Sunday, November 19, 2006

Understanding urban wilds and the need for public input

Signal Hill. A few hundred hectares at the edge of a city that boomed while others, like New York were mudholes, to paraphrase one friend. Its flanks have been traipsed upon my French and English garrisons. D'Iberville and Marconi amongst a million others have left their footprints.

It's crowded with history yet one can wander for hours amongst a groundcover of rhodera and crowberry, languish in summer heat under branches of white birch and spruce, watch a hawk cruise a wetland, taste wild berries, be dazzled by vertiginous cliffs. Feel gloriously Away.

But someone wants to implant an order on this marvellous disorder of decades. Someone has decided that this, after all, is not wild and therefore should be gentrified, citified, urbanized. Children, parents, neighbours, residents, taxpayers, visitors have no say in this. Those who have for years scoured the warren-like maze of paths on the hills, who know this place has history, even a little wild grace, now have no say in the new 'interpretation' of this site.

Now we will have a theme park. Now we will be told about the ground cover, the trees and shrubs, the berries (brought over from the old country), the rocks. Appropriate signs to guide our thoughts and dull our curiosity, "As far as I know, no one has ever been inspired by an interpretation park to write great literature," opines one of our great writers, Susan Rendell about this development.

I thought that such attitudes had vanished years ago. That merchant-class 'what's best for you' tone gone the way of the dodo. The great auk. Apparently not. It thrives in St. John's. Still. Has hushed our City Council. We hear diddly-squat from them on how this came to be - no plans, no approval, no permits. Nada.

And we must be grateful.

Somehow, this doesn't quite sit in 2006.

Yes, this is about two things. One. We have a wild urban space. Meaning, it's wild, not untouched but now it's part of a reclaimed space. And for years a part of a space for children and adults to play, discover, find both physical and spiritual solace away the noisy, hard-surfaced everyday hubbub of the city. And, you can bet your life on it - there's valuable wetlands and creatures and plants, too. And two, people should have a say about how this land is used. We should all have a say. This is crown, public land, not private land. But Crown land - and - to boot - adjacent to a National Historic Site.

Who is the Johnson Family Foundation to decide that these lands are not significant enough to protect? Or that their brand of conservation is suitable in this instance?

We must accept that sometimes, the best stewardship simply means letting things be. Rather than create equal access to peoples of different mobilities the integrity of certain places, like the fen, would be best served by allowing no-one to enter it.

But the bottom line is due process. Mayor Wells acknowledged this should have gone through public consultation. Full public debate. And yet this is still missing: the bulldozers continue. What am I missing? What is the public missing?

We're missing the fact that the public should and needs to be consulted about development on lands that concern them. This concerns us all. Due Process. Accountability. Common courtesy. it's missing.


Michael said...

Dinos are dead yet, Alison. They live among us... However, your petition is at 67 (as of Sunday night) and growing. I sent copies to friends who love St John's, so there'll be more soon!

squidink said...

Thanks Michael.

Matt said...

First let me preface by stating unequivocally that the Johnson Family Foundation is above reproach. Their mandate and dedication, to this our city and province as a whole, is above question especially from well meaning but ill-informed pseudo-environmentalists.

I am a biologist (BSc Memorial, MSc Queens, Phd Cornell), environmental activist and animal welfare advocate. As a conservation biologist I have provided professional opinions on some of the biggest and most controversial developments around the world. Yet I am disgusted by what this blogger and her loyal lap dogs are suggesting in my own province.

It is perhaps most surprising that she uses ecological reasons in an attempt to prevent a conservation tool from being developed. She languishs on about the romanticism of wild places, wild things and the mystery of morning dew on newly spun spider webs, yet seeks to oppose a educational too designed to protect those exact same places!

As a biologist I am smugly afforded access to some of the most awe inspiring natural areas in the world. Unfortunately, no matter the significance of my own personal experiences, they have no significance to conservation as a whole, unless I can quantify, qualify and publish my observations so that my experience can serve some greater good.

Romanticism make for some fantastic limericks and prose but is “like teats on a bullock at a milking shed “ for educational purposes. I would feel disappointed if my children did not have access to great literary works but I would be most disappointed if their children grew up without a sound ecosystem surrounding them.

This begins with informed scientific knowledge. Tomes of prose will not serve to enhance the understand of our children and impress upon them the importance of maintaining ecological integrity.

Therefore my professional opinion is:

1. This project will serve to enhance general publics access to natural areas. This access will increase the volume of public (of varying ages and abilities) visiting the site thereby increasing the intended educational reach.

2. This project will enhance the scientific knowledge of the general public visiting the site. This scientific knowledge will initiate an understanding of basic biological/geological processes and impress upon visitors the importance of natural spaces, and their protection.

3. 10% of the site developed for educational purposes while over 90% remains in it natural state is a justifiable and admirable compromise. This is a percent development rate less then that seen in other natural areas, specifically many National Parks world wide.

4. The presence of this site and the number of visitors to it will serve to increase civic pride in the area and may serve to decrease the volume of waste dumping that occurs in the area.

5. Due to the history of the Johnson Family Foundations previous projects and its commitment to scientific accuracy they are an ideal candidate to initiate the project on the site.

6. If this project is developed according to provincial and federal environmental protection legislation there will be minimal disturbance or impact at the site.

If this project seems in danger of not proceeding I, as would my colleagues, must out of good conscience put our collective professional support, and scientific influence behind the project.

Laura said...

I just found a link for this blog in the 'Current' and I just have to say.....SHAME ALISON, SHAME.

How dare you try and pit the scientific and art communities against each other!

I would rather see 15,000 members of the public on the hill every day learning then 15 writers watching hawks and eating wildberries.

It might be time you reevaluate your priorities.

I am currently drafting a letter to the Johnson Family Foundaion, and the city to be signed by the people in our department in support of the project, and would urge anyone else conserned to do the same.