture into Saskatoon’s design may also have a wider sociological impact, says Walker.

“We always go to things that people perceive to be ”˜most pressing,’ ” he said, mentioning crime, social marginalization, low income and housing issues. “You can’t turn your back on those issues but you also have to work on a more positive front.”

Part of creating that positive front is to create an understanding of what indigeneity in urban design actually is. September marked the first year U of S students can major in community planning and native studies. Walker sees this as an entry point to many First Nations and Metis kids who are already involved in the arts.

“There is a lot of creativity among young people . . . and engaging that creativity, like in architecture and urban design, can be a really rewarding career path for young First Nations and Metis people, as well as one we could do more to open up. We know that community arts programs are popular and it’s only a half step from a community arts program to a professional designer.”

Stewart’s talk is also part of the Design Council of Saskatchewan’s Design Week, an event held once every two years to celebrate architecture, urban planning, interior design and civil engineering. Running from Oct. 26 to 30, events include a speakers series, the Building Saskatchewan Green 6th Annual Conference Expo and the Premier’s Awards for Excellence in Design, in which Stewart will also be a juror.

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photo Robby Davis

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