Gelila Mekonnen and Nahomi Amberber joined our Safe in Public Space initiative as our inaugural Public Space Fellows, interrogating the meaning of public safety during a global pandemic and heightened focus on anti-Black racism.
Safe in Public Space was a multifaceted initiative that aimed to broaden the definition of public safety to address new public health challenges presented by COVID as well as systemic inequities, and ensure that there is a shared social contract governing public space access and use.
How do we define public safety and for whom? Where are safety and accessibility at odds, and how can those conflicts lead to new creative solutions that reshape public space and give people the confidence to re-engage in the city without anxiety?
As emerging professionals in public health and urban planning, the 2021 Fellows helped shape editorial content and community engagement, while conducting independent research.
In this exchange, Nahomi and Gelila touch base to discuss what they have learned during their time as fellows, share their personal highlights, and discuss their hopes for the future of The Bentway, beyond the Safe in Public Space initiative.
What’s one highlight from your time as a Fellow?
Nahomi: During the first Safe in Public Space virtual talk we had, which you so amazingly put together, Ravyn introduced, at least to me, this concept of Sankofa (Twi word meaning “Go back and get it”) , which invokes this image of a bird moving forward but looking backward and holding this precious egg in its mouth. And it’s about understanding your history and context before making decisions and before moving forward. And that idea is definitely a learning I hope to incorporate into future things that I do.
Gelila: Yeah, it was the first time I had actually encountered that as well so I completely feel you on that. For me, it was also kind of related to the talk. I really appreciated the opportunity to visit the site and to see the actual projects up close, Radical Love and Receipts. Just because we had the unique opportunity to get more of a glimpse into the process behind how art and public space really intersect and what are the thoughts and things that need to happen to, to really make those projects happen. Seeing how other folks and the artists themselves responded to the work both on site and in the talk was a highlight for me.
What do you regret not putting as much time into?
Gelila: One particular thing that came up is this framework of disability justice. And to be honest that’s not a framework that I can say I’m 100% familiar with and it definitely made me question the things we were learning in planning school for instance and how within the scope of this project and Safe in Public Space, knowing how essential these different perspectives and frameworks are into creating safer spaces for everyone.
Nahomi: Similar to you, there was so much stuff going on that there were aspects of the research lines of inquiry that I wasn’t able to put as much time into either. I feel like sometimes we were pulled into different directions because we had these cool perspectives and we were able to give our input into a few different things, that in the research, we didn’t get as much time to do other things like talk to people in our field about what they thought these intersections meant for them. Getting that input from practitioners is something I regret not being able to do, particularly during a pandemic.
What’s one thing you were surprised to learn?
Nahomi: As you know something I was looking into was different aspects of the history of Toronto and how that intersected, and how that continues to intersect with public health. And something that I was maybe not surprised to learn, but the kind of cyclical nature of the ideas we see in present day within the history of this city. When I think about the ways we conceptualize of like affordable housing and gentrification for example, and then also seeing how that played out in the 1910s and 1920s is so interesting. To learn about the different conversations that were going on that are going on now and how history repeats itself.
Gelila: Yeah it’s funny that you say that because my initial thought was I was not surprised to learn I guess, but it was interesting to learn more about how the Bentway is thinking about the future. I thought it was really interesting the way our team at The Bentway are thinking about things like the Corridor Plan in relation to how The Bentway will potentially expand, or not expand, or how the space along the Waterfront will change and what that means for safety in public space. And how can we proactively think about that right now and not leave that to when development just happens or is slated to occur. So that for me was really interesting to see how the teams are thinking very actively through the groundwork that needs to occur now.
How do you hope The Bentway continues to address public safety after your work is completed?
Gelila: Reflecting on my response to the last question about building out a future, based on the conversations that have occurred on safety in public space, I’m hoping to see some very honest conversations around institutional accountability and what that looks like specifically for The Bentway, and how they are leveraging all of these key learnings into not only the activities that occur on site but internally too. Like what are the things that are changing and what are some major learnings that they’re sharing with others.
Nahomi: I think my response to this question kind of goes hand in hand with accountability because what I hope is that The Bentway stays accountable to everybody who has given knowledge and time during this entire initiative, to share a lot of wisdom from their own practices or from their own lives. There were just so many parts of this initiative where we were fortunate enough to gain a lot of knowledge from people, that don’t necessarily have to be under the banner of this initiative. That there are tangible ways that the work of The Bentway can be pivoted really concretely to respond to.