Global Urban Wilds: Layered Explorations of Digital and Green Space

Springing into summer here in Montreal, there is little time better spent than frequenting the city’s many parks and green spaces. But whether sunbathing on the slopes of Mont Royal or picnic-ing in Parc Jarry, it is easy to overlook the careful curation that attends ordered trees and levelled grass.


Addressing green space as a place for retreat and scenic appreciation is tied to a distinctly colonial approach to ecological control. Across North America, lands and waterways are often altered to make them appear “wild” and “untouched” from particular vantage points. Parks are labelled as green spaces with views framed as picture points. Whether in a city or national park, the viewer is set apart from the land itself, placing the individual in a position of power. The 18th century obsession with the environmental aesthetics of a “picturesque” landscape remains strong (Byerly 53). 
At the same time, on the edge of Montreal’s eclectic Mile End neighbourhood, Drs. Jill Didur and Lai-Tze Fan of Concordia University’s English Department and TAG Research Centre are using locative media technologies to encourage an alternative approach to understanding and appreciating the layered histories of urban green spaces.

 

Nestled between 70s’ industrial architecture, Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, and the high grey walls of a Carmelite convent, the Champ des Possibles stands as a “re-wilding” of sorts, designated as a community green space cooperatively managed by Les Amis du Champ des Possibles and the Borough Plateau-Mont Royal since 2013 (Ambard). The site provides a place for citizens to interact with nature, for wildlife to live and move safely within an urban environment, and for countering the ecological effects of storm-water run off, land pollution, and an urban heat island (Ambard).

While the Champ des Possibles is currently home to more than 300 species of plants, animals, and insects, serving as a thoroughfare for foxes and commuting residents alike, Drs. Didur and Fan hope to further complicate the community’s relationship with this particular space through the development of Global Urban Wilds, a locative media application (Bruemmer; Didur and Fan 5-6). As the latest research creation project within Dr. Didur’s larger, SSHRC-funded Insight grant entitled, Greening Narrative, both Didur and Fan, along with computational artist Emma Saboureau and sound specialist Eric Powell have been collaborating with the park’s caretakers, experts in biodiversity and urban wilds, as well as local residents and business owners to develop an interconnected web of stories, pictures, and “found sounds” that can be accessed by moving through the park with a GPS-enabled mobile device (Ibid 5).

This form of distinctly place-based storytelling, accessed through the Global Urban Wilds app, “prioritizes thinking about how locative media can engage citizen publics in thinking about the history of the environment and its relationship to culture, industrialization, colonialism as well as climate change” (Didur interview). While urban green spaces are often considered places to escape from the chaos of the city, they too retain industrial and colonial histories that remain part of a larger urban environment. Working to “complicate romantic ideas of retreat associated with greenspaces in urban contexts,” not only do Didur and Fan encourage an inquisitive understanding and interaction with “environmental placemaking,” but also they do so in a way that draws the eye beyond the green space itself, to the buildings, peoples, and histories that make up this city as a whole (Didur and Fan 1). Beginning to understand the stories of individuals and communities that have contributed to the Champ des Possibles over the years can help residents to engage with Montreal’s own complex history.

As wireless technologies and GPS receivers have become more readily available since the beginning of the 21st century, this new platform has inspired alternative methods of exploration, education, and entertainment through the development of locative media projects. Whether avoiding digital “minefields” in Brazilian public parks (Claudio Bueno), hunting Pokemon on the commute to work (John Hanke), or mapping multifaceted ecological explorations in Montpellier, France (Teri Rueb), various applications of locative technologies enable users to bear witness to the overlapping experience of other spaces, times, and subjects. At the Champ des Possibles, Global Urban Wild users will be encouraged to wander beyond well-worn paths in search of historical accounts, interviews, and soundscapes of other seasons, individuals, and stories that are woven into the fabric of the place itself. For instance, by entering GPS locations in the Champ, “collectibles” in the form of icons are added to the screen, with each icon corresponding to a series of pullouts with added information.

As the Champ des Possibles strives to honour the history of the land by encouraging the introduction of native plants and local wildlife, Global Urban Wilds enables the park-goer to access and acknowledge a complex history of the community and the land itself, “celebrating its current status as a protected green space while also guard[ing] against the potential erasure of the precolonial role Indigenous communities have played in shaping the landscape and the environment” (Ibid 4). While the city of Montreal gears up to celebrate the 375th anniversary of its establishment on unceded Indigenous land, it is important to acknowledge the alternative histories that have contributed to the development of an urban, colonial space.

Pushing back against idealized greenscapes and seemingly “wild” urban ecologies, projects like Global Urban Wilds, point to “the need for further inquiry and consciousness of the precisely non-urban and non-human” (Ibid 7), laying the foundation for the inquisitive exploration of spaces we already occupy and believe to understand.

Global Urban Wilds will be available for free download at the Apple App Store by the end of 2018.