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07.12.21 – Alissa North to research ways of integrating Indigenous knowledge and landscape architecture

Using newly announced funding from the Connaught Community Partnerships Research Program — Indigenous Stream, associate professor Alissa North is participating in a joint effort with the Winnipeg-based Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) to find new ways of blending the practice of landscape architecture with the knowledge possessed by Indigenous peoples.

North and her team have met with representatives of First Nations in southern Manitoba to collaboratively uncover natural infrastructure strategies that are compatible with Indigenous knowledge — that is, the body of expertise that an Indigenous community accumulates, over generations, about the natural world. Indigenous knowledge provides a way of understanding nature that is rooted in tradition, culture, and spirituality.

The goal of the project is to develop a way of allowing landscape architecture and Indigenous knowledge to work together towards a shared goal: cleaning up the south basin of Lake Winnipeg, a notoriously polluted body of water that is plagued by harmful algal blooms. The blooms are caused by an overabundance of nutrients, like phosphorous, which trickle into the lake from nearby farms and communities.

North will be working on the project with two Master of Landscape Architecture students, Emily Switzer Martell and Benson Yuhao.

"There's a big impact on communities surrounding the lake," says Richard Farthing-Nichol, a project manager with CIER. "The algal blooms are increasing in size, severity, and intensity every summer. They clog intake pipes and fishing gear, and they're really bad for the ecosystem."

bioswale by North Design Office at the McMichael Gallery

A bioswale at the McMichael Gallery in Ontario by North Design Studio.

CIER, a First Nation–directed non-profit charitable organization, has been working with Indigenous communities on environmental issues since 1995. The organization's involvement with efforts to clean up Lake Winnipeg began in 2017, when it helped establish the Collaborative Leadership Initiative (CLI), a partnership between 28 mayors, reeves, and chiefs, representing 16 municipalities and 11 First Nations in southern Manitoba.

The CLI's membership decided to tackle the problem of Lake Winnipeg's algal blooms using a natural-infrastructure approach — meaning natural processes would be used to clean the water, rather than artificial chemicals or manmade filtration systems. But it was important to all involved that this new natural infrastructure align with the needs and values of First Nations communities and municipalities near the lake. "We wanted to look at how we could ensure that this network of natural infrastructure reflects Indigenous community knowledge and values, both in the design and construction," Farthing-Nichol says. "The CLI structure is rooted in reconciliation and Indigenous-municipal partnership, and it is important that these projects reflect that approach."

CIER approached the University of Toronto's Connaught Fund for help with the effort, and that's how North got involved.

North and her team spent the winter and spring meeting with groups from the CLI's partner municipalities and First Nations. The researchers will use the information they gather in those meetings to develop a set of proposed best practices for combining western science and Indigenous knowledge to build natural infrastructure for Lake Winnipeg.

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge is a new and largely untested idea in the landscape architecture discipline. North says that there have been few documented attempts to marry the two approaches. But she's confident that there is a way. "I'm finding that landscape architecture, in terms of our ambitions with green infrastructure, is really in line with a lot of traditional knowledge," North says. "I'm curious to see where this goes."

North will draw upon the knowledge of First Nations communities to identify sites for natural infrastructure projects. She and her students will develop a master plan and produce guidebooks that explain potential approaches for developing natural infrastructure in ways that value Indigenous knowledge.

"We're trying to come up with a master plan that's going to be satisfying to people from a remediation perspective, but that can be implemented in sensitive ways," North says. "We don't want to propose remediation in spaces that are either sacred sites, or sites that have importance in other ways to Indigenous communities. It's going to be a process of understanding and discussion."

CIER intends to use North's findings to help build a pilot program, where different natural infrastructure techniques will be tried on an experimental basis in key locations around the lake. The final step will be to fund large-scale implementation using a "water quality trading" program — a system of environmental credit exchange similar to the carbon-trading programs that are already in use in Canada and in other countries around the world. (Essentially, polluters buy "credits," which subsidize cleanup efforts.)

But even before any of the on-the-ground work begins, the process of blending landscape architecture and Indigenous knowledge is expected to yield useful insights. "Hopefully, through the work Alissa and her team are doing, we can come away with some good ideas for protocols and processes we can have in place to make sure we're really mainstreaming the idea of Indigenous knowledge and values in project design," Farthing-Nichol says.

Read more about the Connaught-funded research projects in U of T News