Living Bridge vital for Edmonton's inner-city dwellers, agency worker says

Rylan Kafara, who works with Boyle Street Community Services and Bissell Centre, argues against a business group's suggestion that the LIVINGBridge project at 97th Street and 105th Avenue should be torn down.

Converted rail bridge a gathering space where social problems can be addressed

Inspired by a similar project in New York City, Edmonton's Living Bridge is part of an effort to transform an old CN Rail bridge and the community around it. (CBC)
Members of Edmonton's homeless community face many challenges, from lack of housing to extreme poverty, while struggling with issues around addiction, trauma and safety.
Rylan Kafara works at Boyle Street Community Services and the Bissell Centre. (Supplied)

They also face external difficulties such as villainization and exclusion by others in Edmonton, as highlighted in a recent CBC article on the Chinatown Business Association advocating for the removal of the Living Bridge, a footpath with raised garden beds on an abandoned railway bridge over 97th Street at 105th Avenue.

While opinions in the article framed the Living Bridge as an unsafe space for tourists that is also keeping the area from thriving, it is in fact a positive place for many people in the community.

The Living Bridge is one of several examples of how inner-city residents are working hard to address challenges related to homelessness.     

Last October, I gave a presentation at the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association's annual conference. The theme of the conference was revitalization. I took the opportunity to talk about changes happening in central Edmonton — not the new arena and Ice District, but positive community changes being made by people who already live there.

Inner-city dwellers help their community

In my speech, titled "Real Revitalization: Building Community through Recreation in Inner City Edmonton," I spoke about contributions made by members of Edmonton's homeless community and those who access inner-city services.

I did not discuss top-down development. Instead, I shared stories of people giving their time, passion, and effort to making their community a better place.

The people putting in the work might not have monetary or social capital, but they certainly care about their community. They are committed to addressing the challenges they face. By participating in grassroots recreation and wellness programs, members of Edmonton's inner-city community are doing just that.

For example, they help run the Inner City Pet Food Bank, which ensures people have the pet food and supplies they need. Instead of having to choose between feeding themselves or their animal companions — they never choose themselves — they can focus on bonding with their pets.

Another example is volunteering at Lady Flower Garden, where community members help grow and harvest thousands of pounds of vegetables each year for Edmontonians lacking food security.

Living Bridge a gathering space and 'connector'

The Living Bridge is no different. It is a community gathering space and connector through downtown for people commuting to other parts of the city.

Admittedly, as critics have argued, it is also a place you can find graffiti and syringes, and people using the bridge as a public washroom. Especially during the winter, you can also find temporary camps set up by people taking shelter from the weather.

This does not mean the bridge should be removed from the community. Instead, it is the perfect place to address these issues — a bridge where people feel safe. And that is what is happening.

Urban agriculture meets art and music

While many of the Living Bridge's plants are flowers, there are also edible fruits and vegetables. Volunteers weed the plots and water the plants, but growing food is not the main point of the bridge. It is to bring folks together.

The graffiti on the bridge's concrete blocks was created in a 2014 workshop led by local artist A.J.A. Louden, who taught youth how graffiti art can be a positive outlet of self-expression.

Music is another outlet for self-expression, and on Thursdays through the summer local musician Bob Cook leads a ukulele lesson-jam circle on the bridge for anyone interested. If you are walking by, you can join a jam session where homeless people are playing with white-collar workers taking breaks between board meetings.

This month, a kids' camp from the University of Alberta visited the bridge so camp participants could think about issues related to nature in the urban core.

Importantly, earlier this spring on the bridge, Indigenous cultural adviser Gary Moostoos led community members through drum songs to welcome the beginning of the growing season in Edmonton.

So, at the same time they face barriers to physical health and mental wellness, inner-city residents are also driving community development and social change in central Edmonton.

Demolition wouldn't fix social problems

Knocking down a bridge where this is happening would not get rid of social problems or help bring about an end to homelessness. It would just move the root issues, and the people, somewhere else. It would displace the most marginalized people in our city to other parts of Edmonton more hidden away, and much less safe.

I would contend that discussions around safety and changes to central Edmonton need to be nuanced, and include the perspectives that are representative of as many people in an area as possible.

If not, safety can be used as an excuse by the privileged to further exclude those who have been marginalized in our city far too much already.

Rylan Kafara is the inner city recreation and wellness program coordinator for Boyle Street Community Services and the Bissell Centre.

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