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An aerial view of Fort York / Tkaronto, looking over the Gardiner Expressway and the Toronto Island Airport.

Understanding place is an integral part of Indigenous design. The simplest way to explain the difference between colonial views and Indigenous ways of thinking is to look at how places are named. Consider Fort York vs. Tkaronto; the former is a reference to a military presence and a cathedral town in Britain, the latter means “the place in the water where the trees are standing.” While some may see something primitive in Indigenous Peoples’ deep reverence for nature, the reality is that we are all completely dependent on it for sustenance and happiness. 

Decolonization of this Toronto landmark begins with recognizing that it, like many places in Canada, was formerly inhabited by Indigenous people. Tkaronto would have been home to the Haudenosaunee, Mississaugas, Anishnawbe and Wendat peoples for thousands of years. We, as Indigenous people, see this as an important place to start “re”-conciliation. In our practice of architecture, and as Indigenous people, we approach place through a deep understanding of the site’s environs and the history imbedded there, including study of the area’s natural processes and of the beings that have made it their home. Documenting the history allows us to see that our sites are alive and they change over time, which can in turn affect the approach we take in designing and building contemporary spaces.

As we reconsider place names, the terms we apply to place-making likewise merit closer scrutiny. When it comes to the word inclusivity, most people will think of accessibility – maybe AODA standards or universal design principles. But I want you to think about inclusivity in a way that encompasses not just every-one but every-thing. The flowers, the rain, the animals, the insects, the sun, and then humans. We have forgotten that we share this world with millions of other species, and it is time we start thinking about not just what we design but how we design, in a manner that acknowledges that humans are only one part of this enormous system. This is the first step to producing design through Indigenous knowledge: We must appreciate that we are part of a system that is larger and, in many ways, more important than ourselves.   

Humans were placed on this earth with unique gifts that have allowed us to dominate the landscape. Now, imagine this same landscape through a larger lens, one that zooms out from humanity to all living species. As we work towards an equitable urban realm that helps reconcile differences in physical ability, race, caste and social status, and the human-imposed artificial hierarchies that are echoed in our architecture and urban landscapes, we must also ask ourselves what would happen if we placed ourselves within the system, as opposed to above the system. What benefits would we realize through understanding the importance of our connection with nature – with rain, with the life energy of amphibians? How would this approach help to heal our cities, making them not only a safer place for humans, but a safer place for all living things?

All of these big questions reflect the same philosophy – one that removes us humans from having domination over the land and places us in an equal partnership with the world around us. Decolonizing the way we think about design and architecture and the processes by which we create the built environment begins with taking humans off the top of the pyramid and placing them as an equal part of a circle.   

A graphic showing the difference between a hierarchical system (represented as a pyramid) and connected system (represented as a circle).

This may all seem like a lofty dream. In fact, it’s ancient knowledge. Here are a few ways in which this approach can impact the design process and well as the final result:

Consultation vs. Relationship-Building

Consultation has long been deemed an important part of Indigenous design, as it directly relates to our cultural practices of consensus building through conversation. I like to think of “consultation” more as relationship building. Whereas a consultation process is often viewed as a finite – even perfunctory – practice, a relationship continues on long after the architecture is complete. It’s not about just checking a box; it means that conversations continue from pre-design all the way through the design process.

In our architectural practice at Two Row Architect, we put this way of thinking into action through several rounds of initial consultation. We typically like to start with talking-circles, where we would pose a series of open-ended questions about the project to a group of around 10 people. These questions would be answered one-by-one, each round ending with a discussion. This engagement helps direct the design process; it also strengthens the community of stakeholders through open dialogue.

A graphic illustrating the difference between linear thinking (represented as a straight line between two points) and cyclical thinking (represented as a circle).

Landscape as a Resource

You don’t need to read a book on the science of biophilia to experience how healing it is to take a walk in the forest. Placing nature first in our approach to design benefits humans and the natural world. Our landscapes should not be a secondary thought; they should drive our design approaches, especially in urban environments where nature has been stripped to isolated trees in a concrete prison.  

What would happen if we approached urban landscapes as a resource, where we planted not only for aesthetics but for function? Food equality and access to food is a major issue around the globe – it is for this very reason that the UN’s World Food Program has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By prioritizing our landscapes and then planting them in a manner that supports growing our nourishment we can begin to address issues of food security.

In Two Row Architect’s work with Biindigen in Hamilton, Ontario – a project driven by Indigenous service providers – we have put community, family, health, food and ceremony at the forefront. Urban agriculture has led the layout of the site, with the buildings’ massing melting to create the best angles for food production. The built form has in fact followed sun and wind angles; in this way, it is reminiscent of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where the preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings demonstrate how well our forebears understood the benefits of their natural surroundings. 

Place-Making vs. Place-Keeping

This type of land stewardship is called place-keeping. Embracing its benefits is key to an Indigenous approach to design. One way to view this practice is to attempt to understand the capacity of any given landscape by thoroughly investigating what it can support. This is accomplished by studying the history of the site, including the displacement of its natural systems, and giving great consideration to the seventh generation looking forward. A design based on place-keeping takes into account the full lifecycle of site and place. It’s not about signifying an Indigenous presence through token iconography. Place-keeping is understanding the importance of that place for all living things.   

A distant view of the Toronto skyline from the Lake Ontario waterfront, depicting the city within a natural context.

The value of place for Indigenous people is not found in dollars per acre; it is rooted in the understanding that the land is what allows us all to live. Developers would never demonetize the value of a parcel of land; in reality, they do the exact opposite in the pursuit of the exceedingly narrow aim of profit. It takes strength to value the whole and not just the part – that is, to ensure that what is built is best for every-one and every-thing and not for just the bottom line.  

Universal Inclusivity

The Indigenous Hub in Toronto Promises a Brighter Future
Integrating facilities for healing, education and childcare in one purpose-built project, the Indigenous Hub promises to provide a safe space informed by Indigenous design tenets.

Respect for all living things: This is what I call universal inclusivity. This is inclusivity that goes beyond physical abilities, race, gender, and into species, climate and the land itself. By keeping-place for all we push towards a greater acceptance of the various users of the place. Respect for the site, attained by educating ourselves of the space’s intent, is key. It makes everyone aware of the importance of all who inhabit the space, and this education–awareness component supports safe relations, similar to the way we respect religious sites because we understand their history.

The design of safe spaces goes beyond making people feel physically safe. Created landscapes should support health across all aspects of life, including mental health. How we think about safety itself needs to similarly extend to protection of our health on many levels. Through approaching design in a manner that addresses more than just the basic human need of shelter and by acknowledging that the world around us plays a significant part in our health, physical and mental, we start to realize that inclusive design is not just about reconciling our human relationships. It is really about understanding how we constitute one piece that fits into the larger cycle of the earth.  

Matthew Hickey is a Mohawk from the Six Nations First Nation and a licensed architect with 12 years of experience working in an on-reserve architecture firm. As a senior partner with Two Row Architect, Hickey’s focus is on regenerative design – encompassing ecological, cultural and economic principles. His research includes Indigenous history and the adaptation of traditional sustainable technologies to the modern North American climate.

Decolonizing Design: The Case for Universal Inclusivity

Mohawk architect Matthew Hickey (of Two Row Architect) argues that designing safer public spaces starts with broadening our definition of inclusivity.

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